EL COBRE (AP).- She's 400 years old and stands just over a foot (35 centimeters) tall, but the petite wooden statue housed in a small-town church in eastern Cuba is among the most powerful Catholic icons in the world, and an object of pride and reverence for hundreds of thousands of island faithful.
The Virgin of Charity of Cobre is also responsible, at least partially, for persuading Pope Benedict XVI to make Cuba the second stop on his Latin America tour, despite the fact this Communist-run island is the least observantly Catholic country in the region and that it received a papal visit just 14 years ago.
The Vatican has said Benedict is making the trip to honor the quadricentennial of the appearance of the diminutive relic in what Catholics believe was a miracle.
According to church lore, two indigenous laborers and an African slave who had set sail on an old boat in search of salt were surprised to find a statue of the Virgin Mary atop a wooden table floating above the frothy waves in the Bay of Nipe in 1615.
In her arms she carried a smaller figure of the baby Jesus. The church says the board was inscribed with the words: "I am the Virgin of Charity," and that the men were amazed to discover that the statue's cloak and other garments were completely dry.
Over the centuries, Cubans of many faiths including the Afro-Cuban Santeria religion began to pray to the statue, drawn to the participation of the slave Juan Moreno in the discovery story. Santeria believers call the statue "Ochun," the goddess of female sensuality and maternity.
"She is the mother of all Cubans," said Enrique Lopez Oliva, a professor of religious history at the University of Havana. "She is the one who will never abandon her children, whatever they are and whatever they believe."
As the statue's legend grew, so did the chapel that housed it. Today, it is a lovely ivory-colored church with soaring red domes nestled in the shadow of the Sierra Maestra mountains, somewhat incongruous in the backwater of Cobre. One corner of the church is dedicated to offerings left for the Virgin, including votives and thousands of handwritten notes in which pilgrims tell her their dreams and implore her to make them real.
In 1916, the Vatican officially declared the Virgin the patron of Cuba.
Decades later, Ernest Hemingway directed that the gold medal he received upon winning the 1954 Nobel Prize for literature be laid at the statue's feet as a thank you to the Cuban people for inspiring such works as "The Old Man and the Sea." It remains there to this day.
In 1998, Pope John Paul II also visited the statue, placing a golden crown upon her head.
Anthropologists and historians have a less mystical explanation for the legend of the statue's discovery, yet they agree about its importance to Cuban history.
Olga Portuondo, who wrote a book about the relic called "Virgin of Charity of Cobre, Symbol of Cubanness," said the relic bears a striking resemblance to indigenous figurines, including its mestizo facial features and skin color.
Portuondo said there are various theories about why the statue was found floating in the bay, among them that it fell off a passing boat or was the result of a shipwreck, or that a sailor intentionally cast it into the sea during a storm. A common belief at the time held that doing so could ward off disaster.
No one will ever know for sure, but one thing is clear: Cubans of all stripes have adopted the statue as their own.
With a papal visit imminent, the communist government announced over the weekend that the Virgin had been declared a national monument that is "part of the identity of the Cuban people."
In tiny hamlets and big cities, hundreds of thousands of islanders turned out last year to catch a glimpse of the statue as the church paraded it across the country.
As Benedict's arrival approaches, many say they consider the relic a source of deep national pride.
"It is a symbol of our country," said Daysi Castellanos, a clerk at a state-owned Havana perfume shop. "I follow no religion, but the Virgin is ours. She belongs to all Cubans, be they believers or not."
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.