It may come as a surprise to some that Saint Anthony might be so closely related to both the history of a Central African Kingdom of old, and the slave trade, or that he is a major figure in African Traditional religions such as Haitian Vodou, Cuban Palo, or any number of Afro-Brazilian religions such as Candomblé or Umbanda, to name but two. However, it might come as even a greater surprise that in the old Kingdom of Kongo for a few years between the 1690s and 1706, he became a she. In that, lies a tale.
Beatriz Kimpa Vita (1684-1706), was a Congolese prophetess and leader of a Christian movement, Antonianism, which she founded. This movement taught that Jesus and other early Christian figures were from the Kongo Empire. Her teaching grew out of the oral traditions of the Roman Catholic Church in Kongo.
Beatriz went to live among colonists sent out by King Pedro IV, one of several rival rulers of Kongo, to reoccupy the ancient and by then abandoned capital of São Salvador. There was a great deal of religious fervor among these colonists who were tired of the endless civil wars in the country. During an illness in 1704 she claimed to have received visions of St. Anthony of Padua, and when, as she reported to Father Bernardo, she died, St. Anthony entered her body and took over her life.
Much of her teaching is known from the Salve Antoniana. The Salve Antoniana taught that God was only concerned with believers intentions not with sacraments or good works, and that Saint Anthony was the greatest one, in fact, a "second God." In addition, she taught that the principal characters in Christianity, including Jesus, Mary and Saint Francis, were all born in Kongo and were in fact Kongolese. She upbraided the Catholic priests for refusing to acknowledge this.
Kimpa Vita was captured near her hometown and burned at the temporary capital of Evululu as a heretic in 1706 by forces loyal to Pedro IV. She was tried under Kongo law as a witch and a heretic, with the consent and counsel of the Capuchin friars Bernardo da Gallo and Lorenzo da Lucca.
The Anthonian prophetic movement outlasted her death. Her followers continued to believe that she was still alive, and it was only when Pedro IV's forces took São Salvador in 1709 that the political force of her movement was broken. Many of her followers, the Antonians were sent as slaves to the English Colonies in the Americas, to Cuba, and to Brazil. In North America, they may have been involved with the Stono Rebellion. In Brazil, there is both physical evidence of her religion in the tradition of carved statues of Anthony used often for both devotional and magical purposes, and one of her followers was arrested and ultimately died at the hands of the inquisition, charged with sorcery, and died calling on Saint Anthony's protection.
In Cuba, the most lasting evidence of the devotion to Saint Anthony, the Congo Saint, and perhaps the most remarkable to be found in all the Americas, lies in the small pueblo of Quiebra Hacha, not far from the port of Mariel just west of the nations capital. Here, not only do we find a chapel dedicated to Saint Anthony, but that chapel, maintained by the descendants of slaves, who practice the Congo inspired religion of Palo, maintain a statue that may have been brought from the Congo, and it also is perhaps the last Congo religious house in Cuba to continue to use the rare sacred Kinfuiti drums, a friction drum used only for ritual purposes.
Below I have embedded a video on both this saint, the ritual, and the Kinfuiti in Cuba. I'd like to thank my dear friend and colleague, Ralph Alpizar for the inspiration to write this short piece.