Cuba's tiny patron saint a powerful national symbol

AP News
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Posted: Sep 22, 2015 12:00 AM
Cuba's tiny patron saint a powerful national symbol

Here's a look at Cuba's tiny patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre:

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THE STATUE: Wooden statue, 403 years old and just over foot (35 centimeters) tall, is among world's most venerated Roman Catholic icons and an object of pride and reverence for hundreds of thousands of Cubans. Encased in glass in small-town church, it wears a full, golden dress and her feet rest on a shimmering crescent moon.

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THE STORY: According to tradition, two indigenous laborers and an African slave who on boat searching for salt found a statue of the Virgin Mary atop a wooden table floating on the Bay of Nipe in 1615. In her arms, she carried a smaller figure of the baby Jesus. Church says the board was inscribed with the words: "I am the Virgin of Charity."

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THE SYNCRETISM: Over the centuries, Cubans of many faiths, including the Afro-Cuban Santeria religion, have prayed to the Virgin, drawn to the participation of the slave Juan Moreno in the discovery story. Santeria believers call the statue "Ochun," the goddess of female sensuality and maternity.

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THE SHRINE: The statue's home is an ivory-colored church with soaring red domes nestled in the shadow of the Sierra Maestra mountains in the community of Cobre outside the eastern city of Santiago. One corner of the church is dedicated to offerings for the Virgin, including votives and thousands of handwritten notes. Ernest Hemingway directed that his 1954 Nobel Prize gold medal be placed at the statue's feet as a gesture of thanks to Cubans for inspiring such works as "The Old Man and the Sea." Pope John Paul II visited in 1998 and put a golden crown on the statue's head. Pope Benedict XVI came in 2012 to honor the quadricentennial of the diminutive relic's appearance.

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THE SISTER SHRINE: Cuban-American exiles have long worshipped the Virgin of Charity at a sister church built in South Florida. The "Ermita de La Virgen de la Caridad" is a potent symbol of the decades-old division between Cubans. President Barack Obama stopped by when he was in Miami this year to reach out to exiles, many of whom are upset by his move to restore relations with Cuba's communist government. He was the first U.S. president to visit the shrine.