With sackcloth and rum, Cubans hail Saint Lazarus
EL RINCON, Cuba (Reuters) -- Some dressed in sackcloth and crawling
on hands-and-knees, others quaffing rum and smoking cigars, thousands of
Cuban devotees flocked to pay homage on Thursday at the shrine of Saint
The annual pilgrimage to one of Cuba's most sacred icons drew large
crowds of both Roman Catholic believers and-- in greater numbers--
followers of the Afro-Cuban Santeria faith for whom Saint Lazarus also
symbolizes the deity Babalu-Aye.
The faithful, and the plain curious, began arriving at the chapel housing
Lazarus' image in the dusty village of El Rincon, in agricultural land outside
Havana, late on Wednesday night.
Numbers peaked at around midnight when many streamed into the church
exactly as the saint's day began in order to fulfill personal vows.
The religious ceremonies were continuing throughout Thursday with a central
Mass to be led by the head of Cuba's Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal
The pilgrimage, traditionally one of the Caribbean island's most important
religious events, reflected the latent spirituality of many Cubans despite
nearly four decades of Communist rule that for a long time marginalized
Religious sentiment on the island received an unprecedented boost with
January trip to Cuba by Pope John Paul, who included the Saint Lazarus
shrine on his itinerary. Open shows of faith are no longer considered
Many Cuban pilgrims arrived at the chapel exhausted and bleeding after
grueling treks barefoot, on their knees, or even dragging themselves along
the ground in some cases. Many wore the traditional sackcloth of penitence.
"I am doing this so that Saint Lazarus will save me from prison," said
devotee, Lazaro Suarez Gomez, hauling himself forward on his knees with a
rock tied to his ankle. Suarez said he was being tried unjustly for his alleged
role in a car accident, but trusted that Saint Lazarus would help him.
Inside the church, Catholic workers led round-the-clock devotions, with
prayers, blessings, and rousing cries of "Long live Saint Lazarus!" or "Long
A Catholic nun, Elvira Garcia, sighed as she watched "santeros" drinking
rum and offering half-smoked cigars to Saint Lazarus, holding gaily-painted
Voodoo-style dolls, and even dripping candle wax onto their skins.
"They have adopted the Catholic tradition of Saint Lazarus, but made it
own with rites that have nothing to do with Catholicism," she said. "But our
doors are open so that they may hear about Jesus Christ."
Garcia added that she and other Cuban Catholics felt reinvigorated by the
papal visit in January, and some subsequent pro-religious measures such as
Havana's permanent restoration of the Christmas holiday abolished in 1969.
"It has not been easy, what we have lived but we have
maintained our faith, and now we can express ourselves more openly. The
fear is going," she said.
Francisco Santos, 38, a driver, who said he was making an annual
pilgrimage since Saint Lazarus cured him of leprosy, saw no conflict in being
both Catholic and "santero." "They come from the same branch of the tree,"
he said, standing beside a cart with an assortment of images and offerings he
had dragged to the shrine from Havana 15 miles (25 km) away.
In both Catholicism and Santeria-- introduced by African slaves brought
Cuba when it was a Spanish colony-- Saint Lazarus is associated with the
healing of sicknesses.
The pilgrimage was officially sanctioned, with a heavy police presence
keep order among the crowds.
In a show of force by Cuba's tiny self-employed sector, vendors lined the
streets selling religious trinkets, flowers, pork sandwiches and peanuts. Fidel
Castro's government allowed a small private sector as part of a packet of
cautious "capitalist" measures introduced in the early 1990s.
Copyright 1998 Reuters.