If there is one single symbol capable of uniting Cubans, it is the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, patron saint of Cuba. According to tradition, the image now venerated at the shrine of El Cobre, in the province of Santiago de Cuba, was found around 1912 by three El Cobre fishermen-two Indian brothers, Rodrigo and Juan de Hoyos, and a small 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.”
Some claim that it is a figurehead. 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. 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 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 placed by Ernest Hemingway.
The Virgin is also called “The Mambisa Virgin,” recalling 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 and 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 across the Island. Cubans of all faiths 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 completed its long journey on December 30th with a Mass officiated at Avenida del Puerto, next to the bay, to honor its sea origin (credit bobby). In the Cuban capital, it was 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. 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.