EL COBRE, Cuba (Reuters) - Military braids, stethoscopes and even a baseball adorn a shrine for the ‘Virgin of Charity,’ Cuba’s most precious religious icon where Pope Francis is to celebrate his last Mass on the island this week.
The eclectic offerings, along with handwritten thank-yous and pleas for help, are left by thousands of Cubans who come by foot, bus and cart to pay homage at the hilltop sanctuary ahead of Francis’ arrival on Monday night and Mass on Tuesday.
“I am here to fulfill a vow,” said Maydelin Salazar, 26, who made the nearly 900 km (560 miles) bus journey from Havana to the former copper-mining village of El Cobre, near the Sierra Maestra mountains, to give thanks for graduating as a doctor.
Salazar left a copy of her prized degree, which will enable her to join a select group of Cuban medics able to work abroad and earn more, on the altar.
“Because of the pope’s visit, I have asked for another favor,” she said, without divulging it.
On the altar were decorations left by military members seeking promotion and medical equipment from other would-be graduates. A baseball had writing on it: “Thanks, dear Virgin, for illuminating my path to the Major League.”
One of the best-known offerings is the Nobel literature prize medal left by U.S. author Ernest Hemingway, who lived in Cuba for many years. It is out of public view now, however, after it was once stolen then recovered by police.
When revolutionary leader Fidel Castro and his bearded rebels came down from the Sierra Maestra to topple a dictator in 1959, they wore medals dedicated to the Virgin of Charity.
Cuba’s 19th century independence fighters also used to celebrate Mass in her honor.
Cementing the shrine’s importance for Cubans, both Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict paid homage to the Virgin on their respective 1998 and 2012 visits.
The Roman Catholic Church says the small wooden effigy of the Madonna and Child was found at sea — miraculously dry — in the early 1600s by three salt-gatherers in the Bay of Nipe.
But devotion goes way beyond Catholics.
For practitioners of Santeria, which came to Cuba with the African slave trade, the small dark-skinned image represents Ochun: a maternal, sensual deity of love, femininity and water, who is associated with the color yellow. Offerings of Ochun’s flower - the sunflower - are all around the sanctuary.
Despite the old associations, one Santeria follower, Alicia Gonzalez, brought a very modern-day petition.
“I have asked the Virgin to illuminate Pope Francis so he can keep helping us improve our relations with the United States,” she said, leaving two tiny flags of Cuba and the United Sates on the altar.
Francis played a behind-scenes role to support talks last year that led to the U.S.-Cuban diplomatic detente.
On arriving in Cuba on Saturday, he called on both countries to build on the progress of the last few months and further deepen their ties. He will fly to the United States after his Mass here on Tuesday.
Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Kieran Murray