Not long after 8 a.m. Mass at La Milagrosa Church, the squadron of volunteers kicks in to gear.
The elderly people who have come to the parish in south-central Havana follow Mass with an exercise workout, then sit down to breakfast.
The squadron is needed because each day as many as 400 men and women come to "Casa de Abuelos," or Grandparents House, for, as 95-year-old Hilda Prieto put it, "everything."
The parish serves as dining hall, community center, clinic and more. It provides meals, friendships, medical care, physical therapy, even laundry and other practical types of help.
Prieto said she has been coming every day for 12 years.
"We live well," because of the Milagrosa community, she said. Waiting for lunch at a table with three other women, two elderly and one serving as an aide, Prieto said what she values the most is the attention from the workers and friends.
As if on cue, the pastor, Spanish Vincentian Father Jose-Maria Lusarreta stopped by the table and affectionately greeted the women. The priest is 75, with no plans for retirement on the horizon. In his 17 years at Milagrosa, he has overseen the gradual development of extensive parish-based social services for hundreds of elderly people and about 20 adults with Down syndrome.
Another 40 or so participants who are unable to leave their homes have food delivered, get their laundry picked up and returned and have access to volunteers who'll help them with bathing and housekeeping.
Though the government provides basic pensions and medical care, as Father Lusarreta discovered, that does not go far enough for elderly people who have no additional family support. Participants in Milagrosa's activities must meet criteria such as living alone or with only a few other people whose income is also limited. They may not receive assistance from relatives living abroad.
The program offers ongoing help that enables people to stay in their own homes. Father Lusarreta said there are government homes for the elderly, "but there's a great deal of difference" in the quality of life when one is able to live in his or her own home.
In a country where the church is working to re-establish its place in people's lives after more than 30 years of state atheism, the programs of Milagrosa are a way to reach people as Jesus did, the priest said.
"This comes out of total conviction that, without charity, you cannot evangelize properly," he said. "The Lord always healed people first and then preached."
Father Lusarreta rattles off his statistics: Some blocks in his densely populated parish of 24,000 people have up to 400 residents. Each block has one designated mission church family, for a total of about 150. The families in the mission houses are charged with keeping track of the "abuelos," or grandparents, in their block who participate in the parish program, getting them to the church if they need help and tending to their needs. A staff of 18 paid employees -- who also manage a vibrant youth ministry and all typical parish activities -- is bolstered by hundreds of volunteers, from the block leaders to physicians. On average, 240 people are served at each meal.
Not everyone gets to the church each day, and not everyone is there for both meals, Father Lusarreta said, but someone checks on each participant daily.
On this February day, the place was buzzing with even more than the usual activity. In honor of World Day of the Sick, a special outreach had been organized to deliver gifts to the three oldest residents of every block in the parish. That meant 460 volunteers were moving through the church, picking up small gifts -- new slippers, some cookies and used clothing -- that they would deliver to each of the 460 honored elders.
That was added to the typical schedule. Mass and breakfast are followed by group exercises and social time: cards, dominoes and crafts. Lively chatter fills the main parish hall adjacent to the church and an overflow room up a flight of stairs.
Next to the overflow area is the physical therapy room -- with equipment for exercising aged limbs under the watchful eyes of a therapist. Up another flight of narrow stairs and Elisa Veltres cheerfully waits for clients in need of a shave, a wash-and-set or a manicure. Around the corner from her small salon is a bathroom where trained volunteers will help the elderly patrons shower.
Up a few more stairs and through a set of doors and there's a medical/dental/eye clinic, staffed each week by more volunteers. On the way back downstairs, a patron can check on the status of laundry, which can be washed and dried on the premises.
Once such business has been attended to, it's time for lunch. Simple but nourishing food is delivered to each small cloth-covered table, where the "abuelos" keep each other company. Lunch this day is soup with crackers, chicken, rice and beans.
In the kitchen, a huge bowl holds a couple hundred thin pork chops that will be lunch the next day.
"It costs a lot to maintain," Father Lusarreta acknowledged. The money to sustain it comes from "guardian angels," he said. For example, many of the items being handed out for World Day of the Sick came from three full shipping containers of goods donated by supporters in Spain, he said.