Papal Visit to Cuba
For 400 years, pilgrims have been visiting Our Lady of Charity in Cuba
for solace and hope
By MIMI WHITEFIELD
EL COBRE, Cuba -- Our Lady of Charity has held a special place in the
hearts of Cubans since 1612 when three salt collectors spotted a small
wooden statue of the Virgin Mary bobbing in the Bay of Nipe after a
The 15-inch wooden statue carrying the infant Jesus was attached to a
plank that read "Yo soy La Virgen de la Caridad'' (I am the Virgin of
Charity), and when they fished her out, miraculously neither the statue
nor her clothing appeared to be wet.
At first the virgin occupied a chapel near the main church but she was
later placed above the main altar at the beginning of the 18th century
when a second church was built. When the third church was constructed on
a hill overlooking this copper mining town outside Santiago in 1927, the
virgin was moved on her feast day, Sept. 8, to her current position in a
glass case high above the main altar.
Our Lady of Charity, affectionately known as Cachita, became the patron
saint of Cuba in 1916 after soldiers, who fought in the war of
independence against Spain and credited her miraculous intervention for
their victory, petitioned the Vatican.
To celebrate the 400th Jubilee anniversary of her discovery and prepare
for Pope Benedict XVI's visit, a replica of the virgin was paraded from
one end of the island to the other, even visiting Combinado del Este
prison. Church officials said they were surprised by the large numbers
and fervor of Cubans who turned out to greet the processions.
This replica will be taken to Santiago for Benedict's Mass Monday
evening and the pope will present her with a golden rose. Benedict also
will be spending Monday night at a recently renovated retirement home
for priests on the grounds of the shrine and visit the church for
private prayers Tuesday morning.
For centuries now, the virgin has been a source of comfort for Cubans on
the island and off. A copy of the Our Lady of Charity statue was
smuggled out of Cuba in a suitcase in 1961 and now draws exiles to La
Ermita shrine in Coconut Grove.
Here in El Cobre, pilgrims come in thanksgiving and to present petitions
for the healing of a sick child, a sports victory or even for protection
from rough seas before a rafter begins a perilous trip to the United
States. She is a favorite of pregnant women who pray for their unborn
children and often arrive directly from the hospital to give thanks when
their babies are born healthy.
A small pair of shoes left as a fulfillment of a promise after a child
took his first steps after receiving treatment for deformed feet is on
display at the church, as are sports jerseys, soccer balls and
baseballs, trophies and even medals from the Pan American Games brought
by grateful athletes. But most of the items left behind are at a
separate Chapel of Miracles.