They say that El Cobre, in the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba, is the island’s most visited town. And to be more exact: it is the site of a basilica where people go to worship an icon of the Virgin of La Caridad (Charity), Cuba’s patron saint. In the Yoruba pantheon she is Ochún; the virgin of love—as indicated by her name among Catholics—reigns over the waters and fertility, sexuality and gold, and also over love.
Some visitors come very far to see her, many of them fulfilling promises; others are inspired by devotion or simply curiosity. Attending the masses that are officiated there is somewhat secondary for most people who visit the sanctuary, but nobody wants to leave without a glimpse of the virgin standing on her 18th century silver-plated base, with her crown and the splendor of her 1936 investiture, the rosary she was given by John Paul II, and her golden robe, where the Republic’s coat of arms shines on her breast.
In her chapel, Cuba’s patron saint provides an unsurpassable image. She turns on her base; if mass is being said, she faces the temple, and if not, she faces the chapel, a space that existed before the Chapel of Miracles, where the faithful deposit their offerings and keeping their promises. Some of these offerings had to be removed because of their additional spiritual and historic value. That was the case with the Nobel Prize medal donated by the great writer Ernest Hemingway in the 1950s, and a silhouette of Commander-in-Chief Fidel Castro cast in white gold, donated by his mother during the days of the guerrilla struggle in the Sierra Maestra as an offering for her son’s life.
Another memorable object is a Cuban flag that was dedicated by veterans of the struggle against Spain. Cuban founding father Carlos Manuel de Céspedes worshipped the virgin in her church in 1868, when he rose up in arms against the Spanish colonial power, and her image was worn on the chests of many combatants, accompanying Cubans in their resolve to conquer independence. Thousands of these Mambí Army soldiers and officers, led by Major General Jesús Rabí, asked Pope Benedict XV to declare her Cuba’s patron saint, which he did in 1916.
Two decades later, the archbishop of Santiago de Cuba , delegated by Pius XI, proceeded in the Virgin’s canonic coronation. Her crown and halo, which measured 20 inches in diameter, was made of platinum and 18-karat gold, featuring 1,450 diamonds, rubies and emeralds; the platinum cross in her right hand was formed of diamonds and amethysts, and the crown on the Baby Jesus was made of gold and platinum, richly decorated in diamonds and pearls. In 1998, John Paul II personally crowned Cuba’s patron saint and the Baby Jesus, placing a gold-and-pearl rosary in the saint’s right hand. In 2012, during the 400th anniversary celebration of the discovery and presence of the Virgin’s image in Cuba, Benedict XVI visited El Cobre to pay homage.
HISTORY AND LEGEND
The beautiful icon of the mother of Christ was spotted floating on the waters of the Bay of Nipe in 1612. After three stormy days, she appeared at dawn on a piece of wood that bore the words “I am the Virgin of Charity.” The men now known as the “three Juans,” who had gone to Nipe in search of salt, picked her up and took her to the village of Barajagua, and years later, she was taken to the parish of El Cobre. She disappeared from both of those sites, and then appeared on top of a hill in El Cobre. One night, a shining brightness was seen on that hill: it was where the Virgin wanted to be.
A small chapel was built on the site. Construction on the sanctuary ended in 1927, although its stairway was not completed until two decades later. In 1977, Paul VI granted the sanctuary the dignity of lesser basilica. From 1605 to date, some 40 chaplains and priests have taken care of the sanctuary. Nobody has been able to break the record of Cuban priest Mario Carassou: he oversaw the church for 46 years, between 1948 and 1992. After having suffered blows and accidents, the icon of the Virgin underwent a delicate process of restoration in 1982 that—according to experts—returned to its face a more refined expression, preserving its sensual lips, bright gaze, prominent cheekbones, and large, oval-shaped eyes.
THE VIRGIN AROUND THE WORLD
In 1977, a chapel in Miami was dedicated to the Virgin of La Caridad. The icon that presides over it belonged to the Havana parish of Guanabo, and was taken out of Cuba in 1961. The chapel is located by the sea, and is reached by a path lined with royal palms. Inside, a great mural by the Holguín native Teok Carrasco features 63 images of notable Cubans, recreating the country’s history in a place steeped in nostalgia.
A stone image of the Virgin, created by Cuban artist Rodolfo Tardo, is visited in the national sanctuary of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. In Spain, in 1919, an image of Cuba’s Virgin was placed in the church of Madrid’s Descalzas Reales monastery. Also in Madrid, in the neighborhood of Lavapiés, a chapel was erected in 1965 at the school of Hijas de la Caridad, under the patronage of El Cobre. Other chapels in Spain are dedicated to Cuba’s patron saint. And in Venezuela, in a poor neighborhood of Caracas, a parish in the Virgin´s name was created in 1972 and dedicated 10 years later. On Cerro de la Popa, in Colombia’s Cartagena de Indias, stands the entrance to a sanctuary devoted to the Virgin of La Candelaria, a painting that depicts La Caridad and the three Juans. In Mexico, she has many devotees, and she is also worshipped in the seaside village of San Clemente in Ecuador. In Old Havana, a church located at the intersection of Salud and Manrique streets is the central parish for the cult to La Caridad in the western part of the island, and is the country’s second national sanctuary. It was where the Virgin of Guadalupe was worshipped until 1913, when América Arias, wife of then president José Miguel Gómez, asked the pope to dedicate the church to the Virgin of La Caridad.
Did the discovery of the Virgin really happen? Did it occur on land or at sea? Is it the creation of popular fantasies, induced by interests other than religious ones? Do the icon and the devotion it sparks lack historic substance? Or, on the contrary, can truly historic foundations be perceived? These were the questions of Monsignor Carlos Manuel de Céspedes.
Whatever the answers to those questions, we cannot lose sight of the fact that the Virgin of La Caridad del Cobre is the most widespread Christian devotion in Cuba, and a clear symbol of Cuban identity.