by Patricia Zapor
EL COBRE, Cuba (CNS) – The Shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, home to the 400-year-old statue of Cuba’s patroness, has always been an impressive sight: a towering pale yellow basilica perched in the picturesque foothills of the Sierra Maestra.
It’s where Pope Benedict XVI will visit March 27, making him the most prominent of tens of thousands of pilgrims expected to make the trek to the shrine of La Caridad, as the image is known, in this 400th anniversary year.
He also will celebrate open-air Masses in Havana and Santiago de Cuba and meet with government and church leaders. But his main reason for coming, according to the Cuban bishops’ conference, is as a pilgrim of La Caridad. The Mass in Santiago also will be dedicated to La Caridad.
In the past three years, the shrine at El Cobre has undergone a gradual transformation in anticipation of the 400th anniversary. Peeling plaster has been repaired; new paint brightens walls; new dormitory rooms for pilgrims have been added and the existing ones updated. A chapel area has been remodeled for grateful and hopeful people to leave medallions and other remembrances for their petitions.
Donors Around the World
Funding for the repairs and upgrades came from across Cuba and from donors around the world.
Brooklyn Auxiliary Bishop Octavio Cisneros, a Cuba native, and Santiago de Cuba Archbishop Dionisio Garcia Ibanez toured the United States a year ago, encouraging people to visit Cuba as pilgrims and raising money to make it all possible.
Glass cases hold some of the more poignant and well-known tributes: sports paraphernalia, letters, and an article about writer Ernest Hemingway’s gift of his Pulitzer Prize — the gold medallion itself is locked away. A marble tabletop nearby holds candles lit by those offering their prayers.
As worshippers inside observed World Day of the Sick Feb. 11, Vatican security agents toured the property and workers scrambled to finish turning a dirt parking lot behind the church into a paved, garden courtyard. A work schedule with the Sept. 8 feast of La Caridad as its goal got pushed up by six months in December when the pope’s visit was announced.
Just down the hill from the dormitory building is the new residence at which local officials say Pope Benedict will be the first overnight guest. The residence was intended as a home for retired Archbishop Pedro Meurice Estiu of Santiago, who died last July before the home was completed.