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St. Petersburg Times

Priest Does Things A Little Differently


30 January 2005
Copyright © 2005 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.

ST. PETERSBURG - From the outside, nothing sets the small Disston Heights house apart from its neighbors except, perhaps, the small handmade flag - red, black and yellow - tucked into a column of grillwork.

Inside, though, is no typical American abode. It's where Eliseo Garcia, 57, lives, likely the only Santeria priest, or santero, for miles around. He is also a devout Catholic.

Garcia has built a full-sized altar behind a curtain of sheets in his one-car garage. On it he displays artifacts of a faith, traditionally shrouded in secrecy, that offers animal sacrifices and believes in spirit possession. Practitioners proclaim belief in a supreme being but revere a pantheon of deities.

The religion is growing in the Tampa Bay area, although precise numbers are hard to come by because so many practice but don't tell.

As a Santeria priest, Garcia offers those who consult him help with their problems. Readings are $21. Some consultations are done before his white-draped altar, with its images of American Indians, religious statues of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, St. Lazarus, St. Anthony, the Virgin of the Rosary and others.

Garcia also keeps a photograph of his late mother, crucifixes, a cigar for divining purposes, glasses of water, vases of yellow and white chrysanthemums, and other objects on his altar. Shelves of more religious statues form a backdrop to his sacred space.

Initiation into Santeria is expensive - up to $10,000 - and time-consuming. During the seven-day ceremony, an initiate is confined to a special room for seven days and can wear only white, Garcia said. A new set of clothing is required each day.

For three months, the new practitioner is forbidden to look in a mirror.

Rituals typically call for a range of animals such as goats, lambs, chickens, pigeons and turtles, Garcia said.

Lest one be confused by his attachment to the gods he routinely consults, pampers and travels with while at the same time espousing devotion to the Catholic Church, Garcia offers a succinct explanation: "The main thing is, I believe in God. I can do nothing without him," he said.

Priests at Most Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church in Gulfport, where Garcia is a parishioner, said they were surprised to learn of his Santeria connections. The Rev. William J. Swengros, pastor of Most Holy Name and canon lawyer for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, sees grave problems with someone practicing both Catholicism and Santeria.

"Santeria is a separate religion. From a Catholic perspective, it's fundamentally incompatible. You can't be a good and faithful Catholic and be a practitioner of Santeria. Not because they are not good people, but because the theology is so fundamentally different. And for that reason, somebody who practices Santeria should not receive communion. You can't be Catholic and believe in more than one God. That's the bottom line. It can't be," Swengros said.

"For a practitioner of Santeria to come to our church would be the same as a Muslim person coming to our church, or a Jewish person coming to our church, or a Hindu coming to our church. They would be welcome, but they are not Catholic."

Born in Puerto Rico, Garcia is one of a growing number of adherents to a religious tradition that blends indigenous African beliefs and Catholicism. Passed down orally, it began with African slaves in the Caribbean, who surreptitiously practiced their faith while ostensibly adopting the religion of their captors.

"They took Catholic rituals and infused them with a new meaning. They would take the statues and put their symbols in them," Swengros said.

Certain Catholic saints, such as St. Barbara and St. Lazarus, became fronts for the deities, or orishas, of the uprooted Africans, Swengros said.

The practice continues today among followers of Santeria and related religions.

"The Catholic church provides the window dressing, the vehicle for them to worship their gods," Swengros said.

"This is a big problem, especially in Miami, where there are many immigrants from the Caribbean who bring their devotions and their sacrifices. Some of the people in Miami are unaware of the nature of Santeria and may go to the house of somebody and think they're very religious, because they have many statues and many candles and they may be unaware that they are actually worshiping other gods. Many Americans have difficulties with animal sacrifices, and sometimes these rituals take place on church property, without the church's permission."

Mozella Mitchell, professor of religious studies at the University of South Florida, said Santeria, one of what are increasingly referred to as orisha religions, originated in Cuba and spread to Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands.

Streams of the belief system are known variously in other parts of the Caribbean, Central and South America as Vodun (voodoo is considered a derogatory term), Candomble, Chango or simply the orisha religion. Though its name might change from country to country, the Yoruba language and rituals used in its liturgy remain relatively consistent from place to place, Mitchell said.

Garcia, who moved to St. Petersburg about a year ago, is eager to minister to orisha followers this side of Tampa Bay. Santeria priests are already plentiful in Tampa, he said, as are the botanicas or stores that supply their needs and those of their clients. He thinks he's the only Santeria priest in St. Petersburg.

Practitioners typically are Hispanic, though Haitians, Brazilians, Trinidadians and others also are adherents, said Mitchell, who teaches a class called "Issues in Caribbean Religions" at USF.

"Then you have African-Americans, especially, who convert to the different branches of these religions," she said.

Mitchell said many African-Americans want to learn the pure form of the faith, minus the adulteration of Christian teachings. Some communities invite African priests and priestesses to the United States as teachers, she said. The Kingdom of Oyotunji African Village in South Carolina, founded in the 1970s, is a well-known African-American community committed to indigenous beliefs, Mitchell said.

Initiation ceremonies into the faith can be expensive, the USF professor said. Garcia, a retired maintenance worker from St. Luke's Hospital in New York City, said such ceremonies are cheaper and easier to arrange in Puerto Rico than in the United States.

"Over here it is difficult," he said.

In Tampa, a live chicken for the required animal sacrifices costs $15, he said. A pigeon costs $8.

"Those people, they know that we need it," he said of the purveyors.

When he was initiated in the early 1970s, Garcia said his ceremony cost $1,200. Today, the tab can run from $7,000 to $10,000.

"Everything is expensive. You need food for seven days. You have to buy the animals," he said.

In addition to the white-draped altar, Garcia has another shrine nearby. Orisha images, oval objects formed of concrete, have cowrie shells for eyes, noses and mouths. Garcia makes offerings to them. One recent day, he included a cup of coffee. A shy man who alternates between English and Spanish, Garcia said that since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he can no longer take his concrete orishas in his carry-on baggage.

Mitchell, the USF professor, said she is not surprised that Garcia is a practicing Catholic. That's typical of most adherents of orisha religions, she said. Garcia sees nothing incongruous about being both a Catholic and a santero. It's accepted in Puerto Rico, he said.

The Rev. Vladimir Dziadek, parochial vicar at Most Holy Name, said he was unaware of Garcia's Santeria beliefs. The priest said he saw nothing unusual when he visited Garcia's home with other parishioners in December to say a pre-Christmas novena Mass.

"It is not something that has come up before," said Swengros, saying that he and Dziadek plan to discuss Santeria with parishioners.

This month, Garcia held a party to celebrate his 32nd anniversary in the Santeria faith. As Afro-Cuban music played in the background, cars filled his driveway and the lawn in front of his house.

A temporary canopy of lace flowed from the living room ceiling. Underneath he had arranged representations of orishas, according to rank, and draped them with sumptuous, colorful fabric. Each wore its signature color.

"They are dressed for the party," he said, "like they are real people."

Times staffer Acenett Peters translated and contributed to this report.

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