Our lady of Regla has an illustrious history that goes back to Saint Augustine (354–430). The early Fathers of the Church, it is said, had instructed that a statue of a black virgin be carved in wood and placed in his chapel in Hippo, present-day Annaba in Algeria. Thirteen years after the death of St. Augustine, when Hippo was attacked and destroyed by the Vandals, the monks fled to Spain and took the statue with them. They placed it on a spot that looked out to sea, and this is where the devotion began. In time, Our Lady of Regla became the patroness of mariners. This is why it was also adopted as the patron saint of the quaint village of Regla, located on the northeastern side of Havana’s Bay in a pre-Columbian Indian settlement that would later be populated by fishermen and sailors.
On the Virgin’s feast day, September 7th, the faithful come to Cuba’s National Sanctuary of Our Lady of Regla, continuing a tradition that began in the 17th century. The image that we see today is an exact copy of the head of the original statue. It was brought from Spain in 1696 by Sergeant Major Don Pedro de Aranda y Avellaneda and placed on the altar of the church that substituted the original wooden structure, which was destroyed by a hurricane. Today’s Sanctuary, a modest and humble building erected from 1811 to 1818, is far from majestic. Its altars are not filled with gold or other material riches. It stands on a small rise fittingly facing the sea.
The statue of the Black Madonna, as it is also known, has lived an adventurous life. When Havana was captured by the British in 1762, it was taken to the church of the small town of El Calvario, and then to a sugar mill in nearby Managua. This was done to prevent the statue from falling in the hands of the subjects of “treacherous Albion.” In 1958, it was abducted, with the priest’s knowledge and consent, by young revolutionaries who opposed Batista’s dictatorship.
As with Our Lady of Charity, devotion for Our Lady of Regla is part of this wonderful potpourri, which, according to the Cuban scholar Don Fernando Ortiz, is the basis of the Cuban nationality. The Virgin of Regla is syncretized with the Orisha Yemayá, owner of the moon, the seas and everything that lives there. She is vested with marine symbols, such as shells, conches, anchors, boats, corals, seaweeds and starfish. And her color, of course, is blue like the sea. While the pilgrimage of the patron saint of Cuba, Our Lady of Charity, is filled with yellow, the pilgrimage of Our Lady of Regla, the Cuban black virgin, is blue, as befits the Queen of the Seas.