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Our Lady of Caridad del Cobra

Our Lady of Caridad del Cobra by Brenda Nippert

Artist Narrative:

This Spanish title of Mary translates to Our Lady of Charity of el Cobre (a town in Cuba). The story goes that around 1612, two native brothers and an African slave set off in a tiny boat to get to a salt mine. Suddenly a terrible storm rose up from the sea and the little boat was battered to and fro by the waves. The three prayed for Our Lady's help. Just as suddenly as it rose, the skies cleared and the storm was gone. It was then that they saw a small object floating on the water. As they rowed closer, they could see it was a statue. They fished it out of the water, noticing its clothes were not wet. It was the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus in one hand and a gold cross in the other. The 16 inch clothed statue was tied to a board on which was written in Spanish “I am the Virgin of Charity.” The excited trio headed back to land with their treasure and the statue has had many adventures since then. She now resides in her own basilica, having received many papal honors through the centuries. She is the patroness of Cuba.

Her feast day is September 8.

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The story of Our Lady of Charity is a rather simple one. Like many other Marian apparitions, it occurred in a nameless place and involved ordinary people.

Around the year 1600, three boys were sent to gather salt needed to preserve the meat of the town’s slaughterhouse, which supplied food for the workers and inhabitants at the Spanish copper mines near Santiago, Cuba. Two of the boys were native Indians and brothers, Rodrigo and Juan de Hoyos, and the third was a 10-year-old black slave, Juan Moreno.

On their way back to Santiago del Prado (modern El Cobre) and halfway across the Bay of Nipe, they encountered a fierce storm that threatened to destroy their frail boat.

Suddenly, the waters calmed. In the distance the boys saw a white bundle floating on a piece of wood that they mistook for a sea bird. In reality, it was a small statue of Mother Mary holding the infant Jesus in her left arm and a gold cross in her right. Inscribed on the wooden board were the words, Yo soy la Virgen de la Caridad (I am the Virgin of Charity).

According to recorded testimony, despite the motion of the ocean waves and the storm, neither the image of Mary nor her white robes were wet.

The crowned head of the original 16-inch-statue is made of baked clay covered with a polished coat of fine white power. Her feet rest on a brilliant moon, while angels spread their golden wings on a silver cloud. The child Jesus raises his right hand as in a blessing, and in his left hand he holds a golden globe. A popular image of Our Lady of Charity includes a banner above her head with the Latin phrase “Mater Caritatis Fluctibus Maris Ambulavit” (Mother of Charity who walked on the road of stormy seas).

The youths brought the statue back to their village of Barajaguas, where a chapel was built and the image venerated by all who heard the story. Much like Our Lady of Guadalupe for the Mayan Indians, Our Lady of Charity instantly became a pilgrimage site, a reminder for the underprivileged that their heavenly Mother cared and stood beside them. El Cobre was to be the first place in Cuba where freedom was won for slaves.

In 1688, the Archdiocese of Santiago, Cuba, initiated the first inquiry into the statue’s mysterious origins in response to the extraordinary and faithful devotion demonstrated by the Cuban people. Surnamed El Cobre — the name of the mining town where her sanctuary was eventually built — Our Lady of Charity was declared the patroness of Cuba by Pope Benedict XV in 1916 at the request of the nation’s bishops and the faithful, with a special appeal by the veterans of Cuba’s War of Independence from Spain.

It is no exaggeration to say that Cubans’ beloved “Cachita” (their familiar nickname for Our Lady of Charity) has inspired people as a symbol of national identity for more than 400 years. Perhaps most importantly, the miraculous image of Mary that appeared to three ordinary boys continues today to unite the Cuban people — those on the island, as well as the millions in diaspora.

Bishop Estévez first realized the love of the Cuban people for La Caridad as a teenager. “There was a huge procession of Our Lady of Charity from the province of Oriente to Havana that first year of the revolution, with a huge Mass celebrated in Havana. This was to be the last massive public religious act to be allowed by the government until the Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II in 1998.”

After the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, the first Cuban exiles in America sought an image of their Mother to be sent to Miami. On Sept. 8, 1960, on the feast of Our Lady of Charity, thousands converged at Miami stadium to receive an image smuggled out of the country by the Archdiocese of Havana through the Italian Embassy, which then passed it to the Panamanian diplomatic office, and finally to the United States.

Following her arrival, the image of Our Lady of Charity went on a tour of the camps housing Cuban children who had arrived in the U.S. through Operation Peter Pan, a Church-sponsored rescue mission that allowed parents to send their children to the U.S. without parental supervision; some 14,000 children participated.

Every year since 1961, exiled Cubans in Miami have gathered in September to celebrate Our Lady of Charity’s feast day. And in 1967, the cornerstone of what would become an official shrine to Our Lady of Charity was laid; the chapel was consecrated in 1973.

In addition to the replica of Our Lady that once resided in Cuba’s capital of Havana, the Miami shrine also lodges a vessel containing soil from all six of the original Cuban provinces which has been mixed with ocean water from the Florida straits — symbolic of the perilous 90-mile journey where hundreds of Cubans have died attempting to escape the island’s totalitarian government.

For Cubans in Miami and elsewhere, the 40-year-old Ermita (Our Lady’s Shrine) is “the most sacred space outside their longed-for patria (homeland),” said Bishop Estévez, himself a Peter Pan refugee. “A child is always at home with its mother. For a people suffering from being uprooted, expelled, la Ermita nears them to their land. For a diaspora dispersed throughout the whole world, la Ermita completes its identity… It is easy to understand why la Ermita causes such profound emotional and spiritual sentiments, since Our Lady of Charity is the heart of the Cuban soul.”

The original image of Our Lady of Charity was solemnly crowned in 1936 as part of the Eucharistic Congress that took place in the nearby city of Santiago. And in 1977, Pope Paul VI raised the prominence of the sanctuary in El Cobre to a basilica.

More recently, Pope John Paul II crowned the original image as queen and patron saint of Cuba on January 24, 1998, during his historic pastoral visit.

“From her shrine,” declared the pope, “the Queen and Mother of all Cubans — regardless of race, political allegiance or ideology — guides and sustains, as in times past, the steps of her sons and daughters toward our heavenly homeland, and she encourages them to live in such a way that in society those authentic moral values may reign which constitute the right spiritual heritage received from your forebears…”

On Sept. 8, 2000, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops pronounced Miami’s Ermita de la Caridad (Shrine to Our Lady of Charity) a national sanctuary of the United States.

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