You may be worried about hurricanes and one named Irma in particular.
Not Carol Lopez-Bradshaw.
At least not as long as the Hurricane Lady is around.
“She’s still here. She still watches over us,” Lopez-Bradshaw said Friday.
The Hurricane Lady is a four-foot statue that “lives” at the Father O’Reilly House on Aviles Street under the care of the Sisters of St. Joseph.
The statue has been a part of St. Augustine since 1850 when the captain of a cargo ship traveling from Spain to St. Augustine left her with the Rodrigues family. He credited the statue with saving his ship, his crew and himself.
They had been caught in a fierce storm and the captain worried the ship would break up; he ordered the crew to toss off cargo in order to lighten it.
According to the story that’s been passed down through the years, one of the crew found a statue of a beautiful lady in a wooden box and told the captain. No one knew who the statue represented or remembered loading it. When the captain saw it he ordered the crew to place it on the deck, told them to kneel down and he prayed: “O Lady, if we are spared, the storm passes and we arrive safely in port, I will give this statue to the first Christian family we encounter.”
“The winds subsided and the ship was able to limp into the port of St. Augustine. The captain kept his word and the statue was given to the Rodrigues family,” Lopez-Bradshaw said.
The Rodrigues family was Minorcan, or Menorcan as the Menorcan Cultural Society in St. Augustine prefers. They were part of a group of immigrants from several countries who sailed from the island of Minorca before the American Revolution to work as indentured servants at an indigo plantation in New Smyrna. St. Augustine was their stop before New Smyrna and it became their refuge after the agreement with the indigo plantation owner proved false and the workers were starving.
After Mrs. Rodrigues died, the statue and its case passed to her goddaughter Isabelle Benet. A Minorcan, Benet lived in the family house at the corner of St. George and Cuna streets. A small shrine was erected in the house.
Hazel Crichlow, a St. Augustine native of Minorcan descent, wrote how: “There was much veneration during these years, and many of the local Minorcans and residents made visits to her home to pay honor to ‘The Hurricane Lady’ especially during the storm times.”
She lived next door and visited daily. “I’ll never forget the ‘Hurricane Lady’ as I saw her at her shrine in the Benets’ home every day with a candle burning.’”
The statue was later in the home of Carmen Haas and Rena Benet on Cuna Street until Haas died in 1980. It went to a Benet cousin, Sister St. Charles of the Sisters of St. Joseph, and remained with them after her death.
Larry Beaton, of Palatka, remembers the statue, too. As a little boy he visited with his grandmother and mother when they went to call on the Benets, who were cousins.
“Rena Haas and Carmen Benet were related to Joseph Benet who had the store originally. They had a house on Cuna Street and their apartment must have just been the upstairs. We went up a flight of stairs and as soon as you walked in the small living room the statue sat right next to the door. It was pretty impressive. That’s not the typical thing to see in someone’s living room. … The first time I saw a picture of it in a book I recognized it right away..”
Beaton also remembers “there were prayer cards hanging from her hands. They looked pretty old. They were in the case the statue was in.
Lopez-Bradshaw says those were probably “scapulars (holy relics of the old country).” The nuns passed along to Lopez-Bradshaw the wooden crate in which the Lady resided at the Benets. She has it on her mantel now, filled with religious objects including cards and photographs of how the Hurricane Lady used to look. The one she and Beaton first saw wore a dress of blue silk with a lace over-dress and her hair was curled and a chestnut shade. Gone too is a dagger the Lady once held. That dagger may have actually been something like a small scythe.
The Sisters of St. Joseph made some changes including clothing her in a dress of white satin and her hair is no longer curled.
But her eyes remain the same. “They follow you wherever you go. … One look in her eyes told me she was still working for us, ready to watch over us when a storm takes place,” Lopez-Bradshaw said.
Who the statue represents is something of a mystery. While today many believe she is a statue of the Blessed Virgin, Lopez-Bradshaw thinks she could be Santa Barbara.
“Me and the nuns, we tell different stories,” she said with a laugh.
But her belief in the statue and its’ power to protect St. Augustine remains. “I don’t pray to the Lady,” she said of the shrine on her mantel. “But I do talk to her. … And she listens.”
On the Sisters of St. Joseph Facebook site there is a photograph of the Hurricane Lady and a “Prayer to Avert Storms.” It reads: “Father, all the elements of nature obey your command. Calm the storms that threaten us and turn our fear of your power into praise of your goodness. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
Some 3,880 people have shared the prayer.