HAVANA – Pope Francis will pay homage to Cuba's tiny patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, on Monday and Tuesday during his visit to the island. Here's a look at the country's version of the Virgin Mary:
THE STATUE: It's now 403 years old and stands just over a foot (35 centimeters) tall, but the petite wooden statue in a small-town church in eastern Cuba is among the most venerated Catholic icons in the world and an object of pride and reverence for hundreds of thousands on the island. Protected inside a glass case, she wears a full, golden dress and her feet rest on a shimmering crescent moon.
THE STORY: According to church tradition, two indigenous laborers and an African slave who had set sail on an old boat in search of salt were surprised to find a statue of the Virgin Mary atop a wooden table floating above the frothy waves in the Bay of Nipe in 1615. In her arms, she carried a smaller figure of the baby Jesus. The church says the board was inscribed with the words: "I am the Virgin of Charity," and that the men were amazed that the statue's cloak and other garments were completely dry.
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.
THE SHRINE: As the Virgin's legend grew, so did the chapel that housed the statue. Today, it is an ivory-colored church with soaring red domes nestled in the shadow of the Sierra Maestra mountains in the small community of Cobre just outside the eastern city of Santiago. One corner of the church is dedicated to offerings left 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 Cuban people for inspiring such works as "The Old Man and the Sea." Pope John Paul II visited the shrine in 1998 and placed a golden crown upon the statue's head. Pope Benedict XVI made the trek in 2012 to honor the quadricentennial of the appearance of the diminutive relic.
THE SISTER SHRINE: Cuban-American exiles have long worshipped the Virgin of Charity at a sister church built in South Florida, known in Spanish as the "Ermita de La Virgen de la Caridad." The Florida church honoring the island's patroness is a potent symbol of the decades-old division between Cubans that dates back more than a half-century. President Barack Obama stopped by when he was in Miami earlier this year in an effort to reach out to exiles, many of whom were upset by his announcement that the United States would work toward restoring relations with the island's communist government. He was the first American president to visit the shrine.