Keith McNeal (Caribbean Beat) explains a tradition in a small town in southern Trinidad, where both Hindus and Roman Catholics honor a dark-skinned Madonna figure, Siparee Mai. Siparee Mai is celebrated on the Catholic feast day of La Divina Pastora (The Holy Shepherdess). McNeal traces the history of her presence in Trinidad. Here are excerpts; read full article at Caribbean Beat.
Late in the evening on Holy Thursday, just before the Christian feast of Easter, two middle-aged women make their way into the parish hall of the Roman Catholic Church in Siparia, in southern Trinidad. They take up their places in a slowly moving line that stretches out from an ornately dressed statue perched on a makeshift wooden altar decorated with a white cloth.
The pilgrims remove several items from their handbags – olive oil, flowers, candles, and a few coins – and place orhnis (scarves) over their heads as they wait patiently for a few moments in front of the sacred image. When they are through, I ask the women the name of the goddess. “Oh,” one of them replies, “this is Siparee Mai, she is Mother Durga, Mother Lakshmi, Mother Mary, but mostly, we just call her Mother.”
Every year on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, thousands of Trinidadians, including many Hindus of Indian descent, queue up for hours for the chance to spend a brief moment in front of Siparee Mai. The name means Mother of Siparia in Hindi, and she is well known for her many miracles, healings and answered prayers. Many of the devotees are mothers and women hoping to become pregnant; mothers pray that their children will be strong and healthy, and childless women pray for fertility. They all believe their prayers will be answered. As one pilgrim told me, “When you pray to her, you does get through!”
[. . .] The Chinese, who also came to Trinidad as indentured labourers, initially saw the statue as Guan Yin, their East Asian goddess of maternal compassion, and they brought her offerings of tapestries, vases and lamps. But these devotions were quickly lost as the Chinese adopted the Catholic approach to her devotion.
Catholics trace the statue’s origin to the Capuchin Catholic monastic order which came to Trinidad through Venezuela in the mid-18th century, and whose special patroness was proclaimed to be La Divina Pastora by Pope Pius VI in 1795. Surgeon-Major D. W. D. Comins’s 1893 Report on Indian Emigration to Trinidad reported that Capuchin monks fleeing persecution in Venezuela brought the statue to Trinidad in 1730. A related story states that a ship carrying a group of Spanish Capuchins in the 1870s was wrecked while passing through the channel between Trinidad and the mainland; the only survivor clung to the bow of the boat, and when he washed ashore at Quinam Bay (seven miles south of Siparia), he saw that the figurehead on the bow was the Divina Pastora statue.
Other stories claim the statue is the prow of a Warao canoe, or that it represents an Amerindian girl who saved a Catholic priest’s life. Some Siparians say that the Warao, fleeing persecution from a warrior tribe, brought the statue to Trinidad and hid her in the forest, where they searched unsuccessfully for it. Later, when it was recovered, it was brought to the Siparia mission. [. . .]
[Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.]