The history of Cuba's most revered Catholic shrine dates back to the 17th Century. There are several versions of the story but the one most accepted is that three boys, one of them a slave, encountered an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary floating on a board in the middle of a storm. On the board was written: "I am the Virgin of Charity". Upon this discovery the boys took the image to El Cobre, the town where they were from, and from here word spread of special favors granted through the intercession of Our Lady of Charity.
El Cobre is known for its copper mines, which are the oldest in all of the Americas.
The image is housed in a Basilica that was built in 1927. The previous sanctuary was in danger of collapse due to the mining in the area. Inside the Basilica you will find the Chapel of Miracles, much like many other Marian shrines throughout the world. Hanging on the walls are numerous crutches, university diplomas, athlete's medals and other offerings of thanksgiving. The image is surrounded by flowers and has a cross on her right arm and the infant Jesus on her left hand.
The Feast of Our Lady of Charity is observed on September 8th.
In January 1998 she was crowned Queen of All Cubans by Pope John Paul II during his apostolic visit to Cuba.
In honor of the 400th anniversary of the Shrine Pope Benedict presented a Golden Rose, an honor given to Churches and Shrines of special significance. When Pope Benedict XVI visited here in March 2012, it was a momentous occasion.
It is our hope that the Catholics of Cuba will begin to enjoy greater religious freedom. As of this date, this is not the case and there were reports of arrests of dissidents who were Catholic in order to prevent them from attending any of the Masses with the Holy Father during his visit in 2012. When Pope Francis paid a visit in September 2015, he celebrated Mass here and called for the Church to tear down walls, an obvious reference to the suffering of the Cuban people under communism.
Santiago de Cuba is about 480 miles East of Havana and is best visited by air, although bus travel is possible. There is a good selection of hotels in the city.
Address: no street address, but you can't miss it.
GPS coordinates: 20° 3' 2.4840'' N, 75° 56' 56.7096'' W
Note for U.S. citizens: Travel restrictions for Americans have been eased but you still must go as part of an organized group and not as individuals. The U.S. Bishops have been highly critical of the U.S. embargo and to many it makes little sense to do a great deal of trade with Communist China while refusing to trade with Cuba. With the easing of restrictions, some travel by U.S. citizens is allowed under certain conditions.
A word about worship in Cuba:
The practice of Santeria has over-lapped into Catholic worship and you need to be careful not to participate in any of their services. For those who may not be aware, Santeria is a pagan religion which has the outward trappings of Christianity in some cases but is definitely not Catholic, or even Christian.
It involves turning revered saints in to sub-gods, animal sacrifice, channeling and many more practices that are harmful to those who practice it. Unfortunately, the spread of Santeria has tended to blur the lines, especially in Caribbean and Latin American countries, but also in the U.S. and elsewhere. Many who practice this faith even consider themselves Catholics, despite the fact that the Church has been an outspoken critic.