Pope Francis’s Pilgrimage to a Santeria Shrine

The history of one of the island’s most curious religious practices.

09.22.15 5:13 AM ET

HAVANA — On Tuesday, before Pope Francis leaves Cuba for the United States, he will be worshiping at the shrine of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre in Santiago, which is not only the Catholic shrine to Cuba’s patron saint but one of the most sacred spots in the country for worshipers of Santería, a sect that traces its magical roots back to Africa.

It is here where Ernest Hemingway, who was known to be greatly influenced by Santería, left his Nobel Prize medal at the virgin’s feet. (The medal subsequently was stolen and recovered under curious circumstances which still inspire local crime dramas, and is now kept under lock and key.) Other devout and famous Santería worshipers have left their Olympic medals and gold records at the shrine. There are also mementos like crutches, replicas of prized possessions, notes of petition, and even relics from Cuba’s 19th-century war for independence that Santería worshipers have left as thanks.

All of which makes the lines between one Cuban’s religion and another Cuban’s superstition a little hard to draw in a culture where virtues and vices intertwine in ways almost inconceivable anywhere else in the world. In this country of seeming contradictions, freshly washed laundry wafts from the crumbling balconies of roofless, gutted buildings; the infectious laughter of children playing echoes in the ruined streets, poverty and pride, oppression and hope commingle constantly.  

Apparently devout Catholics mix in a little black magic to bolster their faith. And Santería is not exactly a secret sect. Signs of it are all over Cuba from colorfully dressed women who represent the goddesses associated with the religion to shrines in personal homes to ward off evil spirits with everything from votive candles to fruits and pastries.

The practice, which revolves around allegiance to an obscure god called Olodumare, who is held higher than the other gods or orishas, is recognized by Cuba’s Ministry of Religion. It is also accepted by many of the nation’s Catholic priests, who either turn a blind eye to the practice or feel it is not only important, but even essential to the culture. 

Santería or Regla de Ocha is derived from the clandestine worship habits African slaves utilized against the imposition of Catholicism by their slave masters. The mainly Yoruba people who came enslaved from Africa to Cuba as late as the 1860s had no icons to pray to, so they essentially hijacked the Catholic relics and prayed to them instead. 

“When they were brought to Cuba, they created a kind of parallelism between their original deities and the saints of the Catholic tradition based on what they knew about them in their external appearance,” says Laura Daranas, a Cuban art historian based in Havana. “In this way, when they worshipped the Catholic saints as they were supposed to do, they were actually worshipping the orishas. The word Santería had a pejorative sense, because the slave masters couldn’t understand why the slaves seemed so devout about the saints and not as much about Jesus.” 

In the gritty Regla neighborhood of Havana, just across a canal from the old city, the Church of Our Lady of Regla, or the Black Madonna, is one of the best-known holy spots where devout Santerios, as those who follow the sect are called, can become priests and priestesses. It is incidentally also a functioning Catholic church where on any given morning, Santería worshipers dressed in white can be seen performing their sacred dances to the saints while a Catholic priest celebrates Mass. A small Santería shrine adjacent to the church even has a replica of the exact Black Madonna displayed above the Catholic church’s main altar, who, in Santería, is called Yemayá.

It is a curious and oft-repeated fact in Cuba that December 17, the day that Raul Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama announced to the world that they would be forging a brave new relationship, is also the patron day of Saint Lazarus, or Babalú Ayé, as he is known in Santería. (It is also, coincidentally perhaps, the birthdate of Pope Francis). The sanctuary of Saint Lazarus in El Rincón, about a half-hour from Old Havana, is a sort of Mecca for pilgrims on the Santería trail, where thousands of people walk or even crawl to pray to their orisha Babalú Ayé, all under the knowing gaze of the Catholic Church, which runs the shrine under the name of Saint Lazarus.

When Pope Francis visits the shrine of the Virgin in Santiago, of course, he will be there for the Catholic version of events, but many of the worshipers will bring with them their own brand of faith.