The surprising history of the patron saint of Cuba

A minor miracle occurred on a dark train platform in a provincial Cuban town in 1981. I had been a Cuban-American exile for two decades, and had managed to wrangle a visa to visit my sick mother. After seeing her, I had traveled to the train station with some unfinished business.

The middle-aged woman in the black dress behind the counter inspected me. My stomach sank. How could she know that I needed a ticket so that I could fulfill a sacred promise my mother had made 22 years earlier? Traveling in communist Cuba was a bureaucratic nightmare, tickets taking weeks or months to obtain, if one could get them at all. What’s more, I had no ID and was suspiciously dressed. I felt certain she had heard every sob story ever concocted.

It all came flooding out: How a childhood condition had required me to have leg surgery, and my worried mother had sworn that we would visit Cuba’s patron saint—Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre—upon my recovery. But we never got to the shrine outside Santiago that houses the figurine.

Shortly before my illness, the communist revolution had erupted, sending many of my high school friends to jail. My mother knew I would be next, so she arranged asylum for me in America, where I would attend Catholic University, go on to a career in international banking, and become a collector of Cuban memorabilia.

On this trip I had only a few precious days in Cuba. How could I explain how much this simple trip meant, how I had clung to the idea of seeing Our Lady of Charity for more than two decades?

I don’t know how much the woman behind the counter heard, but she understood. “I have a son in Milwaukee,” was all she murmured. She appreciated the pain of exile and dislocation, the importance of faith. She knew! In a moment a ticket miraculously appeared. I will never forget her smile and kindness. Continue reading

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