By MICHAEL WOJCIK
WEST MILFORD - Cuban-born Enrique Corona, a diocesan seminarian, most likely has never heard of Richard Stockton, one of the America's Founding Fathers. Although separated by 230 years of history, both men have this in common - each of them put his own freedom on the line, enduring a prison sentence for having gathered up the courage to put pen to paper in voice of freedom.
At the dawn of the American Revolution, Stockton, a New Jerseyan, made the brave decision to sign the Declaration of Independence - an act of treason to the British- and was later jailed. More than two centuries later, in 1992, Corona would muster up the courage to write a letter in support of freedom in Fidel Castro-controlled Cuba. For that daring act, the seminarian had been sentenced to three years, three months and 22 days in a Cuban prison.
"I was frightened. I was worried for my family," said 36-year-old Corona, who was imprisoned for penning a letter in support of the Cuban Catholic bishops' pastoral letter, which called for greater human, political and economic rights in the communist-run Caribbean nation. "After a few days in prison, I figured that I'm here for some reason. Jesus had spent a few hours in prison. The Apostles had spent time in prison."
Serving this summer at Our Lady of Peace Parish here in the Hewitt section of the township, Corona signed his "John Hancock" on the letter and sent to a friend in Elizabeth and it was published widely. The Cuban native, who expects to be called to priesthood in the Paterson Diocese next year, knew full well he was risking his own freedom.
"Castro was angry and attacked the Church," Corona said of Cuba's dictator, who this week made history - for the first time, Castro had handed power to his brother Raul as he had intestinal for intestinal bleeding. "The police had found out about the letter. The judge, a jury and lawyers were communists. I was sentenced to 19 years for enemy propaganda."
Having a call to be a priest since he was 12, Corona used his time in the Cuban prison in the service of God. He led a religious education class in his section that grew in popularity.
Corona's mother, Maria, came to his rescue. Her family hails from Galicia in Spain, so she found in herself the bravery to "work the system" and talk to the Spanish ambassador to Cuba. With the help of the Princess of Astoria, negotiations were made with the Castro regime to release Corona in 1997. But there was a serious catch - he was expelled from his homeland. He returned briefly five years ago but has been unable to see his family since.
"I miss my family a lot," said Corona, a nurse by profession, who traveled back to Cuba on a short-term humanitarian while working with the Red Cross.
It also took a great amount of courage for Corona to want to pursue the priesthood in communist-controlled Cuba. Because of persecution, Cubans were afraid to got to Mass at their local churches. At one point, Catholic seminaries there were nearly empty, Corona said.
"When I told my parents, they were worried," said Corona, who noted that his father, Radames, was particularly upset; at home, his mother had taught him Catholic prayers in a quiet, unassuming way.
At first, Corona's desire to become a priest seems unlikely. By age 12, he had never met any priest and never attended Masses at his hometown parish of St. Paul of Jiguani. But as a boy, the seminarian would become bedazzled by his parents' and grandparents' detailed descriptions of parish life. Corona viewed the parish as a mystical, far-away place he had never seen or visited like a Xanadu or Shangri-La.
"My grandparents and parents talked about the parish and about the priests and nuns. They longed for the Church (the way it was prior to Castro)," said Corona, who started slipping away to Mass without his parents knowledge when he was 14. "They would pray in front of the Blessed Mother. So I would ask them questions."
And yet Catholic religious life in Cuba has "opened up" considerably in Cuba since what Corona called the "big miracle" of Pope John Paul II's trip to the archipelago in 1998. Today, the faithful are not afraid to go to Mass. The young people of Cuba especially have been expressing their "tremendous" devotion to the Blessed Mother, he said.
Although Corona always wanted pursue the priesthood, he instead went into nursing, having graduated from Santiago Faculty of Medicine No. 2 in 1990 - an important profession he also considers a "vocation."
"Patients are in need. They abandon themselves to you. They don't ask the medicines but say, 'Please take care of me,'" said Corona, whose nursing adventures have taken him to Italy and Africa.
Corona has honed many spiritual skills that he has employed during his many pastoral experiences as a seminarian - "As a nurse, you are with people in difficult times. You are close to suffering people. If I am a man of faith, I am taking care of Jesus himself (when caring for a patient)."
At Queen of Peace here, Corona has put those pastoral skills to work as he visits the sick at Chilton Memorial Hospital, Pompton Plains, and at local assisted-living facilities; helps at the Masses; presides over Holy Hours and novenas; and assists with youth ministry. He also went with the youth of the parish on a "Midnight Run" to distribute supplies to the homeless in New York City they had collected.
"Enrique is a wonderful, caring young man. He has so much joy in his heart," remarked Father Fredrick Walters, pastor of Queen of Peace, where the seminarian arrived July 1. "Paterson will be blessed with such a loving priest. He is a gentle soul with a wonderful sense of humor. Young people have been impressed by him. He's already made an impact on the parish."
Also unlikely was Corona's winding path to the Paterson Diocese. Raised in the farming village of Oriente on east side of Cuba, his family - which also includes three brothers and a sister - ran a dairy farm that also raised cows, chickens, lamb, turkeys and crops such as bananas and beans.
Corona's long journey of faith continued after he worked for the Red Cross following his expulsion from Cuba. He came live in Atlantic City, where he was having trouble assimilating because of the language and cultural barriers. Later, he befriended religious sisters, originally from Colombia, who put him in contact with a priest.
Fast forward to 2001, when Corona started studying for the priesthood with the Camden Diocese at Immaculate Conception Seminary, South Orange. There he met Bishop Serratelli, in the gym, while the two were exercising by peddling stationary bikes.
Later, Corona went on a pilgrimage to Greece, which Bishop Serratelli led. The seminarian called the bishop "a great teacher. He is very easy to talk to."
After fielding offers from other dioceses and from religious orders, Corona chose to come to the Paterson Diocese.
Although he hopes to get his nursing license in the Garden State and possibly incorporate that training into a future ministry, Corona said he's happy right now serving Queen of Peace. The parish is located in rural, wooded northern Passaic County, which reminds him of his hometown, the farming village of Oriente.
"I feel like I'm been here for years. I'm comfortable here," said Corona, who has a smile on his face and a good joke on hand most of the time, but still feels the pangs of missing his family back in Cuba and is still getting acclimated to his new diocese. "I'm glad God sent me to Queen of Peace, because I need some peace."