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The image itself is syncretic—part of a process that has occurred through the centuries. The white man, the black man and the mulatto that lie at her feet in a small boat is a reminder of the three men—one black and two Indians–who found a small wooden statue of the Virgin Mary holding the child Jesus in her arms while sailing around the Bay of Nipe in the early 17th century. The statue was fastened to a board with an inscription saying “I am the Virgin of Charity.” This is the same diverse, multiracial and devout Cuban people that now make the pilgrimage, rain or shine, and adorn the road with yellow sunflowers, calling out to her over and over: “Praise be to Our Lady of Charity!”
For the Catholic world as a whole, September 8 marks the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She is venerated in many countries, cities and regions as their patroness, usually under a specific title or apparition. This is the case of Cuba, which celebrates that day as the feast day of Our Lady of Charity.
Every year, several thousands of Cubans of all ages, races and social position accompany the statue in the traditional procession that takes place in the working-class neighborhood of Centro Habana. This tradition was taken up again after the historic visit of Pope John Paul to Cuba in 1998. The statue of the Virgin is carried on a platform followed by a throng of people that carry candles or flowers—sunflowers mostly. Many wear yellow, which is the color that identifies Our Lady of Charity. The people walk solemnly for several blocks around Nuestra Señora de la Caridad Parrish in Centro Habana. The procession is headed by Jaime Ortega, Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Havana.
This past September 8, 2013, was no different in Havana. During the procession, the people sang hymns, prayed and shouted Viva! to Cuba’s Patroness and the Church. Other people followed the procession from the rooftops and porches of their homes. The procession ended at the Parrish of Our Lady of Charity where the Archbishop said Mass and made an appeal for peace around the world, in particular Syria.
Although the principal celebration on this day takes place in Santiago de Cuba at the Virgin’s National Sanctuary, this beautiful and moving demonstration of faith takes place all over Cuba. Our Lady of Charity is a symbol of identity for Cubans wherever they may be, and her significance transcends the Catholic faith to the culture and history of Cuba.
September 2014 This article formed part of the September 2014 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What’s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba’s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.
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