On August 28, 2014 a small delegation of bishops from Cuba joined the former Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, for the enthronement of Our Lady of Charity, Patroness of Cuba, in the beautiful Gardens of Vatican City.
The Cuban bishops originally brought the icon as a gift to Pope Benedict XVI. This bronze replica is a true likeness of the statue that was venerated at the Bay of Nipe where Our Lady of Charity first appeared in 1612.
The story is deeply ingrained in the national identity of Cubans and transcends the heavy oppression of an atheist regime that unsuccessfully tried to silence generations of faithful Catholics.
Our Lady’s relationship with her children in Cuba goes back over 400 years to a time when, tragically, the indigenous peoples of Cuba, along with African slaves, were exploited in the copper mines in the eastern part of the island.
According to legend, three men discovered the statue floating on a board in the waters of the bay. They were astounded to note that in spite of being in the water, the statue was not wet. When they retrieved it from the sea, they found an inscription on the board which declared, “I am the Virgin of Charity.”
The men took it back to the village where it was kept in a small chapel. However, the statue mysteriously disappeared, and then reappeared. Taking this as a sign, the statue was taken to the town known as El Cobre today, and there, the statue disappeared and appeared mysteriously in other spots. Eventually, a shrine was built to house the statue.
This appearance of Our Lady heralded a movement toward freedom at a time in the nation’s history when the dignity of the human person was crushed by slavery.
Three hundred years later, during the War of Independence against Spain, the presence of Our Lady of Charity inspired the Cuban nationals to fight valiantly for independence from oppressive foreign rule. After the war, a petition was sent to Pope Benedict XV requesting that Our Lady of Charity be declared the Patron Saint of Cuba and in 1916 the request was granted.
Then in 1926, the National Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre was built. It sits on a hill near the city of Santiago de Cuba where thousands of pilgrims visit, some on religious pilgrimages, others as cultural pilgrims. They are drawn to their Mother’s love, especially when her children are suffering.
In 1952, two bronze statues of Our Lady of Charity were commissioned for chapels around the Bay of Nipe, one in Antilla on the north side of the bay, and the other near Playa Morales.
Shortly after the 1959 Communist Revolution in Cuba, the statue in Morales disappeared. No one knew its whereabouts and the chapel fell into disrepair.
The statue of Our Lady of Charity would appear to her Cuban children once again during a period of great fear and oppression, offering hope. In 1975, while visiting Playa Morales and walking along the beach, Alfonso Dager spied something shiny in the water and to his dismay discovered it to be a very grimy statue of Our Lady. He wrapped it in rags to hide from the authorities and took it, secretly, to his home where the bronze statue was cleaned and polished.
Soon the Dager home became a makeshift chapel in the community.
When the Dager family received an exit visa to leave Cuba in 1978, communist officials went to the Dager home to take inventory of their possessions, but when they saw the statue, they immediately questioned the family. Dager’s quick-thinking mother-in-law, fearing that the government would take and desecrate the statue, explained that it was on loan from a church. The officials demanded its removal, and the statue was wrapped in a sheet and delivered to a surprised priest, Father Falcon, pastor of the church in Cueto, Dager’s hometown.
The statue was then delivered to Archbishop Meurice of Santiago de Cuba, who had it placed in the dining room of the residence at the Shrine for safe keeping. Like the unusual circumstances in the 1600s, it seems that the movements of this innocuous little statue was making very big waves everywhere it went, moving hearts to Christ all along the way.
Within a decade, the communist regime loosened its grip on the Church in Cuba enough to allow a visit from the Pope, and during his visit to Cuba in 1998, Pope St. John Paul II crowned Our Lady of Charity as the Mother of Reconciliation of Cuba.
In 2008, Cardinal Bertone indicated that the statue should be kept safe for that day when it can be returned to its rightful place at a chapel in the Bay of Nipe. Permission has recently been granted to construct a new chapel.
The enthronement of Our Lady of Charity in the Vatican Gardens comes at a time where the Christian faithful are under unimaginable assault. In The Holy Father’s address on Wednesday, August 27, 2014, attended by the visiting Bishops from Cuba, he stressed:
“God’s will ... is that we grow in our capacity to welcome one another, to forgive and to love, and to resemble Jesus.”
May the Mother of Reconciliation watch over all her children throughout the world.
Our Lady of Charity, pray for us.
Copyright 2014, Maria Morera Johnson
About the Author
Maria Morera Johnson, author of My Badass Book of Saints, Super Girls and Halo, and Our Lady of Charity: How a Cuban Devotion to Mary Helped Me Grow in Faith and Love writes about all the things that she loves. A cradle Catholic, she struggles with living in the world but not being of it, and blogs about those successes and failures, too.