COCONUT GROVE, FLA. (WSVN) - - Hours after news of Fidel Castro’s death broke, a Coconut Grove church opened its doors to the public, and on Saturday night, the house of worship celebrated Mass under very special circumstances.
For many, the gathering at the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity, or La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, brings to a close an emotional day in South Florida.
“The judgment of Castro is in the hands of God, but given the emotions of the day, we all can come together, no matter what the possible emotions that we’re feeling, to pray for Cuba and Cuba’s future,” said Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski. “What better place to do that than at the shrine built by the Cuban exile in honor of the patron saint of Cuba, Our Lady of Charity?”
To many Cuban Americans living in Miami, the church is one of the few remaining ties that unifies them with their homeland.
Many came to pray and celebrate the historic day. “I couldn’t wait any longer!” said Gladys, a Cuban exile and parishioner. “Too many years, too many years.”
Relief and a newfound hope has sparked for the Cuban community after a half century of oppression. “Sometimes evil has to be conquered. This man and his people are evil, and we suffered,” said Carlos, a Cuban exile and parishioner. “People went to jail for no reason. My cousins, her uncle, my father died working here. He had to come and clean floors. For what? For what? His revolution?”
The Shrine of Our Lady of Charity sits on the shores of Biscayne Bay, and has been a symbol of faith and hope among many.
“It was because of the number of Cuban exiles that had already come to the United States after communism in 1959, that the Archbishop of Miami invited all the Cubans to build a lasting monument, a lasting symbol, which is this shrine, in honor of Our Lady of Charity,” said the Rev. Oscar Castaneda of his church.
Some of the parishioners who filled the church wore or carried Cuban flags. “Happy today, hoping our country is free one day,” said Josue Suarez, who said he left Cuba when he was 20.
Now, 10 years later, he’s here to pray that his friends and family still there will soon be liberated. “Just to be free is a blessing. Freedom is everything that a human being needs,” he said.
Our Lady of Charity began as a small chapel in 1967, and it has grown each year with the continued support of the thousands of exiles who gather there day after day. “Out of 11 million people, there’s over 3 million people in exile,” said the Rev. Fernando Heria, also with the Shrine of our Lady of Charity,” that’s over 21 percent and these people are expressing, our people are expressing that sense of relief.”
To the exile community, La Virgen de La Caridad del Cobre, the patroness of Cuba, represents a Catholic Cuba untouched by the religious beliefs of the communist regime. Thus, she has become a symbol of Cuban liberty.
Though it was built in honor of the virgin that is revered in Cuba, it also became a monument to the religious and political history of the island.
“After the first wave of Cubans arrived in Miami, they built a small church which continued to grow until what it is today,” said parishioner Alberto Suarez through a translator.
Never was that more evident after two Brothers to the Rescue planes were shot down by the Cuban Air Force, killing four men in 1996.
It was to the Ermita where thousands flocked to mourn the dead and condemn the actions of Castro’s government.
“It is a symbol of the unity of the Cuban people in exile,” Castaneda said.
A certain kind of pride in their country was restored, with hope for a new beginning. “I always carried it in my heart, all my life, and I served in the armed forces in this country hoping to go back,” Carlos said in an emotional state.
Some people told 7News that they didn’t think they would see this day come in their lifetime.
“They are rejoicing over the fact that a door has been closed in Cuba’s history,” said Heria, “and we are hopeful that a new door, an emerging new door where the presence of our Lord is present in the people, and that is, I think, what they are rejoicing about: hope. The beginning of a new start.”
The church will also hold services on Sunday, with confession beginning at 10 a.m. and the first Mass of the day at 11 a.m.
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