Pilgrimage to Cobre

Archbishop Wenski travels to Cuba
Knights and Dames of Malta return to Cuba as pilgrims to visit El Cobre, see the good works they are funding

FEB 6th, 2011

Tears flowed freely at the feet of Our Lady of Charity, patroness of Cuba, as a group of pilgrims from Miami celebrated Mass at her sanctuary in ElCobre.

After 50 years away from the land of her birth, Ana Maria Capablanca called the moment “cathartic.” “Such emotion,” she said afterward. “I never thought I would come here. It was a gift.”

A gift and a trip that officials both of the Church in Cuba and the Church in the U.S. hope will be repeated throughout 2011, when Cubans celebrate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the image of Our Lady of Charity by three fishermen in the Bay of Nipe.

The pilgrimage made Feb. 6-11 by Capablanca and 25 others, members of the Cuban Association of the Order of Malta and members of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Miami, was the first of several being planned for this year.

This one was led by Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who celebrated the Mass in ElCobre and Mass in the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Santiago, within whose jurisdiction ElCobre is located. Also along were Father Daniel Kubala, pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle, and Father Richard Vigoa, priest-secretary and master of ceremonies for Archbishop Wenski.

The pilgrimage was fast-paced and grueling, marked by lengthy and bumpy bus rides through the Cuban countryside, most of the time on the Carretera Central, a two-lane highway built in the late 1940s. Never did the pilgrims get to their final destination before nightfall and often they were on the road — or at Mass — by 8 a.m.

They began their journey in Havana, where they had a long meeting with Cardinal Jaime Ortega and visited a center for the elderly, one of 60 throughout the island receiving support from the Cuban members of the Order of Malta.

From there they traveled east to Camaguey, where diocesan officials reported that donations from the order have enabled them to help more than 300,000 people, in particular those who are elderly and sick, including children with Down’s syndrome who are tended to by the Siervas de María (Servants of Mary).

“We have cared for the needy, as is proper to the Church,” said Father Ernesto Pacheco, vicar general of the Diocese of Camaguey.

Moving on to Santiago, the pilgrims were welcomed by Archbishop Emeritus Pedro Meurice and given an overview of the plans for enlarging and restoring the Cobre shrine and improving its ancillary buildings, including the former seminary which is now being used as a retreat house, and a guest house for visitors. The shrine receives about half a million visitors each year.

The years-long renovation is expected to cost upwards of 6 million euros, with the greatest expense coming from the purchase of raw materials such as cement which have to be imported from abroad.
“This place in Cuba is not only ours. We take care of it but it belongs to all Cubans and to the whole Cuban Church,” said Mercedes Ferrera, secretary to Santiago’s Archbishop Dionisio García.

The renovations need to be done “so that the whole Cuban people, wherever they are, can come to a place that is worthy,” Ferrera said.

Before leaving ElCobre, the pilgrims celebrated a Mass in the upstairs area that houses the original image of Our Lady of Charity. The next morning they celebrated Mass in the cathedral of Santiago — Cuba’s primatial see which once had jurisdiction as far north as Florida and Louisiana.

After Mass, they received a guided tour of the cathedral and adjacent museum by its enthusiastic director, Antonio Lopez de Queralta. “A lot is exhibited,” he said. “But a lot more is in storage.”

After a stop in Campo Soriano tovisit another center for the elderly, the group stopped briefly in Santa Clara, where Bishop Arturo Gonzalez welcomed them like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. He met them after dark along the road on the way intotown and had them stop at the monument to John Paul II, located near the spot where he celebrated his first Mass on the island in 1998.

About 100 people gather there each month now to pray the rosary, Bishop Gonzalez said. He also let the visitors tour the diocesan library, which now includes 13,000 volumes of sometimes rare or hard to find books and magazines.

The idea behind the establishment of the library is to “rescue the patrimony” of Cuban letters, Bishop Gonzalez said. The library also is the site of art exhibits and discussions on topics such as faith and reason that bring together both atheists and believers.

After reaching Havana at 3 a.m. the next day, the pilgrims were back on the road after breakfast, touring a home for elderly women housed at the Church of San Francisco de Paula in the Víbora neighborhood, and another center for the elderly at the Church of El Sagrado Corazón (Sacred Heart) in Los Pinos.

In the afternoon they celebrated Mass at the impressive Santa María del Rosario in the El Cotorro neighborhood. The church dates back to 1730 and has retained its original glory. It was built in the baroque style by the family of Fernando Garcia Chacon, president of the Cuban Association of the Order of Malta, who was among those making the pilgrimage.

It was his first time back in Cuba after 50 years.

“Obviously, there was a certain concern about coming face to face with a situation that is and has been very painful,” said Garcia Chacon. “Coming face to face with 50 lost years has been very difficult.”
But, he added, “there has been great pain — both for those there (in exile) as well as for those here (in Cuba). Which was greater? That is very personal.”

Garcia Chacon was not the only one among the pilgrims who had been hesitant to return to Cuba.
“I’m not very happy to be here at all,” said Capablanca at the start of the trip. “I’m very confused. But I look at it as if it was meant to be and I’m happy to go toCobre. I’m also happy to see the Church is really doing something. With a little bit of money you can do a lot in this country. I like that.”

“I see a lot more relaxed attitude. I see a lot more permissiveness in terms of Church,” said Robert Chisholm, a Miami architect and aspiring Knight of Malta who had traveled to Cuba six or seven years ago to lead the first ever Emmaus men’s retreat on the island.

“That being said, this is a dictatorship and this is communism. There’s a line that’s not going to be crossed,” Chisholm said.

He added that confrontation is not a productive path for the Church. “The only way to achieve anything is through human interaction.”

“Everything is little by little but you can’t lose heart,” said Rolando “Piro” Suarez, legal advisor to the Cuban bishops who along with his wife, Alina, served as the pilgrims’ invaluable guide and troubleshooter throughout the trip.

He recalled the words of Father Felix Varela, the great Cuban thinker, who in his writings extolled “what is small, what is anonymous, what is constant.” That is what is going on with the Church in Cuba, Suarez said.

“Come, at least to know (what is happening),” he said, referring to the pilgrimages. “Come and see. Your Mother is waiting.”