Thousands of Cuban Catholics flocked to Havana Bay for an open-air mass marking the end of a 16-month island tour of the statue of Our Lady of Charity of Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint.
The service was led by Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the 73 year-old head of Cuba’s Catholic Church. Also present were senior members of Cuba’s Communist Party, including Vice President Estaban Lazo and Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, as well as the archbishop of the US city of Miami, Thomas Wenski.
The centerpiece was a statue of the Virgin Mary the size of a large doll cradling the baby Jesus in her left arm. The statue, according to legend, was found by local fishermen off eastern Cuba after a storm in 1612 and was bone-dry despite the tempest.
In the service, Ortega asked “our mother and patroness” to intercede so there can be “peace and fraternity” among Cubans, and for help for government officials “so those necessary transformations in the economic and social life that Cubans await can continue advancing without setbacks.”
The statue, encased in a clear glass box, arrived on the roof of a truck escorted by National Revolutionary Police officers on motorcycles.
“This is a moving event — I never thought it could happen,” said Arai Cavernilla, a 34 year-old pediatric nurse from Havana who was at the mass.
“There is no better way to say farewell to the patroness than in such a beautiful place, next to the sea,” added Diosdada Mate, 78.
The statue has covered 28,000-kilometers (18,000 miles) in criss-crossing the communist Caribbean island since August 2010, when the tour began at the relic’s sanctuary in the eastern town of El Cobre.
The long journey, the first such event since 1951-52, comes ahead of a visit by Pope Benedict XVI to mark the 400th anniversary of the relic’s discovery.
The pontiff is expected in March, although no date has been set.