Devout thousands walk, even crawl, to honor saint

Smoking a cigar and dragging a 100-pound stone chained to one leg, Tomas Poblar is lying on his back and pushing himself down a highway in an annual pilgrimage to honor St. Lazarus, patron saint of the sick and poor.

A lonely figure moving at a snail's pace as trucks and cars rumble by, Poblar said his days-long ordeal--completed for 52 consecutive years--is his way of honoring a saint he says healed a crippling injury.

"I was on the seas, and my ship capsized, and I was hurt and couldn't walk," said Poblar, 74. "I prayed and was able to walk again. I made a promise to do this every year for the rest of my life."

It was early afternoon, and Poblar had covered about 13 miles in three days. He had about 4 miles to go to reach his destination: a simple white church in this village outside Havana.

Each year on the night of Dec. 16, thousands of Cubans walk, crawl or literally drag themselves to the St. Lazarus shrine in one of the most public outpourings of religious faith in this island nation.

Poblar and many devout pilgrims are dressed in clothing fashioned out of burlap sacks, a sign of respect and act of penance for the humble saint who seems to have a special following among the poor.

The pilgrimage is a raucous affair, blending elements of a street party with stunning displays of devotion in a communist nation that has become more tolerant of religion.

Along the road to the shrine, teenagers drank rum and danced to hip-hop, rock and salsa music while couples pushed baby strollers and quietly held candles and flowers as offerings to St. Lazarus and his Afro-Cuban counterpart, Babalu Aye.

Vendors hawking roast pork sandwiches, fried rice and other foods competed for attention with table after table of brightly colored religious statues and other religious items for sale.

"Come look at the crocodile with two bodies--eight feet and one head!" a man shouted through a loudspeaker.

Curious onlookers stepped into a makeshift tent, where they peered at a dead 6-inch crocodile under glass and a life-size sheep with two heads that had been eviscerated and stuffed.

Cubans participating in the procession told one story after another of miracles attributed to St. Lazarus, or San Lazaro in Spanish, whose gaunt figure--crutches under each arm, dogs at his feet--lined the roadside on this cold, cloudy night.

Alicia Socorro, a 26-year-old student, walked nearly seven hours from downtown Havana to the church to pay homage to St. Lazarus for providing a new home for her family.

Maria Elena Hernandez, 54, was accompanied on the pilgrimage by her husband, daughter and son-in-law. Hernandez thanked St. Lazarus, as she does every year, for curing her daughter of Hodgkin's disease two decades ago.

Henry Rodriguez's uncle and friend were crawling about 2 miles of the route as a show of gratitude to the saint they believe helped win their early release after serving a year of an 8-year prison sentence.

"They asked San Lazaro for their freedom and they got it," said Rodriguez, 26. "I believe in him. He's done miracles."

The crowds continued converging on the church as the clock neared midnight, when the ceremony marking a day of celebration for St. Lazarus would begin.

Beggars with effigies of the saint sat on the floor just inside the church, where hundreds more believers pushed their way toward an altar and handed candles, cigars and flowers to church workers, who placed them near a statue of the saint.

One man stood expressionless as he held six burning candles aloft. The hot wax covered his hand and forearm. Another man who had crawled on his belly to the altar collapsed. He was carried away on a stretcher by Red Cross volunteers.

The noise was deafening. As more worshipers packed into the church, a fistfight broke out in the crowd, sending people scrambling for the exits. "This is a house of God!" shouted a priest over the loudspeaker. "No fighting inside."

Suddenly, the church's bells began ringing. It was midnight.

"Viva San Lazaro!" a priest shouted in Spanish. "Viva!" the crowd roared.

The crowd began to pray, and a few minutes later it was over. Many people began filing out of the church. Others were just arriving, as they would over the next several days.

At 1:30 a.m., Poblar was still inching toward the church. He had about 2 miles to go.