Life in Cuba with all its charms and curses converges El Cobre, a small village outside this island nation s second largest city, Santiago de Cuba. The Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Cobre sits on a hillside overlooking this town. Since 1608 pilgrims have prayed to Our Lady of Charity here. Thomas Merton visited El Cobre in 1940. My own visit took place just a few months ago.
Devotion to this Madonna began when three fishermen found a wooden image of Mary floating on the Bahia de Nipe in northeastern Cuba. Its message read, "I am the Virgen de la Caridad." This statue was brought to the copper mine at El Cobre, and two years later the first hermitage was built there. The present church was built in 1927, just 11 years after Pope Benedict XV declared the Virgen de la Caridad patroness of Cuba, but hundreds of years after the Cuban people vigorously embraced and developed this expression of their faith.
Devotion to the Virgen de la Caridad also has a special relationship to the African-Cuban religion known as Santeria. Santerians venerate Ochun, the Yoruba goddess of love. They see in this Madonna a reflection of their goddess, as do many Cuban Catholics see in Ochun a reflection of Christ's mother. Such intertwined religious visions and traditions energize many Cuban believers from both spiritual traditions.
Nineteen years before Fidel Castro announced the success of his revolution in Santiago de Cuba to the city and to the world, Thomas Merton made a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Cobre. "It was one of those medieval pilgrimages that was nine tenths vacation and one tenth pilgrimage," Merton wrote. He prayed for priesthood, a wish eventually granted him. Both in The Seven Storey Mountain and The Secular Journal of Thomas Merton, he provided colorful glimpses of Cuban culture and church predating both Castro and Vatican II. …