The Sacred Cross of Parra
The establishment of the parish church took place around the time of the founding of the settlement by Diego Velásquez. Popular opinion has it that the first place the church in which the church was established was in the neighbourhood of La Punta.
In January 1652 it was sacked and turned into a general garrison by a group of pirates.
The church was also installed in the chapel of the Rosario en Matachín when a group of townspeople decided to repair the deterioration which time had inflicted upon the building. This took place in 1805, with the church re-opening for divine worship two years later.
On 14th August 1833 a meteorite destroyed a third of the building. In 1856 some repairs were made at the behest of the then vicar Nicolás Pérez y Fernández. Over the following years the repairs continued but they were interrupted by the war and the church remained in a deplorable state until in 1885-6 when the Reverend Manuel Llópiz, vicar at the time, assumed the responsibility for the decision to demolish it and build the current church. The mamposteria walls and the roof were finished, but the side towers were not begun until 1905 when they were commissioned by Dr. Manuel Fernández.
The reason that I speak of the history of this church is that in it you may find the Sacred Cross of Parra, the oldest artifact connected with Columbus to be found on the American Continent, which makes it part of the World’s Historical-Cultural Heritage. On 1st December 1492 Friar Bartolomé de las Casas wrote ‘He placed a large cross at the entrance of that port, which I believe he named Porto Santo’. This historical and religious relic was honoured in a special manner by Bishop Morell de Santa Cruz, who in January 1757 ordered an altar to be made for it, thus providing it with a more dignified context in which to be worshipped. Already at that date the church had been provided with the baptismal font which is still preserved there.
The Cross was never, however, displayed with the pomp it deserved; it was as if the people of Baracoa thought that if they made too much of it, there might be a fresh attempt to take it to Santiago, which happened when the status of capital and the island’s first bishopric was transferred to that city.
It was protected from the early attacks by pirates and corsairs, and from the more modern ‘attacks’ by notable personages in the island, many of whom decided to award themselves a little piece of it (an example was General Martínez Campos, whose capricious appropriation of part of the relic reduced it to its current dimensions: 1.10m x 0.56m). All this caused the order to be given for the cross to be measured with the purpose of encasing its extremities in metal, to avoid the continuous cuts to which it was being subjected. The metal plates which were put on by Dolores Delabat, with the vicar’s permission.
A challenge was issued in connection with the cross on 10th June 1984, published by Ángel Tomás and Leonardo Padura in the newspaper Rebel Youth. The graduate Raquel Carrera Rivery – specialist in the anatomy of wood at the Institute of Forestry Research of the Ministry of Agriculture - became interested in the matter and decided to participate in the historical investigations undertaken by Alejandro Hartmann, Director of the Matachin Fort Municipal Museum. It was thus that Mystical Conviction became Scientific Conviction.
The foundations of the work were laid when Professor Roger Dechamps, specialist in wood at the Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium, became interested in undertaking an analysis of the origins and nature of the wood of which this famous relic had been made. The first microscopic tests of fragments of the Sacred Cross of Parra, with which Professor Dechamps was helped by the parish priest Valentín Sáenz, were carried out in the microbiology laboratory with the support of Oscar Jardines. Although these tests proved inconclusive, they demonstrated the interest of the people of Baracoa in rescuing their historical artefacts. A few months later, Professor Thomas Avella from the University of Lovaina la Nueva undertook carbon dating and structural studies on fragments taken from the Cross, which provided conclusive results: it was possible to determine that the wood is Coccoloba from the Polygonacae family, very probably Coccoloba diversifolia, known in Cuba as Uvilla, which grows on the coasts and in the mountains of Cuba and the Antilles and not in Europe as was preciously believed. The carbon dating gave indisputable results that the piece was authentic, with the biological age of the wood corresponding to the date of discovery. According to the carbon dating the date of the wood could be located with 95% accuracy between 860 and 1530. During the visit to Cuba of His Holiness Pope John Paul II, in the mass held in Santiago on 24th January 1998, the faithful presented him with the Sacred Cross of Parra, but he said ‘I will take it in my heart but you, who have venerated it and looked after it for so long, must return it to Baracoa and preserve it for the enjoyment of future generations.’