Siparia is the site of the annual festival of “La Divina Pastora”, named for the church’s patron saint. The festival occurs each year on the saint’s day of La Divina Pastora, a few weeks after Easter. Many are the stories told by pilgrims to this church about apparitions of La Divine Pastora, healings and other miraculous evens.
Worshipped by Roman Catholics and Hindus
The saint is worshipped by Roman Catholics and Hindus, although people of other religions have been known to take part in the annual feast and devotions. “La Divina Pastora represents the blessed Virgin Mary who is the mother of Jesus. We hold her in high esteem as Catholic Christians,” lauds a lay minister at the Siparia church. Roman Catholic priest Father John Thomas Harricharan, in an article on La Divina Pastora, wrote the statue was brought to Trinidad around 1730 by Spanish Capuchin monks fleeing persecution in South America. One of the popular legends among Hindus, to whom she is known as in Soparee K Mai, is that in the 1870’s people saw a girl walking in a pasture where the church was later built. By the night the girl had became an old woman. Some believe that Soparee K Mai, which means Mother of Siparia, represents the Goddesses Durga and Kali. Goddess Durga represents the power of the Supreme.
Being that preserves moral order and righteousness in the creation and Kali is a manifestation of the Divine Mother, which represents the female principle. Among Hindu devotees the story is that when the statue of La Divina Pastora was found, it was surrounded by banana trees and tulsi plants. The banana plant is used on a bedi (a sort of altar) when doing puja (Hindu prayer ceremony) and the tulsi, which has many medicinal purposes, is used in almost every Hindu ceremony. The tulsi is believed to bring wealth, blessings and positive energy to any home where it is found. So what exactly do people ask the saint for and are their wishes really granted?
According to the lay minister, “people from as far as America, Venezuela and England will tell you they have come to pray to La Divina Pastora and had their wishes granted.” “People come here for many reasons. Mothers come to pray for good husbands for their daughters. “One woman came to pray because she wanted her visa so badly and she was turned down quite a number of times. She asked La Divina Pastora to grant her the visa and so she received it. In addition, her name was pulled in some sort of lottery where she got permanent residence.” Tomorrow, in preparation for the influx of worshippers, the statue of La Divine Pastora will be moved from the church and placed in a room close to the school. There, the public will be able to visit until the end of Good Friday. Devotees usually start arriving from early on Holy Thursday. Hundreds of needy people also converge on the area surrounding the church, often camping out overnight to receive alms from pilgrims. These make full use of a soup kitchen which operates from the evening of Holy Thursday and breakfast is provided on Good Friday.
A source of racial cooperation
Commenting on the multi-cultural aspects of worship to La Divina Pastora, parish priest Father Martin Sirju, said: “I think it is a miracle in itself. I agree with Father Harricharan’s article that La Divina Pastora breaks down barriers. “It is said that the town of Siparia is evenly distributed. The Catholic community is basically of African and Spanish descent, but once you have the Hindus coming in it ultimately means that the Indians are coming in. “I think this festival has led to racial cooperation and there are not many places in the world where you’ll find two important Christian holidays being observed by two groups—Christians and Hindus. “This shows ethnic and religious tolerance. I think the two groups function really well together.” Most pilgrims who ensure they are “clean” before touching the statue, are concerned that some of the masses who converge on the area for the devotions don’t demonstrate respect to the saint. One church worker complained: “This is supposed to be a sacred thing and some people are not giving it the reverence it deserves.”
There have been cases of jewelry and other thanksgiving offerings being stolen from the statue. For this reason, it is now placed in a room surrounded by burglar proof. Father Sirju said that just recently two golden rosaries were stolen from the hands of the saint. In another case, her crown was stolen.
The miracle worker
However, these incidents do not deter many pilgrims, who believe La Divina Pastora has worked miracles in their lives. One of them is 52-year-old Learie Hosein, who was seen praying feverishly with chaplet in hand. Hosein, who is not a Roman Catholic, said he started praying to La Divina Pastora when he had no where to go. “I was homeless and I had a lot of problems in life but I was always praying. My mother died when I was young and I got married but because of the difference in religious beliefs my wife and I separated. I continued praying and I never gave up. “I started coming here and good things started happening to me. I had interest in my life, I now had a place to live, I got a job and I had food on my table.” Hosein, who lives in Princes Town and works in Siparia continued: “Since then I come here every day to give thanks and praise. I light a candle and give an offering and the day passes by really good. “Sometimes I come here and I have no money to travel to work the next day. All I ask for is the means to get to work and somehow it comes. Any problems I have I come here and place it in La Divina Pastora’s hands and I am successful in overcoming those problems.” Soparee K. Mai has also played a significant role in my life. I was very close to my paternal grandfather and he visited Soparee K. Mai every year. My maternal grandfather also kept the tradition alive. I clearly remember going there with him at about 4 am and having Indian dancers with flashy costumes take me in their arms and dance with me. This tradition has since stopped. My mother told me that after she had my sister, she was told by doctors that she could not have anymore children. She went to Soparee K. Mai and prayed to have another child and soon after I was born. My mother has regularly taken me to the church. Every year I go on this pilgrimage from as early as 4 a.m. to see Soparee K. Mai. Upon leaving the church having offered my prayers, candles, flowers, rice, financial offerings and obtained my sweet oil blessed and put on my forehead by my mother, I leave with a light and happy heart.
All Photos by Edison Boodoosingh
This text was originally published in the Trinidad Guardian by Bavina Sookdeo in 2012.