Pope will crown statue of the patroness of Cuba Famous and ordinary have prayed at its feet

January 22, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SANTIAGO DE CUBA -- When Pope John Paul II touches the Virgin of Charity of Cobre here Saturday he will be following in the steps of the famous and the ordinary.

Ernest Hemingway left his 1954 Nobel Prize for literature at the shrine in a basilica that seems to float on a perch in the Sierra Maestra mountains. President Fidel Castro's mother, Lina Ruz, left a small gold figure, presumably to ask for protection for Fidel and his brother, Raul, during the guerrilla campaign in the Sierra Maestra before the triumph of the revolution in 1959.

Pilgrims come from across the country to ask the Virgin for a favor: health, help in school, to get pregnant, success in sports.

"Whatever we ask, she helps us," said Brigita Csenyi, who brought her 2-month-old daughter, Patricia Sabrina, to the shrine to pray for her continued good health.

And when that favor is granted, they bring a memento to express their gratitude. The statue of the Virgin is kept in a shrine high above and behind the altar of the basilica. Under the shrine is a chapel filled with crutches no longer needed, baseballs signed by victorious teams and university degrees and stethoscopes left by doctors who made the grade.

The Virgin of Charity of Cobre, figured as a small mestizo Madonna, is the patroness of Cuba.

When the pope comes Saturday to celebrate Mass, he will crown the statue of the Virgin as an act of honor and devotion.

The figure, dressed in a gold cape, with the infant Jesus in her left arm and a gold cross in her right hand, sits inside a glass case on top of an altar. To her right sits a miniature artificial Christmas tree with blinking lights -- a holdover from the holiday that Cubans seem loath to put away.

The altar is surrounded by bouquets of flowers -- roses, daisies, sunflowers and gladiolas. Pilgrims kneel on rickety wooden planks while gazing at the statue, silently mouthing prayers.

The foot-tall statue reputedly was found in 1608 by three youths who were collecting salt in a small boat in the Bay of Nipe, on the northern coast. At her feet was board with the inscription, "Yo soy la Virgen de la Caridad" -- meaning "I am the Virgin of Charity."

The town of Cobre is located in Oriente province, the birthplace of every significant political rebellion in Cuba, including the revolution that brought Castro to power in 1959. The Virgin of Charity has always been strongly identified with Cuban independence in this nationalist country. In 1916, the veterans of the Cuban war of independence, who had invoked her protection in their fight, petitioned the pope to make the Virgin of Charity the patroness of Cuba.

"The Virgin is the synthesis of religious faith and the fatherland," said Cardinal Jaime Ortega during an open-air Mass in Havana last month.

The pope has chosen Santiago and the occasion of the crowning of the Virgin of Charity to speak to Cubans about faith and politics, and how the two do not necessarily have to come into conflict, Ortega has said.

Two of the most famous mementos brought to the Virgin will not be available for the pope to see.

Although Hemingway left his Nobel plaque, it was later stolen and subsequently recovered and is in safekeeping. The figure that Castro's mother left also has been removed, according to an attendant. It had become too much of a curiosity.

Pub Date: 1/22/98

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