Syncretic practices are a common feature of Caribbean spirituality. The most well-known examples can be found in the Afro-Syncretic religions like Santeria and Vodou where elements of Christianity are incorporated into West African spiritual beliefs. Within these religions, Catholic Saints are often seen as European versions of African deities and are venerated accordingly. This means that it is not uncommon for practitioners of these Afro-Syncretic religions to have miniature sculptures of saints in their shrines and to venerate those figures accordingly.

In Trinidad, a similar situation exists regarding a Roman Catholic Statue in the south of the island that is venerated by members of different religions during the Easter Weekend; La Divina Pastora.

In 1758, a group of Capuchin Monks from Aragon established a missionary in Siparia to convert the Warao people who lived in the Orinoco Delta Region. Over the course of several decades, the monks departed, but a small dirt chapel with a thatched roof remained.

In 1870, work was started to replace this structure with a wooden one, but the work was not completed due to priests often getting ill. Regarding the state of the chapel in the 1880s, Father Armand Massé, a priest from La Brea remarked that “the poorest mission church is richer in ornaments than the Siparia church.” He described the altar as being made of “several old pieces of disjointed boards” and being “so badly assembled that it shakes at the slightest touch”. The only element of the church worthy of praise was the figure standing on the altar, referred to by Massé as “the miraculous Virgin” that was “of great renown in the whole of Trinidad. She is called La Divina Pastora.” Massé also commented on the many pilgrims that came to prostrate at the feet of La Divina Pastora, and made note of the non-Christians among them; “Some Waraoons, dressed in nothing, are at the door of the church. A band of coolies arrive. They sing all night, At dawn they come to the chapel”.

How did this statue become sacred within three different spiritual beliefs?

According to the Catholic Church, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to a Capuchin Monk in 1703 and instructed him to encourage those seeking her intercession to address her as “La Divina Pastora”. Twelve years later, monks of that order had made their way to the Orinoco delta with the aim of converting Warao people to Christianity. The most popular legend of the La Divina Pastora statue making its way to Siparia is the story of a crossing from Venezuela to Trinidad during a storm. As the small vessel sank, a priest clung to the statue of the Virgin Mary and miraculously made it to the shores near Siparia. Other accounts suggest that Siparia was already sacred to the Amerindians and the missionaries simply capitalized on this by building their chapel there. It has also been suggested that the statue was made with the wood of the ceiba tree or another species sacred to the Amerindians, so they would have venerated it regardless of Christian significance. Whatever the reason, Amerindians conducted pilgrimages there until around the year 1900.

By 1900, East Indians had already been making pilgrimages to La Divina Pastora and calling her Siparee Mai for about two decades. They see her as one of the many forms of the Divine Mother, analogous to the more well known Mother Lakshmi. Since the 1890s, La Divina Pastora has been strongly associated with Kali Mata, a Hindu goddess that is similarly dark complexioned. It is important to note that Hindus make pilgrimage to this statue during a period that sometimes coincides with Navaratri, a nine night festival that honors goddesses like Kali and Durga. It is possible that veneration of La Divina Pastora by Hindus originated in an attempt by Indentured laborers to celebrate Navaratri within the confines of a society where Christianity was considered the default. In this context La Divina Pastora represents something unique.

Historian Angelo Bissesarsingh concluded that “La Divina Pastora or Siparee Mai is one prime example of the adaptation and acclimatization of the Indian indentured immigrants into the social and cultural fabric of their new home in the West.” It is possibly the best example of the cultural complexity and unbound religious tolerance that exists in Trinbagonian society.