Monday, March 26, 2012

The Virgin of Charity of El Cobre

When the Pope visits Cuba this week he will be stopping by the Iglesia El Cobre Santiago de Cuba, pictured here, where the Virgin of Charity has a shrine. This shrine has a long history in Cuba, dating back over 400 years. The story is quite simple; the Virgin of Charity is a statue of the Virgin Mary (La Virgen de la Caridad) located in the town of El Cobre, just outside the mining town of Santiago. This shrine is probably the single most important religious place in all of Cuba. Our Lady of Charity is also called by the name of Our Lady of Cobre, and is the patroness of Cuba. Reading of the Pope's visit to Cuba this week and of his planned visit to this site sent me looking for more information about it.

The basilica, where the shrine is housed, is known as the National Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Charity, or Basílica Santuario Nacional de Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre in Spanish. It was built in 1926 and is located in El Cobre, where a feast is held in the Virgins honor each September 8th. Although the history behind the Virgin of Charity goes back over 4 centuries, she was first declared the Patron Saint of Cuba in 1916 by the Pope.

In 1550 El Cobre was a Spanish copper mine. It was manned by native Indians and slaves, whom the Spanish had brought with them. 58 years later, in 1608, around the same time as we were establishing the first colonies in America, 2 Indian children, Rodrigo and Juan de Hoyos, and their slave, Juan Moreno, set out to the Bay of Nipe for salt. It was there that they saw a small statue of the Virgin Mary floating in the water near the mine. She was carrying a gold cross along with the Baby Jesus. Both the statue and the cross were attached to a board which was inscribed "Yo soy la Virgen de la Caridad", or, "I am the Virgin of Charity", in English.

Since the church in El Cobre at the time was dedicated to St. James, the patron of the Conquest, the statue was stored in a thatched hut, not in the church. It was perceived by the Spanish as a threat capable of inspiring faith in the slaves. It had the potential of making them feel as if better days were coming. But something strange happened to the Virgin in exile from the church.

For three nights in a row the statue vanished from the hut, always to be found atop the hill which overlooks El Cobre. For the next 22 years she would be housed in a series of small shrines made by the local inhabitants of the town in order to protect her. Many people believe that the Virgin actually chose the spot atop the hill in Oriente where the Cubans first began their revolt against their Spanish conquerors.

In 1630 the mines were closed and the slaves were freed. The Virgin then took its place above the statue of St. James in the church, a fitting tribute of hope to the victims of the Spanish conquerors. The Cuban people believe that the Virgin has interceded on their behalf many times since then, most notably in 1731; the year before our own George Washington was even born; as a symbol of emancipation at a time when slavery was being re-introduced to the island. Her intervention, and success, in preventing the practice of slavery in Cuba spread her reputation, and devotion, from one end of the island to the other. It is a fact that in this place, Oriente, the first settlement in Cuba was made; the town of Baracoa; and it was also in Oriente where the slaves were set free for good in 1868. Pretty big accomplishments for such a small statue.

Finally, in 1916, at the behest of the Veterans of the Cuban War for Independence, Our Lady of Charity was made the patroness of Cuba by Pope Benedict XV in 1916. Pope Paul VI elevated her sanctuary to the status of a Basilica in 1977. Each year, in September, a procession is held honoring the Virgin. The statue is carefully removed from the sanctuary and paraded through the streets, much as the Feast of St. Gennaro is celebrated in New York's Little Italy, as well as in Naples, Italy. Whether you believe in these things, or not, they provide hope to oppressed peoples all around the world. And sometimes, hope is all that we, and they, have.

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