Visiting Magical, Mystical Chimayo

Northern New Mexico’s healing place of pilgrimage.

002France has Lourdes. Spain has Santiago de Compostella. Quebec has Ste.-Anne de Beaupré. Guatemala has the Esquipulas. And New Mexico has the Santuario de Chimayo with its jewel of a small adobe church in a rural village in the northern part of the state. It represents a culture that continues across the state line into Colorado’s San Luis Valley. Close-knit villages cling to their traditions and their Catholicism, Franciscan-style, because… Just because.

The Sanctuario de Chimayo is set on tidy grounds.
The Sanctuario de Chimayo is set on tidy grounds.
Primitive hand-made crosses and other articles of faith hang on the chainlink fence along the path from the parking lot. I saw similar offerings along a sidewalk in Oklahoma City near the Murrah Building memorial site.
Primitive hand-made crosses and other articles of faith hang on the chainlink fence along the path from the parking lot. I saw similar offerings along a sidewalk in Oklahoma City near the Murrah Building memorial site.
Stations of the Cross.
Stations of the Cross.
The complex can accommodate an overflow crowd during Holy Week.
The complex can accommodate an overflow crowd during Holy Week.

The tale from the early 19th century involves a member of the mystical Penitente sect. A friar praying in the valley saw a light on a nearby hillside and went to investigate. Digging at the source of the light, he found a crucifix with the image of a black Christ, like that in the pilgrimage place in Guatemala. The Chimayo find was therefore named Our Lord of Esquipulas. Legend has it that local priest took the crucifix south to Santa Cruz, from which it disappeared three times, only to be found back in its hole in Chimayo. The inexplicable and magical return demanded to be recognized, and it has been.

Of the two churches in the present complex, a simple Spanish Colonial-style chapel built 1814-16 is the most significant. Its small sacristy has a small side room with a hole in the earthen floor. The faithful come to scoop up a bit of “holy dirt” that is said to cure physical or even emotional pain, illness and disability. For external use only, it is said, but people do ingest it.

For those who do not come with a plastic bag or who wish a more respectful container for Holy Dirt, the nearby gift shop sells crosses just to contain some.
For those who do not come with a plastic bag or who wish a more respectful container for Holy Dirt, the nearby gift shop sells crosses just to contain some.
Praying at the Holy Dirt. Flickr photo.
Praying at the Holy Dirt. Flickr photo.

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Photos of the afflicted who were helped by an application of Holy Dirt.
Photos of the afflicted who were helped by an application of Holy Dirt.

The holy dirt does not automatically regenerate  by itself in the manner of the Biblical loaves and fishes. Church workers renew it by bringing in replacement soil every day. Testimonials about cures come in the form of photos of pilgrims or their loved ones, letters and crutches — of course. While the letters and offerings are touching, the crutches are mostly the aluminum rent-a-crutch style, leading me to cynically suggest that they are props.

Rosaries hung from a large cross in the sanctuary,
Rosaries hung from a large cross in the sanctuary,

More than 300,000 people — mostly Native Americans and Hispanic Catholicss but others too — come every year to pray or just to see the compound built around the chapel. Holy Week sees the most pilgrims, many walking 30 miles from Santa Fe  or even 90 miles from Albuquerque. Many do the route in segments, walking some miles before  being picked up by a friend or relative pick who drives them home for the night, then brings them back the next day to continue where they left off.  On weekdays, visitors are most likely to be tourists mainly interested in looking at this lovely historic chapel.  If you do so too, please drop something in the collection box for its upkeep.

It is located in the namesake along NM Hwy, 76 east of Española. 15 Santuario Drive, Chimayo, NM; 505-351-9961.