Havana – The statue of Our Lady of Charity reached Havana on the final stage of its unprecedented pilgrimage around Cuba emphasizing the "peace, family unity and hope" that her figure symbolizes, and as part of the new relations between the Catholic Church and the Raul Castro government.
Cardinal Jaime Ortega presided over the reception of Our Lady, patroness of Cuba, in the small community of Menelao, where dozens of people braved a steady drizzle to greet the statue's arrival.
That was the prologue to an official reception ceremony held soon afterwards at a small plaza on the beach at Baracoa, some 35 kilometers (22 miles) west of Havana, where the statue of Our Lady arrived in a glass display case atop a white vehicle.
Hundreds of people of all ages including some in wheelchairs flocked to the event, many of them wearing the yellow garments and bearing the sunflower bouquets popularly associated with this image of Our Lady through her identification with Ochun, the Santeria deity of love and good health.
"She comes to bring love and blessings for all, so in spite of the rain we are here - that shows the love people have for their patroness," Cardinal Ortega said.
Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre is also known as the Mambisa Virgin because she was venerated by fighters in Cuba's wars of independence from Spain in the late 19th century, who considered her a symbol of patriotism and national identity.
"I have been moved to tears since I saw her, I am devoted to her," Maria Herminia Gonzalez, 72, told Efe.
Though he confessed he does not go to church, 17-year-old Pablo Cañete said he was a "follower" of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre and that he prays to her that she might ensure "good health" for himself and his family.
Roberto, a 35-year-old practitioner of Santeria, showed Efe the bracelets and necklace that identify him as a son of Ochun, which, he said, protects him and gives him life.
Many in attendance celebrated the current improved relations between church and state after decades of tense ups-and-downs following the revolution led by Fidel Castro.
Maria Elena, a retired pharmacist, sees as "very positive" the new relationship between the church and the government because it "breaks down the tension and unifies families. That is very important for the good of everyone."
And Maria Antonia, a 61-year-old resident of Baracoa, recalled the tension that arose in Cuba toward the church when the revolution was all-conquering.
"I remember when I was 9 or 10 years old, the revolutionaries yelled at those of us who were going to Mass, they called the priests thieves...but thank God a time has come when things are getting better," she said.
Following its 28,000-kilometer (17,000-mile) journey through cities and villages from east to west, the statue of Our Lady of Charity will now visit parishes, hospitals, cemeteries and universities in the 15 municipalities of the capital.
Cardinal Ortega has announced that the final High Mass of this national pilgrimage will take place Dec. 30 on the Avenida del Puerto thoroughfare in Havana.
The pilgrimage began Aug. 8, 2010, in celebration of the 400th year since Our Lady of Charity's image appeared for the first time in 1612 to three fishermen on a boat in Nipe Bay on the eastern end of the island.
Our Lady of Charity has her national sanctuary in El Cobre, a small village near Santiago de Cuba, at some 900 kilometers (560 miles) east of Havana. She was declared patroness of Cuba in May 1916 and was personally crowned by Pope John Paul II in January 1998 during his visit to the island.