The streets filled with thousands of Cubans on Monday, September 7 celebrating Cuba’s Patron Saint, Our Lady of Charity also known as the Virgin Mary.  In the Santeria Religion, she is known as Ochun, the Orisha of the Rivers, representing sensuality, innocence, and playfulness.  

Many travelers think of Cuba as a playground of passion, infamous world wide for it’s sensual music, dance and beautiful crystal clear waters.  Cuba also has a rich cultural and religious history.  Cuban people are very spiritual people, and primarily follow one of two primary religions: Catholicism or Santeria.

Some of the first outside colonizers to Cuba brought their puritan Christian beliefs along with them, and effectively changed the island’s beliefs and traditions forever.  In 1512, Christianity arrived in Cuba. Today, more than 500 years later, Catholicism is still a dominant religion practiced in Cuban culture with 59% of its citizens identifying as Catholic.  Our Lady of Charity is the patron saint of Cuba with a history firmly rooted in Catholicism.  It is important to note however, that she has another name in Cuba amongst those who practice Santeria.  In the Santeria Religion she is Ochun, the patron saint of the rivers, of healing and sensual playful passion.  Ochun is a lover of the dance, and everyone loves to watch her dance and feel her contagious energy. She is amongst the most loved and adored of all the Orishas.

Unbeknownst to most, the Catholic Church recognizes over 10,000 saints, so it is not so surprising that Santeria (the religion of the Saints) would have been birthed from the unique mix of European Christianity and Yoruban/African Religions.   Both religions share this exclusive group of saints who are identified and symbolized by their roles and dominion over specific jobs, people, or places.  In Santeria, they also connect the Saints (or Orishas) to forces of nature tying it to the Pagan roots of the African belief systems that celebrate the powers of nature, and the elements that create, sustain and destroy life.

Cuba’s Catholic patron saint is the Virgin Mary: also known as “Our Lady of Charity.”  In the town of El Cobre, you can find a statue honoring her about a half hour from the culturally rich Santiago de Cuba.  The Catholic Church officially recognized this statue as having a direct connection to the divine via a process called veneration.   You will also find Ochun everywhere in the Afro Cuban music, dances, and inside of a most Cubans homes represented somewhere.  She is well loved, and honored as a force of healing, and inspiration amongst both Santeria and Catholic followers.

The legend of Our Lady of Charity or Nuestra Señora de la Caridade dates back to the early 1600s. As the legend says, there were two young Taino boys (Indigenous Cubans), and a ten-year-old African slave boy who went to the Bay of Nipe to collect salt. While at sea, a violent storm overtook their small boat. Stuck under a downpour with waves crashing aboard, the group prayed to an image of the Virgin Mary carried by the young slave.

At that moment, the skies opened, the storm cleared, and the group spotted a single, white bird floating on distant waves. But as they drew closer, they discovered the bird was a statue fixed to a board that read, “Yo Soy la Virgen de la Caridad” or “I am the Virgin of Charity.”

Believing it was a literal sign of Mary’s protection the group rushed it back to their village, where a local official ordered a small chapel built in the village of Barajagua. But soon after, the statue disappeared from the chapel. Distraught, locals formed a search party that night – only to discover the statue back in its original location the following morning. This happened three more times before the villagers decided to move the image to the nearby town of El Cobre.

But once again, the statue disappeared. It was soon discovered by a young girl in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra mountains. On that hill, locals erected a church now known as the National Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Charity.

Two hundred years later in 1801, the king of Spain, Charles IV, freed Cuban slaves from the El Cobre copper mines – increasing Cuban belief in the power of the statue. And in 1916, Pope Benedict XV declared Our Lady of Charity the patroness of Cuba with numerous popes awarding special status to the image in the decades since.(Source Kim Gordon, author)

When you go to Cuba, you will see Ochun and Our Lady of Charity everywhere you look.  Many Cubans practice and believe in both religions.  Go with an open mind and learn the parallels and you two will feel the blessings of the Patron Saint of Cuba in your heart.