Sunday service at the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity
One by one, churchgoers placed bright yellow sunflowers in bins as they entered the Coconut Grove sanctuary, each blossom symbolic of a prayer request.
Some got on their knees while gently putting down the flower. Others were quicker to release their message to the heavens before scurrying to their seats.
“This flower to me is a prayer, a request to our Heavenly Mother that she bring my husband from Cuba to Miami as soon as possible,” said Laura Sordia as tears streamed down her cheeks. “We’ve been apart for several years.”
Sordia, 28, was one of hundreds of people who attended Sunday morning Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity in Coconut Grove and San Lazaro Catholic Church in Hialeah just two days after Fidel Castro’s death.
“I don’t think his death will necessarily change things but I have to at least have a glimpse of hope that my love will come home to me faster,” Sordia said.
The church, also known as La Ermita de la Caridad, is a popular destination for Cuban immigrants after they arrive in the United States. For decades, the place of worship, which sits on the shore of Biscayne Bay at 3609 S. Miami Ave., has become a home away from home for Cubans fleeing oppression under the Castro regime.
“Today may be a normal Sunday Mass but it’s a special Sunday for me,” said Felix Valdes as he placed Cuban flags for sale on a table outside the entrance to the church. “Fidel’s death means one less monster left in this world, and that means it gives me one more reason to be grateful to God.”
La Ermita accompanies Cubans through their journey and brings them safely. And once they reach this country they never forget the virgin who helped them.
Maria Del Carmen De La Arena, an usher and volunteer at La Ermita
At San Lazaro Catholic Church at 4400 W. 18th Ave. in Hialeah, the sermon about death and forgiveness took on a special meaning.
“We, as Christians, cannot applaud the condemnation of anyone, no matter how bad that person has been,” Monsignor Willie Peña, who was visiting from Puerto Rico, told a church packed with mainly Cuban worshipers.
“We are all Cubans and we have all been the victims of this person,” he continued, telling the congregation that as a child he had been a part of Operation Pedro Pan, a wave of immigration in the early 1960s in which children were separated from their families and sent to the United States to escape the Castro regime.
“At this moment the book of Fidel Castro’s life is being read by God and God is dictating the sentence,” Peña added. “The only one who knows how to bring justice is God.”
La Ermita's Monsignor Pedro Garcia echoed Peña.
“There is much hope; there is always a lot of hope,” Garcia said, adding that forgiveness needs to occur between the Cuban people and their government. “The Christians, the Cubans, the Catholics, we always pray the ‘Our Father,’ and that prayer says that we have to forgive just like Christ forgave us.”
For many Cuban exiles, La Ermita’s history is intertwined with their own.
On Sept. 8, 1961, the Archdiocese of Miami held a feast with more than 30,000 Cuban exiles at La Ermita. On that same day, the shrine of Our Lady of Charity arrived from Cuba following the beginning of Fidel Castro’s regime.
Maria Del Carmen De La Arena, an usher and volunteer at La Ermita, left Cuba 40 years ago and headed for New York. She later moved to Miami and has been living in South Florida for the past two years.
“La Ermita accompanies Cubans through their journey and brings them safely. And once they reach this country they never forget the virgin who helped them,” De la Arena said. “This is a little piece of the island here in Miami.”
Former Cuban political prisoner Marcelo Cuba isn’t a regular at the church. Cuba, who lives in Homestead, said he chose to attend Sunday’s Mass because it marked a new chapter in his life.
“It took too long for Fidel to die, but I guess something is something and I have to celebrate, celebrate the death of that tyrant,” said the 80-year-old, who was jailed in 1984 for more than five years. “And when Raúl dies I’ll come again.”