Visit the Sanctuary of San Lázaro
San Lázaro church in El Rincón
Experience the Pilgrimage of Cuba’s Faithful to the Sanctuary of Saint Lazarus
El Santuario Nacional de San Lázaro is one of the most visited temples of worship for the Cuban people. Each year, thousands of Cubans embark on a pilgrimage to fulfill their promises to the saint, undergoing physical punishment with pleas for the well-being of loved ones.
The church can be found in El Rincón, a town just 20 kilometers from Havana, close to the José Martí International Airport. Many tourists visit the temple before heading to the capital to light a candle to the saint, or simply admire the architecture.
A brief history of the Sanctuary
The church’s origins are tightly related to the Havana Leper Colony - which is now a Specialized Dermatological Hospital - built in the 17th century. By the beginning of the 20th century, both church and hospital were transferred to the El Rincon area. But, it was during the 90s that the church of San Lazaro was declared a national sanctuary.
Altar at San Lázaro church, El Rincón
Inside the Temple
The church was designed with three naves, each with its own entrance to accommodate worshippers and visitors alike. Elevated above the main hall is a small bell with a clock - a habitual characteristic of Cuban temples. Its interior, however, dons an eclectic look with a predominant Baroque Colonial style. Other defining architectural elements are the neo-gothic, neoclassical, and romantic additions that adorn the altars and surrounding designs.
Once inside, during holy mass, television sets and speakers are seen mounted on various columns to project the words of each song for sing-alongs - allowing the priest’s message to get through clearly.
A large dome with a cross rises high above the central altar, where you’ll find the image of Saint Lazarus with other revered saints in Cuba, like the Virgen del Cobre and the Virgen de Regla. Finally, in the principal chapel, followers can visit the most adored statue of San Lázaro Milagroso (the miraculous Saint Lazarus).
It’s fascinating how the religious syncretism in Cuba has fused Catholic saints with the deities of the African Yoruba religion. Apart from Saint Lazarus, Saint Lazarus “the Beggar,” and Babalú Ayé - an Orisha or Spirit that cures diseases of the skin - are also venerated in the temple. With this dynamic mixture, not only does the church attract Catholics but also followers of different religions like Santería, who are searching for blessings.
Candles and Saint Lazarus figurine inside the church, El Rincón
Day of San Lázaro Celebration
The Santuario Nacional de San Lázaro receives plenty of visitors all year round, but come December, that number increases exponentially. Cubans from every province converge at this far-off temple to ask for help and give offerings to the saint - and every 17th of December - the town of El Rincon is flooded with believers for the Day of San Lázaro.
Visitors leave quite an impression, as many are seen walking on their knees all the way to the altar, others chain themselves to large stones which they drag to the temple, and mothers crawl on their hands and knees with children on their backs. As a practice passed down from their ancestors, followers tend to believe that suffering and punishment equate to payment or offering to the saint for their requests.
Other details in plain sight are the presence of the color purple - found on candles, clothing, and merchandise - and people wearing jute sack attire, two important elements pertaining to Lazarus. Little statuettes of the saint are everywhere - they’re brought in boxes, in people’s hands, and placed on the floor surrounded by bills and coins.
Many devotees arrive at the altar, light a candle, and begin to pray. In their eyes is a genuine gaze of appreciation, praise, and admiration for San Lázaro - a connection challenging to explain but completely perceivable.
A San Lázaro pilgrim with an idol, El Rincón
The Best time to Visit
If you’re looking to visit the Sanctuary and take your time to view every detail, plus get a little extra history behind the church’s past, any month except December would be ideal. This way, you can check out a nearby museum called Capilla de Los Exvotos, visit the Fuente Milagrosa (miraculous fountain) - said to have healing properties - and get to know the local workers that contribute to the temple’s legacy.
Written by Javier Montenegro.
Published November 2022.
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