Santuario Nacional De San Lazaro

In far south-western Havana sits the municipality of Boyeros and, more specifically, the village of Rincon, home to the Santuario Nacional de San Lazaro ("National Sanctuary of Saint Lazarus"). By all appearances this is a standard, small-town church, but in reality it's one of Cuba's most important religious centres. Every 17th December, tens of thousands devotees make the pilgrimage here for a uniquely Cuban religious celebration, making this a top religious site in Cuba.

For most visitors to Cuba, the municipality of Boyeros in the far south-western reaches of Havana is synonymous with the Jose Marti International Airport and not much else. Frankly, this isn’t that surprising of a fact—the district is mostly run-of-the-mill and suburban, with not much of interest to the average holidaymaker.

That being said, there are a few sites that might interest certain visitors—and to most minds, the most important is the Santuario Nacional de San Lazaro (“National Sanctuary of Saint Lazarus”). This humble, cream-colored church with an understated bell tower and dome is both historic and contemporarily relevant.

The Church’s History

The story of the Santuario Nacional de San Lazaro goes back quite far -all the way to 1781 in fact, although the current building itself isn’t nearly that old. The church’s history is deeply entwined with that of the Real Hospital de San Lazaro, a hospital dating back to 1714. Originally constructed to provide care for Cubans suffering primarily from leprosy, the sick would often visit the small neighbouring church to ask Saint Lazarus for help.

The hospital and the church were both moved twice during their histories; the current church building in Rincon dates from 1917. The bell tower was added during the 1920s, and the church experienced major renovation projects in 1936, 1960, and 1990. During the 1990s, it was declared a National Sanctuary by the Catholic Church during a conference in Puebla, Mexico.

Pope John Paul II also visited the site in 1998.

The Church as a Pilgrimage Site

Though ostensibly a Catholic site, the fact of the matter is that the Santuario Nacional de San Lazaro represents a uniquely Cuban form of Christianity mixed with aspects of traditional African beliefs from the Yoruba religion.

To many Cubans of African descent, Saint Lazarus is intrinsically connected to another deity known as Babalu Aye. This Orisha (a sort of demi-god) is related to leprosy, as well as sickness and plagues in general. He is generally depicted walking on crutches, with his two faithful dogs behind him.

So, on 17th December each year, tens of thousands of pilgrims from around Cuba descend on this shrine to pay their respects to Saint Lazarus, Babalu Aye, or both. Many arrive on foot, and most come with either requests or thanks for requests granted. This is one of Cuba’s largest religious festivals of any kind, and totally unique from any other Catholic celebration on the planet.

If you can make it here during pilgrimage season, you’re in for a sight to behold. However, if you’re in the Boyeros area during any other time of the year, a visit here might still be worthwhile. Though simple, with knowledge of its history and its modern importance a trip to the Santuario Nacional de San Lazaro could be interesting for many holidaymakers in Cuba.

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