Stories & Legends
donate Books CDs HOME updates search contact

Nuestra Señora de las Nieves,
Patroness of Tobacco Growers

Hugh O’Reilly
An old friend of Cuban descent recently told me that he could remember a festival in his city of Mantua where all the people processed in the streets to honor Our Lady as the Patroness of Tobacco Growers. This was, of course, back when the island was the Catholic Pearl of the Antilles and not after the communist Revolution, which transformed it into the Island-Prison it has been for the last 50 years.

patroness of tobacco growers

Tobacco plants on either side of Nuestra Senora de las Nieves

In many of the old tobacco plantations in that region, there used to be family shrines to Nuestra Señora de las Nieves, Our Lady of the Snow. (1) A picture of the Virgin and Child acknowledges the devotion, displaying two large tobacco plants standing on either side of the Virgin and Christ Child.

The notion of Our Lady as Patron Saint of tobacco growers is an example of how a Catholic organic society works, with devotions rising naturally from the work and customs of the people of a region.

The origins of Mantua

The story of Mantua, located in the Pinar del Rio Province at the northwest end of the Island, began more than 400 years ago on the riverbanks of today’s Mantua River. The town was founded in 1605 when Italian sailors were shipwrecked in the Caribbean Sea and found refuge on the river coast. They had prayed to Nuestra Señora de las Nieves to save their lives, and they took the statue they had in their ship with them to shore in the lifeboats.

They decided to establish a village there and named it Mantua (a corruption of the Italian Mantova). The statue was enshrined in the first simple church. As the devotion and the village grew, a new Church of Our Lady of the Snow was erected in 1756, the year the town was raised to parish status, and it continued to be the home to the Patroness of Mantua. The area flourished, and by the 19th century, tobacco was the principle crop that sustained the economy of the town.

Patroness of the tobacco growers

How did Our Lady of the Snow become the special patroness of the tobacco growers?

Our Lady of the Snow

The statue of the Virgen de las Nieves in today's parish church of Mantua

During the 1940s, as a consequence of World War II, the price of tobacco had fallen so low that it threatened to ruin the tobacco growers of the region. It was the most critical economic situation up to that time in Mantua’s history, since tobacco was the principal and almost only source of wealth.

The prices continued to fall and the situation reached a crisis point in 1947. That year the Mantua growers refused to sell their harvest. They determined to ask the intervention of Our Lady of the Snow to help them in that grave state of affairs , and the whole town gathered at the Church to pray to her.

The summer passed, and no solution was reached. On the vespers of August 5, the feast of their Patroness, the price of tobacco rose notably without a clear explanation. It was a sign of the intercession and benevolence of the Virgin.

The next day, the whole town turned out to thank their exalted Patroness for the miracle. A Mass was celebrated, the Te deum sung in thanksgiving, and Our Lady was processed through the streets of the town. Each year from August 5 to 8, there were festivities for the whole area in honor of Nuestra Señora de las Nieves, who became known as the Patron of Tobacco Growers throughout the region and beyond.

As news of the miracle circulated, more and more growers from surrounding areas came to the Church to ask Our Lady to give them good harvests and protect their crops from hurricanes, lightning, pests and droughts. One grower in San Luis even imprinted the image of the Virgen de las Nieves on the cigar boxes he sold. A picture with the Virgin protecting the product so vital to the region’s commerce was made and widely circulated.

Procession Virgen de las Nieves Cuba

A procession of the Virgen de las Nieves on August 7, 1952

In 1948, and again in 1954, petitions were sent to the Cuban ecclesiastical authorities asking that Our Lady of the Snow be made the Patron Saint of the tobacco growers of Mantua. The request was not granted officially, but the planters and people continued to honor her as such each year at her festival.

This devotion continued until the Communist Revolution that installed Fidel Castro as dictator. In its first year, the new revolutionary government expropriated private property and closed the churches. The tobacco plantations were nationalized and the public religious processions and festivities were prohibited.

With this, we have an example of how Communism smashes organic society and the healthy devotions born from the lively faith of the people.

  1. Our Lady of the Snow has been venerated for centuries in the Basilica of St. Mary Major, one of the most important basilicas in Rome and the oldest dedicated to the Virgin.

Posted January 19, 2013

H000_chanticleer.jpg - 26098 Bytes