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If you go to El Cobre
I want you to bring me
a little Virgin
If there is one single symbol that is capable of uniting Cubans, that is the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, patron saint of Cuba. According to tradition, the image that is now venerated at the shrine of El Cobre, in the province of Santiago de Cuba, was found around 1912 by three fishermen, all natives of El Cobre—two Indian brothers, Rodrigo and Juan de Hoyos, and a small negro boy, nine or ten years old, Juan Moreno—who had gone out to the Bay of Nipe in search of salt. The small image, carved in wood, carried the Baby Jesus in her arms and was fastened to a small plank that read: “I am the Virgin of Charity.”
There have been many discussions about how the image that was found by the fishermen ended up at sea. Some argue that it is a figurehead, but the nature of the carving questions this assumption. Others say that it was an image from the small chapel of a ship, and which ended up at sea, either because the crew threw her overboard to calm the tempestuous sea or to protect them from a pirate attack, or, as was pretty usual, because of a shipwreck. Furthermore, for some researchers, the “Indian” features of the Virgin of El Cobre suggest that it had belonged to a boat that had been built in the American continent.
Whatever its origin, it is clear that this was not a cult imposed by any authority. By the beginning of the 19th century, the Virgin of Charity prevailed over all of the other images brought by the Spanish. Her dominant condition can be explained by the fact that the natives and slaves felt it as their own, they felt it “mestizo,” hence the eminently popular character and devotion to Our Lady of Charity, in addition to the strengthening of the feelings of nationality and homeland among the “Criollos.”
The image was initially deposited at the Bajaragua Ranch with the authorities of the place, afterwards, at Real de Minas, near Santiago de Cuba, and finally, in 1648, in a chapel that was built in the same place where the Sanctuary rises today, and which opened on September 8, 1927 after the first sanctuary collapsed in 1906.
The Sanctuary of El Cobre holds from the humblest of offerings to precious jewels and votive offerings of gold and precious stones; from sports trophies to military decorations, including the Nobel Prize medal for Literature awarded to Ernest Hemingway, who personally placed at the feet of the Patron Saint of Cuba.
The Virgin is also called “The Mambisa Virgin,” given that during the wars of independence of the second half of the 19th century, the “mambises,” the Cuban guerrillas, carried with them the image of the Virgin of Charity in every battle. In 1915, the veterans of the wars of independence wrote to Pope Benedict XV asking the Virgin to be declared the Patron Saint of Cuba because “…in combats and in the adversity of life…the vision emerged always…of this Cuban Virgin…Cuban because of the origin of her secular devotion, Cuban because our soldiers had proclaimed her so.” In 1916, the Supreme Pontiff declared September 8 the Feast Day of the Virgin of Charity and Patron Saint of Cuba.
Rarely has the image of the Virgin of Charity left the sanctuary in the hills of El Cobre. To our knowledge, the first time was in 1936, when she was crowned by the Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba in front of the bay; later in 1952 on the 50th anniversary of the Republic; in 1959, when it was transferred to Havana and placed on an altar at the José Martí Square for the Mass that closed the National Catholic Congress; and in 1998 when it was crowned by John Paul II at the Antonio Maceo Square in Santiago de Cuba.
No wonder this pilgrimage is an epochal event. Organized by the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba and begun in August 2010 as a prelude to the celebration in 2012 of the 400th anniversary of having been discovered at sea, the Virgin has traveled approximately 30,000 km from East to West of the Island. In every town, the venerated image has received countless tokens of respect and devotion. Cubans of all faiths—Catholics, Protestants, spiritualists, practitioners of Afro-Cuban religions and even agnostics and atheists—have participated in the tributes paid to the Virgin throughout Cuba.
The image of the Virgin of Charity arrived in Havana on November 6, 2011 and will complete its long journey on December 30th at 4:00 pm with a Mass that will be officiated at Avenida del Puerto, next to the bay, to honor its sea origin. In the Cuban capital, it has been received in churches, nursing homes, prisons, health centers, universities, and cultural institutions such as the National Ballet of Cuba, where the prima ballerina Alicia Alonso awaited its arrival. Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Archbishop of Havana, said that, “Our Patron Saint has come here to bless this fruit. It is an honor for the Catholic Church to bring this treasure to such a prestigious and unique school.”
Everywhere she goes, the Virgin is received with great rejoicing, accompanied by cheers, ovations, tears, songs, flowers, candles…and only a few have been able to contain their emotion at the sight of an image that beyond its religious connotation has become a symbol of the Cuban nation. This is why perhaps many have put aside their more personal requests and pray to the Virgin Mary of Charity of El Cobre for peace, health, harmony and prosperity for all Cubans, wherever they may be.
It has been more than 400 years since an image of the Virgin Mary is said to have first appeared to three Cuban fishermen caught in a three-day maelstrom on the Bay of Nipe off Cuba. The men prayed for calm and, just after the storm cleared, something bobbed their way. It was a figure of the Virgin Mary, bone dry, atop a board, with a sign that proclaimed, “Yo Soy La Virgen de la Caridad” — “I am the Virgin of Charity.”
On her right arm, she carried Jesus; in her left hand, she clutched a gold cross. The men brought her back to Cuba, where a shrine, now a national sanctuary, was built for her in El Cobre in Santiago de Cuba, an area abundant with cobre, or copper. She has inspired a teeming trove of songs, paintings, sculptures and poems. Houses are stockpiled with her medals and other emblems. Cubans have always turned to her for sustenance and stability. In the late 19th century, Cuban revolutionaries, or Mambises, fighting for independence from Spain, placed her in their camps for spiritual fuel.