EL COBRE, Cuba - In the parish of Our Lady of Charity, in the former mining town of El Cobre, a statue with golden embroidered garments is on a pedestal. It's on display, behind glass. Noglys Gonzalez works outside of the basilica as a street vendor.
Like millions of the devotees around the world, Gonzalez believes in the 17th century legend that the Virgin Mary appeared to the three Juans, an African slave and two natives, who were out collecting salt in the Bay of Nipe. She saved them from a storm and left them the 2-foot statue. Her clothes were dry despite the rain.
After many years of popular veneration, Pope Benedict XV, born Giacomo Battista dellaChiesa in Italy, consecrated the Virgin as the patron of Cuba in 1916. For the past decade, believers are Gonzalez's clients. He sells religious figurines.
"As a priority, I have faith on the Virgin," Gonzalez said about his strategy for success.
Cubans attribute countless miracles to the statue enshrined near an abandoned copper mine. During Cuba's war for independence from Spain, Our Lady of Charity became known as the Virgin Mambisa.
Ernest Hemingway made several references to the Virgin of Charity in The Old Man and the Sea.
"I am not religious," a book's character said. "But I will say ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys that I should catch this fish, and I promise to make a pilgrimage to the Virgin of Cobre if I catch him. That is a promise."
Hemingway won a Nobel Prize medal after his book in 1954. He took the medal to the church. Believers travel far to drop off "exvotos," promised visits or offerings. At the church's altar, there were college diplomas and stethoscopes.
During Pope Francis' recent visit to the island, he said the Virgin of Charity "has accompanied the history of the Cuban people, sustaining the hope which preserves people's dignity in the most difficult situations."
He said he went to El Cobre, as "a son and a pilgrim."
Believers in the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria also travel to El Cobre to pray to the Virgin of Charity in honor of Oshun, a deity that represents fertility. Many praying for a medical miracle through great lengths to visit "Cachita," the Virgin of Charity's affection nickname.
The chorus of a song by Los Tres Tristones, a Cuban trio, says, "And if you go to El Cobre, where Cachita is, bring me a little statue of the Virgin of Charity." Gonzalez will be there waiting with his little wooden statues.
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