Ana Rodriguez Soto – Florida Catholic newspaper
They walked inside, and with Cristina Brito, Father Domínguez’s secretary, serving as translator, the priest told the president the history of the place.
“I showed him the image of Our Lady of Charity, the one that arrived here in 1961,” the priest said.
He told him of the outdoor Mass that year, where more than 30,000 newly arrived exiles had gathered. “They felt sad, forsaken, they missed their homeland. They had come searching for liberty and at that moment, the image of the virgin was brought in, a sign that they were not alone.”
“He was really paying attention,” Father Domínguez recalled. “He asked me if it was the original (image).”
The priest explained that the original remains at its shrine in El Cobre, in Santiago de Cuba.
“I also explained to him the history of Cuba,” he said, a history depicted in the mural located behind the shrine’s altar.
“He recognized Father Felix Varela and also José Martí,” Father Domínguez recalled, referring to two of the faces on the mural. One is of the priest who wound up ministering to Irish immigrants in New York after being exiled for demanding independence from Spain; the other is of the Cuban poet who died while fighting for the same cause.
Then the priest pointed out the faces at the bottom right of the mural: Cuban rafters.
“There I took the opportunity to explain to him the tragedy of the Florida Straits,” Father Domínguez said. “I told him: Look, that image represents Cubans who, since communism came to Cuba, have been coming and losing their lives in the Florida Straits, looking for liberty. I hope all that effort won’t be lost, and that this process (of reconciliation between the two countries) will conclude with true freedom for Cuba.”
Not content to say it only in Spanish, Father Domínguez said he repeated: “Mr. President, I have some difficulties in explaining myself in English. But I can say to you something very clear. We pray every day here for real freedom, real freedom, for Cuban people, for Cuba.
“Then he smiled and he told me, ‘Father, don’t worry, that is our goal, to achieve liberty in Cuba.’”
Father Domínguez said he conveyed the feelings of many in the exile community who are wary of the current negotiations because they believe “this is all about economic interests,” and human rights are being cast aside.
He said President Obama assured him that “the topic of freedom for Cuba and human rights will always be on the negotiating table with Raúl Castro.”
Father Domínguez said he reiterated his desire that the Cuban people will soon enjoy “those same rights we enjoy here in the U.S.”
Then he invited the president “to say a prayer to the Holy Spirit in front of Our Lady of Charity, asking the Holy Spirit to enlighten you, to protect your family and to protect the United States of America.”
That’s when, together, the priest, the president and Brito prayed the Our Father. Then the president “lit a candle in front of the virgin,” Father Dominguez said, and stood for a minute in silent prayer.
As for the faithful gathered there, the priest noted, “there was total silence in the shrine.”
Before President Obama left, Father Domínguez presented him with a painting of Our Lady of Charity inscribed with these words: “That you may remember what Cubans ask of Our Lady of Charity.”
He also pointed out the seawall — malecón in Spanish — built behind the shrine, which sits on the edge of Biscayne Bay. The wall is a small-scale replica of Havana’s famous malecón.
“Perhaps someday soon you will be able to see the original one,” Father Domínguez told the president. “I hope,” he said the president responded.
Looking back on the moment, Father Domínguez seemed clearly amazed. “Only in the United States that’s possible,” he repeated in accented English. “Incredible, incredible. Only in this country.”
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