For Cubans, Gratitude to St. Lazarus Comes Naturally

Pilgrims Walk, or Crawl, to an Honored Shrine

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HAVANA, DEC. 19, 2000 (
Nilson Torres walked barefoot for 21 days to the St. Lazarus shrine, lugging bags of food and clothes and a cardboard box filled with cigars, rum and oil.

It took 43-year-old José Emilio Bolboyera five hours from his home to the shrine crawling on his belly, wiggling and writhing along a country road and dragging three cement blocks chained to his right leg — mostly as a sign of penance, an Assoicated Press report noted.

Tens of thousands of other Cubans made the trek by bike or car beginning Saturday night, paying tribute to St. Lazarus, a patron saint of lepers to whom Cubans give annual thanks and praise for fulfilling wishes and miracles, AP said.

Most Cubans have made the journey at least once in their lives, the news service said. By Sunday morning, thousands of pilgrims had convened at the El Rincon church, 20 miles outside of Havana, to offer their praise and thanks. The annual tribute is called St. Lazarus Day, a local Catholic festival which is celebrated here every Dec. 17.

Alberto Rodríguez made the trip for a third time this year — this time on his stomach, because he was especially grateful, the AP said. After praying last year to St. Lazarus — known in Spanish as San Lazaro — he said his daughter miraculously recovered from an ailment described by doctors as life-threatening. It took him 13 hours.

«She was deathly sick but this year was cured,´´ said Emilio García, a friend walking alongside Rodriguez, urging him to keep twisting his dirt-caked body toward the church entrance. «This is his sacrifice to San Lazaro for his good fortune.´´

As Rodríguez neared the church steps, friends and family urged him on with chants of «You´re almost there!´´ and «Be strong!´´ Rodríguez clutched a cigar as another friend cleared dirt and debris from his path with a tree branch. Like others, Rodríguez hoped to deliver San Lazaro gifts of flowers, oil, wine, cigars and other tokens of appreciation.

Tears welled in Rodriguez´s eyes, his face twisted in pain. Once inside, his body trembled as a priest pressed his hands on Rodriguez´s head to bless him.

The religious procession has been a long-standing tradition, despite Cuba´s only recent acceptance of religion since the revolution. The Cuban government has never banned the annual pilgrimage, although heavy security is usually deployed as past years have attracted dozens of dissidents.

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