At a recent church festival at the Ermita de la Caridad del Cobre in Coconut Grove, the pastor jumped on stage and joined the choir to sing an old Cuban standard. That might be unusual for some houses of worship, but not in the little shrine by Biscayne Bay, home to Cuba’s patron saint.
As the Rev. Juan Rumin Dominguez crooned in a surprisingly melodious voice and hammed it up from atop the stage, the faithful roared.
Long the spiritual home of older Cuban exiles, many at the festival that night were recent arrivals from Cuba, mainly in their 30s and 40s. Others hailed from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador.
Welcome to the younger and more diverse parish, which is enjoying a boom in attendance during difficult times for the Catholic church.
“My goal is to attract more people, young and old, to the house of the Lord and the home of Cuba’s patron saint,” said Rumin, 49, the man responsible for the recent renovations of the shrine commonly known as La Ermita, or Our Lady of Charity Shrine.
At Easter services, it was standing-room only for the three Masses.
“The house of the Lord is full today,” said Rumin as he welcomed the faithful on Sunday.
The iconic teepee-shaped shrine, which depicts the robes of the Virgin Mary, is finding new life under Rumin’s leadership. He took over as pastor in 2010, two years before the death of beloved longtime Auxiliary Bishop Agustin Román, considered the spiritual leader of older Cuban exiles. “He was my a great teacher,” Rumin said.
While Román’s were big shoes to fill, Rumin seems to have won over parishioners.
“Father Rumin has brought new blood to La Ermita,’’ said Carmen Toyos, 74, a longtime church volunteer, who says she spends hours watching Rumin bless all who ask. “The father makes everyone feel welcome.”
Rumin, who tends to flock at La Ermita with the help of two other priests, Monsignors Pedro Garcia and P. Carlos Cespedes, and nuns, known as the daughters of La Caridad, who have been at the shrine since it opened, is not only packing pews, but also finding creative ways to keep the church financially afloat.
La Ermita has its own outdoor café or kiosko, called Los Tres Juanes. The eatery is cleverly named after the three men, all named Juan, who appear in the image of La Caridad del Cobre. After Easter services, instead of heading to La Carreta or Versailles, parishioners were able to enjoy empanadas, guava pastries and sugar cane juice at outdoor tables within view of newly landscaped grounds. And Rumin personally vouches for the quality of the cafe cubano.
“Families can come out and eat, enjoy a beautiful day here with their children,” said Rumin, adding that the shrine is open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. so working people can attend. La Ermita is also offering catechism classes at night for adult arrivals from Cuba who have not been baptized into the church.
To appeal to the nostalgia for Cuba, Rumin has built a replica of the island’s famed seawall, El Malecón, in the rear of the shrine along the bay. And when he realized disabled visitors couldn’t reach or sit near the wall in their wheelchairs and walkers, he built a wooden bridge to make it easier to navigate.
Rumin has also upgraded the carillon bells, which parishioners hear as they arrive for services. And the 50-year-old image of the Caridad del Cobre, a focal point at the altar, has a new silver base.
Inside the shrine, a renovated and larger gift store offers religious trinkets — key chains, refrigerator magnets, rosaries and holy water for $1 bottle.
“We have many out-of-town visitors; now they can take a remembrance of the shrine back home with them,” he said.
Music is back and performed by a new choir, Son de la Havana, which showcases “the rhythm of our culture,” said Rumin, who joins in for big events.
Rumin left Cuba in 2006 after he ran afoul of the government for supporting the late dissent Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas.
“They never liked me, my homilies or my work with people. So I came here seeking freedom like many of my parishioners,” he said.
In Miami, Rumin has also become a beacon for the newer arrivals, like himself. Many make their way to the shrine soon after settling in South Florida. “They come to give thanks to our patron saint for their freedom,’’ Rumin said.
La Ermita had long been a sanctuary for what is known in the community as “historic Cuban exiles” — those who left the island fleeing Fidel Castro and communism starting in the early 1960s, and used the shrine as their religious base. Here’s where they gathered to shout “Viva Cuba Libre’’ and pray to the island’s patron saint, La Caridad del Cobre.
But many of them are now in their 70s and 80s, have died, or moved with their children to the suburbs. In the early 1970s, they donated hundreds of dollars in pennies to build La Ermita — believing at the time that it would be a temporary home for the patron saint until they all returned to Cuba, a wish many did not live to see.
“When they didn’t have their own homes, these exiles collected money to build a home for their patron saint,” Rumin told the congregation at Sunday’s Easter service. “We must always be grateful to those who came before us.”
Before it found its new congregation, the shrine, like the Catholic Church, endured difficult times.
Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who named Rumin to head the shrine after Román’s death, said La Ermita needed a jolt of life to attract a new generation of followers — and remain open.
‘‘For its very future, it had to bring in a younger people and Father Rumin is doing just that,” Wenski said. “Because he’s one of them, he connects with the newer arrivals.”
But Rumin said La Ermita, which is passing on to a new and more diverse generation, will always be the legacy of those early Cuban exiles, who began holding services there in 1973.
“I want young people in Miami of Cuban descent to come to La Ermita and see the legacy that their grandparents and parents left behind by building La Ermita,” he said. “This belongs to them, too. It belongs to everyone.”