Written by Bishop of Guantánamo-Baracoa and Chair of Cuba´s Catholic Bishop Communication Commission days before the visit of His Holiness
My interest took me to the Apostolic Nunciature or Embassy for the Holy See in Cuba asking for a copy of that letter, which could be registered in an office of the Holy See. Photo: Marcelino VázquezZoom
Being still a young priest at Camagüey´s La Merced church I was full of excitement having in my hands the original marriage dossier of Liberating Army Major General Ignacio Agramonte y Loynaz with Amalia Simoni Argilagos. There were their signatures. I’m not quite sure if it was the following day when I photocopied the document and I handed that copy to the Director of the Museum-House where the Major General was born. Such a treasure must be shared!
Something similar happened with the Letter written by the Veterans of our fights for Independence in Villa del Cobre to Pope Benedict XV, on September 24, 1915, demanding the appointment of the Virgin of Charity as Patroness of Cuba. Will this letter ever be found?
My interest took me to the Apostolic Nunciature or Embassy for the Holy See in Cuba asking for a copy of that letter, which could be registered in an office of the Holy See. Much to my surprise, I received that copy in less than a month. And I had the same feeling as that of the marriage dossier of Ignacio and Amalia! It was a moving letter There were glorious names endorsing the request to the Pope! Not contented with reading their names, I ran my fingers through the traces of them. They were officials, or just soldiers, some of them added to their signatures simple phrases like since I was a child I consider it this way”.
The valuable signatures of those members and followers of the Cuban Liberating Army were led by Major General Jesús Rabí and many others like Agustín Cebreco and Tomás Padró Valiente; Brigaders Tomás Padró Griñán, Vicente Miniet and Bernardo Camacho; General Luis Bonne; Lieutenant Colonels Rafael Gutiérrez and José Dolores Vicente; Colonel Pedro P. Díaz; Commanders Ramón Garrigas and Antonio Pacheco; el Sub-Prefect Nicolás Torres; Sergeant Raimundo Lora; and soldiers Ramón Rodríguez, Juan de la Caridad Pérez, Rafael Argilagos, Julio Sánchez, Otilio Álvarez, Pedro Núñez, Diego Estrada, Alcibiades Villegas, Patricio Vinent, etc, etc.
The wish to have the Virgin of Charity as Patroness of Cuba was so rooted in the people to the point that the letter had some misspelling, which didn’t take the shine off it, but on the contrary, makes it even more beautiful because it is a proof that it was handwritten by men who were able to brandish the machete but did not have time for study.
The brave mambises requested the title of Patroness of Cuba for Our Lady, the Virgin of Charity. That’s why I think it’s time to explain what it’s all about when we talk about a patroness or patron saint of a people or a country. Patron is a word coming from Roman Law. In every judicial process of the Ancient Rome, the Patron was what is known today as the “defensive attorney”. According to the rules, it should be a free man, Roman citizen, influential and with means to defend the neediest. It was therefore, an important and benefactor person, visited by the needy to gain their favor in court or before the authority.
How did this concept reach the language and tradition of the church? It was San Ambrosio (c337-397) Bishop of Milan, lawyer and great speaker, who applied the name and judicial function of the Patron to the saints of Church. Ambrosio used to ask: “What do saints do in heaven before God?” And he replied and instructed the faithful: “They do as a Patron do before the judge or emperor: they beg and plead for us and get the favors we asked done”. The meaning the Patrons and patronesses have for us is thus explained: mediators before God.
The election of a Patron came many times from the people itself, which was later approved by the authority of Church. That happened with our Virgencita de la Caridad. Happily the Pope agreed to that request by the Veterans on May 10, 1916. Since then, Patroness of Cuba is equivalent to Virgin of Charity.
Back in history we see how, through the years, every country has pushed for having Virgin Mary as its own, like the flags which identify every nation: She is the Virgin de Guadalupe for Mexicans, the Virgin of Lourdes for the French people, Virgin of Fátima for the Portuguese people, the Aparecida for Brazilians, Our Lady of Coromoto for Venezuelans, and so on. For Cubans, she is Virgin of Charity.
