Providence willed that the visas for the three SDC Members was issued on the 7th of March, the day when as a Society we commemorate the first meeting that the Founder held with a group of young men in a small house they hired in Hamrun.

Thus, just after completing the induction programme, the Members started working on the final preparations before heading for Cuba. On Wednesday, 23rd March, a special general meeting was held in which the General Superior augured them well, and gave them the sign of peace on behalf of all the Society. Superior Joseph Buttigieg and Members John Mifsud and Roberto Zammit also shared short messages and reflections.

The day after, these members flew to Spain for a short visit and on Monday 28th March, at around 21:00 Cuba time, landed in Havana. There they found Fr Paul Buttigieg, the parish priest who has been so helpful since the initial stages of this new mission. The group met H E Bishop Arturo on Wednesday 30th March.

La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre

In 2012 Cuba celebrated the 400th anniversary ofthe findingof the statue of La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre in the Bay of Nipe in 1612. During 2011 the statue was takenin pilgrimageto every parish on the island, arousing greatenthusiasmall along. Between the 3rd and 6th June thepilgrimage passed through Sagua la Grande and thethree SDC members then in Cuba participated both in the preparations for the visitand in welcoming Our Lady. The great display of devotionby the local population was a clear signthat the flame of faith in Cuba is still burning, even if not so noticeably to outsiders.

La Virgenin Sagua la Grande

Devotion to La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobreis so deeply rooted in Cuba that her image is to be found in every churchandin most homes. while men carry it with them in their wallets. Her feast is celebratedon 8th September by all Cubans, even those living abroad. Holding Jesus on her left armandthe cross in her righthand, Our Ladyinvites all to keep Jesus in their heartsand to look to him formercy, encouragement and spiritual help.

Great crowds awaited the arrival of the Virgen, a faithful replica of the original venerated in the Basilical Sanctuary of El Cobre. The rain did not dampenthe people’s enthusiasm, nor did it prevent them from showing theirlove forthe heavenly mother. In Sagua la Grandepractisingand non-practising Catholics as well as non-believersfor a full forty-four hours openly showed theirappreciation and joy for the special presence of Cuba’s patroness. This was a once-in-a-lifetime occasion. Our Lady’s venerated statue was to visit some 25 different localities in the parish, including the residences ofthosewho could not join in the celebrations due to their handicap or old age. Padre Pablo Buttigieg, the parish priest, and Bishop Arturo Gonzales accompanied the people in their prayersand joyful singing. Prior to Our Lady’s arrivalmost families were visited in their homes and offereda catechesis about Mary’s rolein our salvation.Literature about the providentialfinding of the statue was also distributed.

The two sailors

Cubans are no strangers to storms. So when in 1612 two brothers and a boy-slave found themselves in a storm in the middle of the Bay of Nipe on the Atlantic coast of Cuba, they decided to anchor for the night and wait for dawn. They had left Santiago del Prado (today’s El Cobre) to fetch salt with which to preseve meat for the copper miners in their district. Early in the morning Rodrigo and Juan de Hoyos observed a ‘small white bundle’ floating towards them. It turned out to be a completely dry statue of Our Lady attached to a wooden board carrying the inscription ‘I am the Virgin of Charity’. It was a sixteen-inch image of Our Lady standing on the moon with clouds on either side and three golden-winged cherubs beneath. The Christ Child on her left arm had one hand raised in blessing. In the other he had a golden globe. The Virgen was holding a crucifix in her right hand, a symbol of the salvation her Son was offering mankind. The wide embroidered cloak gave the statue the semblance of a triangular shape.

It did not take long for the inhabitants to erect a sanctuary in honour of the Virgin of Charity in Santiago del Prado, which sanctuary soon became a national place of pilgrimage. The city was later given the name of El Cobre, the Spanish word for copper, due to the copper mines in the area.

In 1916 Pope Benedict XV declared La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre patroness of Cuba and in 1977 Pope Paul VI crowned the statue during the Eucharistic Congress held in Santiago de Cuba. For this reason a replica of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre was later commissioned for the sanctuary in Santiago de Cuba, and it was this replica that made the rounds in the parishes and barrios in 2011. The original statue was crowned a second time by Pope John Paul II in Santiago de Cuba during his historic visit in 1998.

Cubans feel a natural urge to implore Our Lady’s protection whenever they find themselves in difficult situations. It is no wonder that they even took the statue with them on the battlefront during the wars for independence (1868-1878 and 1895-1898). A good number of soldiers were in fact from El Cobre.

A prayerful pilgrimage

In theparishes aprayer prepared especially for the occasionby the ecclesiastical authorities was daily recited after Holy Communion. On Thursday evening, when the statue of Our Lady was being brought over to Sagua la Grande, thepilgrimage stopped brieflyat the local cemeteryandthe small barrios which weretoo distant from the parish.By thetime it arrived at the hospital the rain had stopped and the statue was taken out of its van and carried inside to the great joy ofthe patients, nurses and doctors who offeredtheir ernest prayers to the heavenly Mother.

At Villa Alegrethe residents came outat 10.00 p.m. to welcome the Virgin.Believers mingled withnon-believersasmen, women and childrendanced,clappedand sangto La Virgen, offeringflowers and candles as a sign of gratitude for her visit. Though the rain kept pouring most of the time duringthe Virgin’sstay inSagua la Grande, thiswas considereda heavenly blessing for the fields were in direneed of rain and the wells were dry.

Fortunately, with the help of Joe, John and Roberto, the three SDC members residingin the parish, the refurbishment of the Gothic Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (Sagrado Corazón)which had been going on for the previous two years was brought to conclusion just in time. After having made the round of the town, the statue of Our Lady of Charity onSaturdayafternoon made its entrance into the church whereit was given a rousing welcome by a great multitude of parishioners. In the course of the Holy Mass that followed, the children sangthe hymns which the SDC membershad taught them. To facilitate the singing, the lyrics were also projected on a screen.Mass was followed by a procession to the parish church, less than a kilometre away. Inthe evening aconcert in honour of the Virginwas heldon the church parvisand the programme included a song composed especially for the occasion. Joe Buttigieg who played the violin was among the orchestra. The concert was introduced by the parish priest who outlined the history of La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre and explained the scope of the pilgrimage.

The statueleft Sagua la Grandeon Ascension Sunday. Bishop Arturo Gonzales, who was present duringmost of the pilgrimage, urgedthe congregation to continue to cooperate with Christin his workof salvation, even afterOur Lady andher Son had departed. That afternoon La Virgen de la Caridadstartedits journeytothe parish of Calabasar de Sagua. On the way there were once again severalstops, as peopleeverywhere flockedto see the effigyand rejoice in its presence. May our heavenly Mother help all Cubans to remain unitedto her divine Son Jesus.

(from ‘PRECA CALLING’, an annual magazine by the Society of Christian Doctrine, M.U.S.E.U.M.)