Virgin of Charity loved outside the faith
By Vanessa Arrington
Published July 29, 2006
EL COBRE, Cuba -- It's been 400 years since three men found a diminutive
wooden statue floating off the Cuban coast bearing the label, "I am the
Virgin of Charity."
Countless miracles have been since ascribed to the image, which was
declared the patron saint of Cuba and crowned by the late Pope John Paul
II during a historic visit to the communist-run island in 1998.
But while the Virgin has evolved into one of the island's most
important symbols, it confounds both the Roman Catholic Church and
Cuba's communist rulers. That's because many of her most fervent
devotees say they follow the Virgin, but not the faith, and some use her
shrine as a place to make anti-government statements.
"I am not Catholic, I just believe in the Virgin," Marleny Faria, a
50-year-old seamstress from the city of Santiago de Cuba, said as she
visited the statue's shrine. "I came here to ask for the health of my
Miss Faria spoke at the El Cobre church with a 1-month-old baby in
her arms, sat through a morning Mass before climbing a winding staircase
to face the Virgin and solemnly solicit protection for the newborn.
During services, the Virgin looks down at the congregation from a
clear casing high above the pulpit; afterward, she mechanically swivels
around to the cozy alcove where she receives her visitors. Pilgrims lay
wreaths of bright flowers at her altar and gaze adoringly at the 16-inch
figure, dressed in an elaborate golden gown and wearing dangling earrings.
In a room downstairs, devotees leave behind hanks of hair and
letters to ask the Virgin for good health, love and success. They also
deliver objects to thank her for wishes already fulfilled. Wheelchairs
and IV tubes intermingle with concert posters, medals and baseball jerseys.
"She's answered the wishes of humble, regular people as well as
political leaders, athletes and artists," said Karel Despaigne, who
turned over the thesis that earned him an economics degree this year to
the Virgin. The 24-year-old had previously come to her shrine a few
months earlier asking for help in finishing his project.
"A lot of people trust more in her than in anything else," Miss
Despaigne said. "I was baptized when I was little but I don't follow the
Catholic religion. I follow her, because of her history, her
idiosyncrasy, her miracles."
The Virgin was discovered in the Bay of Nipe in the early 17th
century before being brought to the village of El Cobre, which is
nestled in a lush tropical forest outside Santiago in southeastern Cuba.
She resided in several small shrines, including one in a hospital, until
the church at the peak of a hill in El Cobre was built in her honor.
The church's current priest, the Rev. Jorge Rodriguez Rey,
recognizes that many who hear his sermons are not believers. Tourists
and nonreligious Cubans from across the island certainly outnumber
practicing Catholics who go to the church, he said.
"Those who take Communion, or use the church for weddings and
baptisms -- well, it's a small number," he said. "Many people who come
here have an informal faith. We try to take advantage of their search
for the transcendental, and educate them about Catholicism. We don't
turn them away."
Gifts for this Cuban version of the Virgin Mary are also accepted
with open arms. A treasure chest contains precious jewels donated to the
Virgin over the years, some of which were used for her intricate crown,
Father Rodriguez Rey said.
Ernest Hemingway gave the Virgin the Nobel Prize he won for his
literature soon after writing "The Old Man and the Sea" in his Havana
hacienda. The mother of Fidel and Raul Castro left behind a small golden
guerrilla fighter in the 1950s as her sons battled the government of
former dictator Fulgencio Batista ahead of the Cuban Revolution.
The brothers survived: Cuban President Fidel Castro turns 80 in
August and Defense Minister Raul Castro, his designated successor, just
celebrated his 75th birthday.
More modern-day objects include replicas of rafts, which began
appearing in the 1990s as Cubans increasingly took to the sea for the
risky voyage to a new life in the United States, and, more recently,
objects related to imprisoned political opponents of Castro's government.
A black-and-white poster showing the shadow of a man looking out
behind a set of prison bars asks the Virgin for "the liberation of
political prisoners." Pins and key chains with photos of activists
imprisoned in a massive government crackdown on dissidents in the spring
of 2003 line one table.
In Cuba's highly controlled society, it's rare to see these images
outside the homes of dissidents or their relatives.
But the Catholic Church has gained some autonomy from the
government over the years, and, according to the priest at El Cobre
church, the Virgin belongs to all Cubans.
The tradition has become "so Cuban, so integrated in mainstream
culture," Father Rodriguez Rey said. "Even members of the military come