The Politics of Patron Sainthood in Haiti: 500 Years of Iconic Struggle

By Rey, Terry | The Catholic Historical Review, July 2002 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Patron Sainthood in Haiti: 500 Years of Iconic Struggle


Rey, Terry, The Catholic Historical Review


Overview

In many countries where Catholicism is the dominant religion, personal religious and collective national identity are extensively conditioned by the imagery and names of a national patron saint. Two of the most striking examples of this phenomenon are the cults of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Poland and Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico. The shaping influence that each of these Marian icons has on what it means to be Polish or Mexican and Catholic, however understood, and the strength of Polish and Mexican Catholic faith in the Virgin Mary's oversight of their nations can hardly be overstated. The roles of Czestochows and Guadalupe are contested, however, in both the religious and political histories of each nation, and similar iconic struggles have been waged in most other "Catholic" countries, as Paul C. Johnson explains:

images of the saints have provided privileged, divinely sanctioned sites for negotiating the powers of ethnicity, nationalism, and ... race. Moreover, if certain prominent images of the Virgin Mary have been effectively forwarded as a national face, Catholic yet distinct from the Roman version-Guadalupe in Mexico, Fatima in Portugal, Lourdes in France, Nossa Senhora Aparecida (Our Appeared lady) in Brazil-precisely what, whom, and how these images represent has also been contested within national contexts.1

A less-known, though no less striking, case of this phenomenon is that of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Haiti, who formally succeeded Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception and Our Lady of the Assumption as the Caribbean nation's patron saint in 1942. This paper explains the history of national patron sainthood in Haiti, revealing three of its most crucial facets: (1) The overarching aims of specific political regimes in the establishment of the nation's three historically successive patron saint cults; (2) the general ideological underpinnings of the promotion of a national Marian patron saint cult by the ruling classes; and (3) the appropriation of the national patron symbol by the subjugated to resist sociopolitical domination.

The Virgin Mary: Patron Saint of Slavery and Revolution in Colonial Hispaniola

A history of the cult of the Virgin Mary in the Americas might begin with a statement something like, "The Virgin Mary was originally brought to the New World by Spanish missionaries who joined the early explorers and settlers in establishing Spanish America's first colonies." While this would hardly be incorrect, a subject/object reversal in this sentence would better reflect a pervasive, underlying Ibero-Catholic belief that represents a cornerstone of national patron sainthood in the Americas. To the Spanish, it was the Virgin Mary who brought them to the Americas, and not vice versa, illustrated rather graphically in the image of Columbus chancing upon the shores of diverse Caribbean islands while standing on a ship named Santa Maria. The Virgin Mary had long been European Catholicism's ruler of the seas (Stella Maris, Our Lady of the Navigators, etc.), thus making her the logical choice as heavenly guiding force behind Spain's maritime exploration and subsequent colonization of the New World. As Marina Warner notes, "The Virgin's governance of the oceans was adapted to a practical purpose: she was prayed to by the missionaries who set out across the Atlantic and other oceans to conquer new territories for Christ."2 The sixteenth-century Spanish painter Alejandro Fernandez's Virgin of the Navigators reflects the Marian legitimization of the colonial enterprise that the Spanish enjoyed and employed:

The Virgin is represented standing on a cloud, the traditional image of the Virgin of Mercy, dressed in a splendid brocade tunic with a cape extended behind her. Two groups of navigators and other persons involved in the colonization of the New World are gathered within the protection of her cape. On the right side are King Ferdinand, Bishop Don Juan de Fonseca, Chief of the Casa de Contratacion and Superintendent of the Indies, and Don Santo Matienzo, first Abbot of Jamaica. …

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