What creature has been object of more prayers, more hymns, more churches than Virgin Mary? What human creature has been more invoked and worshipped, amid pain and joy? What name has been more frequently mentioned after Jesus Christ than Mary?
How to forget that the first village founded in Cuba is named «Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de Baracoa»! And that another of the seven villages established is called «Santa María del Puerto del Príncipe»! How many people are named after the Virgin or the ways of invoking them: Mary, Fatima, Milagros, Mercedes, Guadalupe, Concepcion, Pilar, Altagracia, Immaculate, Carmen, Asunción, Lourdes, Rosario, and of course, Charity! How many Cubans have at home or take with them a little medal or card with the image of the Virgin of Charity!
The Bible reads about Virgin Mary, when learning that her not so young cousin was pregnant, went in a rush to the mountain where she was living to deliver the baby. Yes, María walked in a rush the 150 kilometers who separated her from Isabel. Back in 1492, 523 years ago, Cristobal Colón arrived in Cuba leading the ship «Saint Mary».
And in 1612, a 10 year-old boy named Juan Moreno and two native brothers Juan and Rodrigo de Hoyos found a little image of the Virgin Mary afloat in the Bay of Nipe. In the base can be read «I AM THE VIRGIN OF CHARITY». They brought her in a rush to the village el Cobre, where she has stayed for good.
We can ask who found who: Were the Cubans the ones who found the Virgin or was the Virgin who came to the Cuban people? The result is that since that day of 1612, she became Cuban before Cuba had a flag, a national anthem or a coat of arms and before Cuba was Cuba. She became a symbol of the nation.
Today Virgin Mary “lives in heaven doing good on earth”, and that’s why we seek her in times of need. She is still interceding for us. Cuba needs the Virgin of Charity to know and look for what get us together and what get us apart, to know how to forgive and seek reconciliation, to settle conflicts and cure illnesses and oblivion to be merciful to one another. Cuba needs the Virgin de la Charity to know Jesus Christ through her, to love him and follow him. Our Lady of Charity unites us certainly.
Original Letter and some signatures accompanying
To Hon. . Benedict XV.
The undersigned, sons of the Roman Catholic Church, to His Holiness humbly expose:
That some are members and other supporters of the Cuban Liberating Army, title that is the stamp of our highest glory, since it summarizes, the supreme good of Liberty and Independence for our Homeland; that together with this title we hold another which is that we belong to the Roman Catholic Church, in whose bosom we were born, under its precepts we live and according to them we wish to stop living; and those two titles make possible that today, gathering in el Cobre Village, where the Sanctuary of the HOLY VIRGIN of and prostrating ourselves before her altar, we agree to appeal to H. H. to see our dearest hope and the fairest of our aspirations of the Cuban soul done, by appointing the Holy Virgin of Charity of Cobre, and of precept for Cuba, the day dedicated to her Holy name, September eighth a day of celebration.
Neither the vicissitudes of war, nor the works to fight for our subsistence, quench the faith and the love that our catholic people profess to that venerated Virgin; and on the contrary the heat of the fight and in the upmost vicissitudes of life, when death or despair were closest, she always came out like a light dispelling all dangers or like consoling dew for our souls, the vision of that Cuban Virgin Cuban par excellence by the origin of her secular devotion, and Cuban because of the loved she received from our unforgettable mothers, this way she is blessed by our lovers and wives and so have proclaimed our soldiers, praying all of them before her for victory and for the peace of our unforgettable dead brothers, and it would be a shameful ingratitude of ours, if we remained inactive or speechless, and didn’t raise our voice before the successor of Saint Peter, so that becoming interpreter of the feelings of the Cuban Catholic people and the Liberating Army who profess the religion of our ancestors and in full possession of the faculties you are invested with, declare the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, prior to the corresponding procedures as Patroness of the Republic of Cuba and day of ecclesiastic celebration the day of her Holy name.
Therefore, to His Holiness we humbly beg, to please agree to our request.
Cobre Village September twenty four nineteen fifteen.
Translated by ESTI