Our Lady of Charity, Cuba’s Patron Saint of Love
By: Ilsa Rodríguez / Photos by José (Tito) Meriño
Located on a hill in the town of Cobre in eastern Santiago de Cuba Province, the basilica of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre attracts many visitors from Cuba and the world who come to seek a miracle, repay promises or simply learn about an important spiritual symbol of this Caribbean island. Declared the Patron Saint of Cuba in the early twentieth century by Pope Benedict XV at the request of thousands of soldiers and officers, who fought against Spain’s colonial rule, this copper-coloured virgin was later crowned by Pope John Paul II when he visited Santiago de Cuba in 1998. As a result of Cuba’s established religious syncretism, the Catholic Virgin of Charity is venerated as Ochun by practitioners of the Yoruba religion, brought to Cuba by African slaves during Spanish colonial rule.
Ochun is the Orisha (goddess) who reigns over sensuality, fresh (as opposed to salt) waters, flirtation, female sexuality and beauty, love and fertility. An important saint, she is also known as Iyalode, which means Queen in the Yoruba language.
Manifestation and Sanctuary
It is said that between the years 1606 and 1612, brothers Rodrigo and Juan de Hoyos and their slave, Juan Moreno, witnessed the divine appearance of a virgin with a child in her arms when they were trapped in their flimsy boat by a fierce storm in what is today known as Nipe Bay in eastern Holguín Province, then known as the region of Real Sitio de Minas de Santiago del Prado.
According to the legend, the three declared that the statue was fastened to a board inscribed, “I am the Virgin of Charity.” They showed the statue to government officials who ordered a small chapel built in her honour. But the statue disappeared from where it was placed and reappeared days later on El Cobre hilltop, where she has been worshipped ever since.
Hundreds of people visit the sanctuary daily and cross the “chapel of miracles” before approaching the beautiful dark image of the Patron Saint of Cuba.
Many of the chapel offerings to the Virgin have become treasures with the passage of time. Among them the Nobel Prize for literature awarded in 1954 to Ernest Hemingway, as well as jewellery, porcelain, candelabras, medals and simple souvenirs, all offered in respect and gratitude. Another important relic is the Cuban flag given to Caridad by the veterans of the Cuban Independence Wars that ended in 1898.
Considered the protective spirit of the Cuban people, the Day of Our Lady of Charity, whom Cubans affectionately call Cachita, is celebrated each September 8 when the Basilica is visited by many believers to confirm their faith, deliver ex-voto offerings or give thanks for a miracle. The basilica is 12 miles from Santiago de Cuba, the second most important city in Cuba, in the middle of a tropical rural landscape, surrounded by royal palm trees.
The first sanctuary was built in the 1670s at the peak of the exploitation of rich copper deposits in the area that allowed the people of the region to build such a place to honour the Virgin of Charity.
The present building, constructed in 1927 at a cost of 300,000 Cuban pesos, has three towers, eight entrance doors and a huge atrium 240 meters x 15 meters. Its hilltop location can be reached by a steep staircase.
The beauty of Cuba’s Patron Saint and her basilica is complemented by the colourful stained glass windows reproducing the legend of the appearance of the Virgin on the waters of the Bay of Nipe.