At the beginning of the 16th century, Spanish missionaries went to Cuba to evangelize the indigenous people and convert them to Catholicism. Cuba had very little gold and silver compared to places like Mexico and Peru, but it was nonetheless a valuable colony of Spain because of its strategic location as a stopping off point for vessels sailing between Spain and the new world. Cuba also had rich fertile land that lent itself to cattle grazing and agriculture. These were lucrative businesses because they supplied the sailors with food for the long ocean voyage.
In the eastern part of the island, the Nipe Bay was an important source of salt used in the curing of meat. Around the year 1612, three boys were there gathering salt, and the Virgin appeared to them in a vision. By tradition, they’re called the “Three Johns” (los tres Juanes), although records show one of them was actually named Rodrigo. Two were brothers (Juan and Rodrigo de Hoyos) of indigenous descent, and one (Juan Moreno) was Afro-Cuban. They were probably about 10 years old at the time. As an old man, Juan Moreno gave an account of what happened. According to him, they were in a small boat and they saw something white appear over the top of the waves. As they got closer to it, they saw it was the figure of the Virgin Mary, carrying the Baby Jesus in her arms. They noticed that her clothes weren’t wet, and she was standing on a wooden plaque that said “I am the Virgin of Charity.” The boys went back to the shore and reported what they saw to the overseer of the copper mines in that area. Upon investigation, they discovered that the boys had seen a statue of the Virgin; the administrator of the mines asked that a shrine be built in her honor, and she was installed there. But, according to the story, the statue of the Virgin kept disappearing and reappearing at that site, even though the doors were locked.
The people living nearby decided that the Virgin wanted to be moved to another spot, so they put her in the Templo Parroquial del Cobre near Santiago de Cuba. From that time forward, she became known as La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre. But, she wasn’t happy there, either. She kept disappearing and appearing, so the people decided she wanted to be in the Sierra Maestra mountains. This coincided with another vision of the Virgin, which took place on the mountainside near the copper mines. A young girl named Apolonia claimed she saw the Virgin there while she was picking flowers. Although not everyone believed the girl, they decided it would be best to move the Virgin’s statue there. This became her final resting place, where her shrine is found today, although over time, the shrine has been expanded to accommodate more people. She was moved to the larger sanctuary on September 8, 1927. About ten years earlier, veterans of the Cuban war of independence had asked the Pope to name the Virgin of Caridad del Cobre as the Patroness of Cuba. He signed the documents in 1916, and September 8 was recognized as her official feast day. In 1977 her sanctuary was elevated to the rank of Basilica by Pope Paul VI.
La Caridad del Cobre: Patroness of Cuba
History and legend have mixed together in the story of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre. For example, some people say that the Tres Juanes were fishermen, and the Virgin appeared to save them from a terrible storm at sea. According to official records, the statue of the Virgin of Charity was carved in Toledo, Spain, at the orders of a captain who wanted to create a shrine where his soldiers could pray for the Virgin’s protection against English pirate attacks on the coast of Cuba. Some people say the ship carrying the statue was wrecked on a coral reef in the Caribbean and the statue floated to Cuba. They claim that several times the church officials tried to return the statue to Spain, but each time something unexpected happened and the statue returned to Cuba. They took this as a sign that she wanted to stay in Cuba, which explains why the Cubans feel a special attachment to her. Cubans refer to her lovingly as “Cachita.” When Ernest Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for literature, he gave the metal to her to show his love for Cuba.