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Tears at El Cobre

And a surprise at Santiago's Mass for some Miami pilgrims


SANTIAGO - You did not have to be Cuban to cry at El Cobre.

"It was emotional for me because of the kids," said Sister John Norton, longtime principal and now coordinator of special events at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale.

"All of a sudden I got a catch in my throat and almost a tear in my eye, because the parents back in 1963, their hearts were broken," she said, recalling the children of Cuban exiles that she taught back then at St. Patrick School on Miami Beach. "My heart goes out to the Cuban people."

Sister Norton was on the first planeload of Miami pilgrims who arrived at the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity in El Cobre around mid-morning on March 26. Eventually, running a half-hour behind, the second planeload would arrive, about 300 pilgrims in all.

Their time in the shrine was short, just long enough to drop off the 16,000 rosaries they were bringing, say some prayers and take a look around - perhaps buy wooden images of "cachita" from El Cobre's residents, who honed their skills as artisans after the copper mines for which the town is named shut down.

At noon, the original image of Cuba's patroness, the one found floating, miraculously dry, on the Bay of Nipe in 1612, would be taken to the Plaza Antonio Maceo in Santiago, where Pope Benedict XVI would bestow upon her a golden rose, the 12th he has bestowed in his pontificate, mostly to Marian devotions.

That is why the image was not in her usual perch in the nave on the second floor of El Cobre's basilica, but on the side of the main altar downstairs. As soon as they came in, the pilgrims crowded to the front and took turns kneeling in prayer along the altar rail. Many could not contain their tears.

"I got chills 'cause I remember stories from when I was a kid. My grandparents would come here very often. All those stories came rushing back. It was very surreal," said Jeffrey Caballero, chair of the theology department at Chaminade-Madonna College Preparatory in Hollywood.

His father is from Guantanamo and his mother from Holguin, both provinces on Cuba's eastern end, nearer to Santiago than Havana.

"I've never been to Cuba," said Caballero, adding that what brought him on this pilgrimage was "the desire to see the Holy Father and my parents' homeland."

Aside from the visit to El Cobre - an unexpected surprise which was not part of the original itinerary - Caballero received another grace a few hours later in Santiago. He got to sit in the front at the papal Mass, rather than stand with the jam-packed crowd.

The reason: Two people from among Miami's pilgrims - Caballero's friends - had been selected to receive Communion from Pope Benedict: Manny Garcia-Tuñon, partner and executive vice-president of Miami-based Lemartec Construction, and Alfredo Mesa, executive director of the Miami Marlins Community Foundation.

Both found out a few hours before the Mass that they had been selected for the honor. They bumped into Caballero and took him along with them as they made their way to their reserved seats.

"Had we gone early, we wouldn't have been there," Caballero said, attributing his feat to "a little bit of luck and a little bit of ecclesiastical common sense: Keep on walking and don't ask for directions."

"It was the most amazing thing I've ever done in my life," said Garcia-Tuñon. "I don't know what was more exhilarating - receiving Communion or coming down from that altar and seeing that perspective, all those people, and thinking, 'I'm in Cuba!'"

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