Nuestra Senora de la Virgen de la Caridad / Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, Cuba (1612) – 8 September – – Queen, Mother and Patroness of the Cuban Peoples. Patronages – Cuba, Cuban peoples, salt and copper miners. Our Lady of Charity also known as Our Lady of El Cobre or Nuestra Senora de la Caridad del Cobre or “la Virgen de la Caridad” is a popular Marian title of the Blessed Virgin Mary known in many Catholic countries.
Several known Marian images with the same title exist around the world while a particular Hispanic image is pontifically designated by Pope Benedict XV as the Patroness of Cuba. The present image is enshrined in the National Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, built in 1926 and situated in the village El Cobre, near Santiago de Cuba. Pope Pius XI granted a Canonical Coronation for the image on 20 December 1936. The feast day of Our Lady of Charity is today, the solemn Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Various similar Marian images predating the Cuban image have a similar title as well as having been granted a canonical coronation by the Popes and can be found in the Spanish cities of Cartagena, Villarrobledo, Illescas, Loja, La Garrovilla and Toledo, Spain along with its replicated copies in Basilica Minore of Our Lady of Charity in Agoo and the image of Bantay Church in Ilocos Sur, Philippines.
The history of the La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, began around 1612. The image is thought to have been brought by Spaniard colonists from the town of Illescas, a province in Toledo, Spain where a similar statue of the Virgin Mary of Charity was already well-venerated.
Local legend recalls the Spanish captains who bring with them religious Marian images to guide and protect them from English pirates at sea. Two Native American or Indian brothers, Rodrigo and Juan de Hoyos and an African slave child, Juan Moreno, set out to the Bay of Nipe for salt. They are traditionally given the moniker the “three Juans”. They needed the salt for the preservation of the meat at the Barajagua slaughter house, which supplied the workers and inhabitants of Santiago del Prado, now known as El Cobre. While out in the bay, a storm arose, rocking their tiny boat violently with incoming waves. Juan, the child, was wearing a medal with the image of the Virgin Mary. The three men began to pray for her protection. Suddenly, the skies cleared and the storm was gone. In the distance, they saw a strange object floating in the water. They rowed towards it as the waves carried it to them. At first they mistook it for a bird but quickly saw that it was what seemed to be a statue of a girl. At last they were able to determine that it was a statue of the Virgin Mary holding the child Jesus on her left arm and a gold cross in her right hand. The statue was fastened to a board with an inscription saying “Yo Soy la Virgen de la Caridad” or “I am the Virgin of Charity.” Much to their surprise, the statue remained completely dry while afloat in the water.
Overjoyed by what they had discovered, they hurried back to Barajagua. They showed the statue to a government official, Don Francisco Sánchez de Moya, who then ordered a small chapel to be built in her honour. One night, Rodrigo went to visit the statue but discovered that the image was gone. He organised a search party but had no success in finding Our Lady of Charity. Then, the next morning, she was back on the altar, as if nothing had happened. This was inconceivable as the chapel had been locked. This event happened three times. The people of Barajagua came to the conclusion that she wanted to be in a different spot, so they took her to El Cobre. She was received with much joy in El Cobre and the church there had its bells ring on her arrival. It was at this point that she became known as “Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre.” Much to the dismay of people in El Cobre, the disappearance of the statue continued to happen.
One day, a young girl named Jabba was playing outside, pursuing butterflies and picking flowers. She went towards the mountains of the Sierra Maestra, where she came across the statue on top of a small hill. There were those who did and those who did not believe the little girl’s testimony but in the end, the Virgin was taken to the spot of her discovery, where a church was erected for her.
Before the famous image on 19 May 1801, a royal edict from king Charles IV of Spain decreed that Cuban slaves were to be freed from the El Cobre copper mines. The story circulated around the island quickly. Many felt that the Virgin purposely chose to have her sanctuary in El Cobre because it is located in Oriente Province. Later folk legends associated the taking of copper materials to their homes after having it blessed near the Virgin’s sanctified image as a form of souvenir and miraculous healing.
The Cuban statue venerated measures about 16 inches tall. The head is made of baked clay covered with a polished coat of fine white powder. 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. Originally, the robes on the image were white in colour. Newer robes are embroidered with gold and silver, which includes the national shield of Cuba. Among Cuban religious devotees, the image is given the familiar title of La Cachita.
On 24 September 1915 the Cuban revolutionaries wrote a letter petitioning the Pope Benedict XV to honour her as Patroness of their country.
Pope Benedict XV declared Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre Patroness of Cuba on 10 May 1916 at the written request of the soldier veterans of the Cuban War of Independence.
Pope Pius XI granted a Canonical Coronation for the image during the Eucharistic Congress at Santiago de Cuba on 20 December 1936 by Monsignor Valentin Zubizarreta y Unamunsaga.
St Pope Paul VI, in his Papal bull Quanto Christifideles then raised her sanctuary to the category of Minor Basilica on 22 December 1977 through the appointed Papal legate Cardinal Bernardin Gantin.
St Pope John Paul II solemnly crowned her again during his apostolic visit on 24 January 1998.
Pope Benedict XVI awarded a Golden Rose in honour of the image and her shrine on 27 March 2012.
Pope Francis enshrined a brass statue given to Pope Benedict XVI by Cuban bishops (in May 2008) within the Gardens of Vatican City in August 2014, then enshrined it in 2016.
The Virgin is one of the island’s most treasured figures, representing hope and salvation in the face of misfortune. Over time, La Cachita “has become a quintessential symbol of Cuban identity.” She unites both those at home and abroad, across lines of race and class. Wherever Cuban immigrants settled, they brought with them their devotion to la Caridad. Emilio Cueto points out the Christian themes suggested by La Cachita: “She came to Cuba bearing the greatest of gifts—her own child—and appeared not to a priest or bishop but to common men. She spoke not just to the aboriginal people but also to the Spaniards, Creoles and African slaves.”
On his visit to Cuba in 2015, Pope Francis said:
“She has accompanied the history of the Cuban people, sustaining the hope which preserves people’s dignity in the most difficult situations and championing the promotion of all that gives dignity to the human person. The growing devotion to the Virgin is a visible testimony of her presence in the soul of the Cuban people …. I will have occasion to go to El Cobre, as a son and pilgrim.”
In 1954, American author Ernest Hemingway donated his Nobel Prize in Literature medal for The Old Man and the Sea to the people of Cuba at the shrine of Caridad del Cobre in Cuba. The medal was stolen in 1986 but was recovered days later upon the threat of Raul Castro that it be returned or the thieves suffer the consequences. After its return, it was, for some time, hidden from view. The medal is very rarely present in the image and only worn during solemn and Papal occasions.