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Pope Crowning Cuban Patron Saint

January 24, 1998

EL COBRE, Cuba (AP) _ She’s been called upon to protect independence heroes, Fidel Castro’s guerrilla fighters and exiles fleeing their homeland for Miami.

So Pope John Paul II honors Cuban history, patriotism and culture today by crowning the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, a Caribbean version of the Virgin Mary.

The pretty mulatta with dangling earrings and golden robe is Cuba’s patron saint, and she is found in every chapter of the island’s history.

``Without the Virgin, we Cubans are nothing,″ said Ariel Abreu, 40, a guide who brings tourists to the small cream-colored shrine housing the statue of the Virgin in this mining town outside Santiago.

``She is for all Cubans because she does not recognize political ideology,″ said Abreu. ``You can be a communist or even an exile in Miami and she won’t care,″ he added.

Legend has it that the statue was discovered in 1682 in the Bay of Nipe near Santiago by two mulatto brothers and a black boy of about 10.

Struggling in a storm-tossed boat, they heard a voice declare, ``I am the Virgin of Charity.″ Across the waves they spied a wooden board carrying the statue.

In her left arm, she carried a mulatto baby Jesus. In her right hand, she held a cross with precious stones.

For centuries, huge celebrations on the Virgin’s Sept. 8 feast day lasted for up to two weeks.

During the independence wars of the late 1800s, she became a patriotic figure, dubbed the ``Mambisa Virgin″ by the freedom fighters known as ``Mambis.″

Practioners of Cuban-African faiths associated her with Ochun, a deity of maternal love and the sea.

Shortly after the 1959 revolution, even Castro reportedly wore a medallion engraved with the Virgin, given to him by a little girl. He stopped wearing it after his government became increasingly Marxist, and finally atheist.

Still, a letter written by his mother, Lina Ruz, giving thanks for protecting her son in the mountains, was displayed in the shrine for many years. It was later removed for safekeeping.

Recent offerings include the running uniform of Cuban track star Ana Fidelia Quirot and a letter from a woman whose husband who sailed safely to the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay to escape his homeland.

The statue, about three feet high, is kept in a chapel on the shrine’s second floor, but was recently removed in preparation for the coronation.

The Virgin was declared Cuba’s national saint by Pope Benedict XV in 1916, but today’s coronation carries special significance.

``The people here love her very much,″ said factory worker Mariela Reyna Castillo, 32.

``During times of trouble she brings us peace,″ said Reyna. ``And we hope the Holy Father will bring us peace, too.″

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