Island Queen: A reflection on Our Lady of Charity
Our Lady of Charity warms the hearts of Cubans both on the island and dispersed throughout the world.
As Cuban refugees in Puerto Rico, my parents made it a priority in our upbringing for my brother Ignacio and me to learn Cuban history and traditions, from music and family stories to geography and José Martí’s poetry.
It was crucial for my parents that we knew what it meant to be Cuban, especially because we were too young when we emigrated to have our own memories of our home country. An intricate part of this upbringing was our family’s devotion to Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, Cuba’s patron.
Every September 8 our family gathered with other Cubans to honor Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre. This typically entailed a Mass followed by a festive meal, or, as my parents like to say, “de la misa a la mesa,” indicating the Hispanic tradition to continue a eucharistic celebration with a fiesta.
One of my favorite parts of these gatherings was the stories, often involving people whose significance I would recognize only years later. Thomas Merton, for example, had a personal devotion to la Caridad. Ernest Hemingway left his 1952 Pulitzer Prize medal at her shrine in El Cobre.
Having Mary’s image in our home and her presence in my daily life was a comforting reality. Our frequent moves when I was a child made me the perennial new kid in school, the foreign girl with the weird accent. As a grade-schooler I was attracted to the story of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus fleeing to Egypt as refugees. Mary knew what it meant to be an outsider. She was a refugee, like me. She got it.
L ike most Marian apparitions, the story of Our Ladyof Charity, which dates to 1612, began in a nameless place and involved ordinary, undistinguished people. Three boys were gathering salt needed to preserve the meat of the town’s slaughterhouse, which supplied food for the copper mine workers and inhabitants near Santiago, Cuba. Two of the boys were native Indian 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, meaning “copper”) and halfway across the Bay of Nipe, they encountered a fierce storm that threatened their frail vessel. Suddenly the waters calmed. In the distance the boys saw a white bundle floating on a piece of wood. It was a small statue of Mary holding the infant Jesus on her left arm and a gold cross on her raised right hand. Inscribed on the wooden board were the words, “Yo soy la Virgen de la Caridad” (“I am Our Lady of Charity”).
Much like the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the statue of Our Lady of Charity that the three youths brought to their village of Barajaguas instantly became a destination for pilgrims, 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 black slaves in 1886.
Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre may not be as well known in the United States as Our Lady of Guadalupe, but you can find her image in churches around the country and the world. Wherever Cuban refugees settled, they brought with them their devotion to la Caridad, or Cachita, as Cubans call her.
In Washington, D.C. she is in a side chapel at our country’s patronal church, the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. She stands to the right of the altar in the open-air Our Lady Star of the Sea church in North Padre Island, Texas, and in the back of the Dallas Cathedral Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe. In Miami the beautiful Ermita de la Caridad was built by Cuban exiles almost 40 years ago on Biscayne Bay, just south of the downtown skyscrapers.
“La Virgen de la Caridad is the most profound symbol of the Cuban nation,” both exiled and on the island, says Msgr. Felipe de Jesús Estévez, auxiliary bishop of Miami. “The British have their queen, the Cubans have la Caridad. Even before Jamestown, El Cobre kept this gracious statue.”
Across the spectrum of Hispanic groups, Marian piety has been the enduring bond that has maintained the people’s fidelity to the church; at times it has been their only link. Through Mary, those who have become distant from Jesus and the expression of their faith can be born anew.
An example of this took place in Cuba, where the church remains oppressed. In preparation for Pope John Paul II’s 1998 trip, the bishops of the country arranged for the original image of Nuestra Señora de la Caridad to travel the length of the island, with public processions and Masses in as many towns as the government would allow. Even the church was surprised by the outcome, as people who had lived decades uncatechized under communist rule poured out into the streets to see, touch, and openly venerate the image of their beloved Cachita.
Mary came to our Caribbean island to remind us of her son’s eternal love for each of us. As my grandmother Josefa frequently reminded me growing up, “Mary is present to all her children, no matter what language they speak. She comes to her people in their daily need. All you have to do is ask her.”
This article appeared in the September 2011 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 76, No. 9, pages 55-56).