If you’re interested in religion in Cuba, you’re definitely going to want to take the time and make the effort to travel to The Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Cobre or The Shrine of the Virgin of Cobre. This beautiful place of worship — Cuba’s most famous pilgimage site — lies in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra mountain chain about 13 miles or so outside of the city of Santiago de Cuba.
The first hermitage was built in 1608. A larger shrine was built a century later and the present sanctuary opened in 1927.
In 1606 three fishermen — struggling in their storm-tossed boat — found a wooden image of the Virgin floating on the Bahia de Nipe or Bay of Nipe in northeastern Cuba.
In one hand the Virgin carried a baby Jesus, in the other she held a cross. She also appeared to be holding a tablet that read Yo soy la Virgin de la Caridad – I am the Virgin of Charity.
The fishermen — two brothers named Rodrigo and Juan de Hoyos, and their friend, a 10 year old black boy (some say a slave) named Juan Moreno, brought the statue to El Cobre, a copper mining town.
Copper has been mined at El Cobre since pre Columbian times. A Spanish mine was in existence by 1530, and was the oldest European-operated mine in the Western Hemisphere. It is still Cuba’s largest producer of copper ore. You can see the current mine on a hillside opposite the basilica.
According to legend, the Virgin is depicted as a mulatto while the baby is white, making the pair quite attractive across Cuba’s racial spectrum.
NOT JUST CATHOLIC
Importantly, the Virgin has an appeal beyond pure Catholicism. The statue is also highly revered by followers of Santería, an Afro-Cuban religion that is a blending of Catholicism and African traditional religion.
In santeria, the Virgin is associated with Ochun (Oshun), the Yoruba goddess of love and femininity. In today’s Cuba, devotion to the Virgin and to Ochun is often intertwined. Ochun is represented by the color yellow and so is the Virgin of Cobre who is considered the mother and protectress of all Cubans.
A priest at the shrine says that the majority of pilgrims who venerate the statue are not Catholics. He goes on to say:
We try to take advantage of their search for the transcendental, and educate them about Catholicism. We don’t turn them away.
On May 10, 1916, Pope Benedict XV declared the Virgin of Cobre to be the national saint of Cuba, and in 1936 the Virgin was crowned in a ceremony in Santiago de Cuba. In 1977, the basilica at Cobre was proclaimed a ‘basilica menor.’
During Mass, the statue of the Virgin is mechanically turned to face into the church. She is dressed in an elaborate golden gown, and wears a richly jeweled crown and dangling earrings. She also wears many expensive jewels brought to her by grateful pilgrims over the years.
After the service, she turns around to face a small chapel where she receives her visitors. Here pilgrims adore the statue, bring their requests to her, and leave votive gifts in thankfulness for prayers answered and miracles worked.
Cubans who come to Cobre leave mementos like locks of hair and baby clothes. They also leave a variety of offerings known as votos. Many of these are sold by hawkers who line the winding road leading up a hillside to the church.
Other votos are more personal. For example, Lina Ruz, the mother of Fidel and Raul Castro, visited the Virgin in the late 1950s when her two sons were waging revolution. She left a metal figure — a small golden guerilla fighter — that is now kept under lock and key.
The medal that Ernest Hemingway received when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 is also in storage at the basilica. The medal was stolen in 1986 but recovered a few days later. Avid readers may remember that the Virgin actually makes an appearance in Hemingway’s novel The Old Man and the Sea when the fisherman at the center of the story pledges to visit the shrine if he manages to catch his elusive fish.
On a different note, the shrine is full of sports memorabilia left by Cuban athletes. There are signed baseballs thanking the Virgin for a home run, and Olympic medals from athletes who believe their victories were the result of the Virgin’s intervention. There are also diplomas, letters, candles, bouquets, snapshots, trinkets, lockets, and pendants.
Pope John Paul II
When Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998, he honored the Virgin while on a visit to Santiago de Cuba, less than 15 miles from El Cobre. Cubans were elated!
In the years following the 1959 revolution, public processions to honor the Virgin were restricted by the government out of concern for unsanctioned gatherings. Group displays were not allowed to resume until the 1990s.
When Fidel Castro became ill several years ago, his supporters visited the Virgin in large numbers to ask for his healing. Critics were there as well, praying for change.
Before Cubans flee the island by boat or raft, many visit Cobre to beg for a safe journey.
According to an article in the International Herald Tribune, a priest at the shrine — Father Jorge Alejandro — considers the Virgin to be “the mother of reconciliation.” He says:
People who are against the government bring their dreams and their suffering and their pain. And those who support the government come here, too. The Virgin brings them together.
If you’re planning a trip, be sure to check your guidebook for hours and directions.
Do you have stories that you’d like to share about the Virgin of Cobre? We’d like to hear from you.