Coconut Grove

400 years: Believers pay tribute to patron saint La Caridad del Cobre

For 400 years, La Caridad del Cobre — the patron saint of Cuba — has been on the receiving end of all kinds of prayers. Through moments of joy or deep despair, an island and its people found peace through The Virgin of Charity.

“We love Cachita,” Archbishop Thomas Wenski, referring to the saint’s nickname, told a packed house of worshipers at the American Airlines Arena Saturday evening. A statue of the saint was placed prominently a few feet in front of the archbishop — something only possible after the statue made a celebratory birthday voyage, by boat through Biscayne Bay, from its usual home in Coconut Grove.

The water journey was key, as it was exactly 400 years ago that the image of Cachita was said to appear to three men (all named Juan) in a boat in Cuba’s eastern Bay of Nipe. One of the men had been wearing a medal of the Virgin Mary, and the men prayed to Mary for protection as they were caught in a vicious storm.

The “Virgin of Charity” that saved the men became a symbol of the Virgin Mary and God’s love, but also an integral part of Cuban identity. These days, for Cuban exiles living in the U.S., praying to Cachita is both a spiritual exercise as well as a way of connecting with a homeland they were forced to flee.

“It is a big thing if you are a Cuban, and you are a Catholic,” said Yanin Salem, a 58-year-old Havana native who now lives in Aventura. “I always pray to her.”

At La Ermita de la Caridad shrine in Coconut Grove, hundreds of worshipers gathered to pray before the statue just before it was placed on the boat bound for downtown Miami. Many showed up wearing yellow — the saint’s color — and some offered flowers (typically yellow sunflowers) that were placed in a corner of the shrine. This ever-growing mountain of flowers topped four feet in height.

Shrieks of delight greeted the statue as it emerged — atop a bed of peach roses — and was ceremonially carried to the bay. A priest led prayers through a megaphone, as whole families galloped around the property in order to get a better view.

Yanessy Santiago of Miami came to the shrine simply to say thank you. The 23-year-old carried her newborn son Rey — a child who was almost lost to medical complications.

Santiago credited her prayers to Cachita for allowing her to bear a child, just as those prayers had allowed herself to be born twenty-three years ago. Santiago said her mother had struggled for a long time to conceive, but Cachita finally intervened.

“Because of her, I’m here, I’m alive,” Santiago said, before becoming teary-eyed with emotion. “My mom prayed and prayed to her, and I was born.”

Santiago’s husband, Juan, said the saint holds such a prominent place for Cuban Americans that it is common to hear her name — no matter what the situation. If you win the lottery, you’ll say her name, and if you crash your car, chances are you’ll say it too.

“I umpire for afternoons, youth baseball,” he said. “You will hear the coaches, ‘ Virgencita de la Caridad! These kids are driving me nuts!”’