Thousands of Roman Catholic faithful and even President Raul Castro gathered Saturday for the beatification of a monk known as the "father of the poor" — the first ceremony of its kind on Cuban soil.

The act brings Friar Jose Olallo Valdes, a member of the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God, one step closer to sainthood.

Olallo was born in 1820 and abandoned at a Havana orphanage. He came to the central city of Camaguey to take his religious vows at 15 and stayed the rest of his life, earning his nickname by caring for the needy and chronically ill. He died in 1889 at age 69.

Beatification declares a departed person's ability to intercede on the part of the faithful who pray to him and is the last step to possible sainthood. Olallo is credited with a miracle in 1999, when a 3-year-old girl with an abdominal tumor made an unlikely recovery after her family prayed to him for help.

Authorities erected a large, open-air cathedral in Camaguey's Plaza de la Caridad and Cuba's 77-year-old president made a previously unannounced appearance, wearing a gray suit and taking a seat in the front row.

"In the face of a materialist culture that we see imposing itself everywhere and that pushes aside the weak and the poor, we learn from Olallo the virtues of the wisdom of God and how to love thy neighbor universally," said Jose Saraiva, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the Vatican's saint-making office, who traveled to Cuba from Rome for the ceremony.

To commemorate the occasion, officials released a collection of doves and rang church bells. There was also a 1-mile pilgrimage.

The Cuban Roman Catholic Church started the process of beatifying Olallo in 1989, the 100th anniversary of his death. His is the first beatification in Cuba, but he is not the first Cuban to be beatified.

Cuban-born, Augustinian deacon Jose Lopez Piteira was beatified in Rome last year. He did most of his work in Spain, where he was shot in 1936 during the civil war.

Pope Benedict XVI released a statement saying he hoped Olvallo's beatification will "give renewed apostolic vitality" to religious Cubans.

"We give thanks to the pope who, in Rome, watches us from a window in his heart," Camaguey Archbishop Juan Garcia said Saturday.

The beatification and Raul Castro's attendance could help further improve the once icy relationship between the church and Cuba's communist government. The ceremony was widely announced in state-controlled news media, unusual in a country where official news outlets often ignore religious matters.

The single-party, communist government never outlawed religion, but expelled priests and closed religious schools when Fidel Castro took power in January 1959.

Tensions eased in the early 1990s when the government removed references to atheism in the constitution and let believers of all faiths join the Communist Party. They warmed more when Pope John Paul II visited in 1998.

Raul Castro's first diplomatic meeting as head of state was with Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the pope's secretary of state whose previously scheduled visit to the island coincided with Fidel's transferal of power.