New Mexico Chapel, Said to Be Built on Sacred Ground, Is Destination for Thousands
CHIMAYO, N.M., April 7 — The first pilgrim arrived a week ago, having walked 90 miles from Albuquerque over three days. At dawn on this Holy Saturday, the faithful, the penitent and even just the curious continued to stream into an adobe chapel in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains known as the “Lourdes of America.”
By Easter Sunday, tens of thousands of pilgrims will have visited the small Santuario de Chimayo, a shrine built upon a well of dirt reputed to have healing powers. Most walk for miles along winding two-lane roads in what is probably one of the nation’s largest public displays of devotion during Holy Week. As many as 75,000 pilgrims were reported several years ago. Recent estimates have ranged from 40,000 to 60,000 a year.
Most are Hispanic residents of New Mexico and neighboring Colorado or Mexicans from the nearby states of Coahuila and Chihuahua, whose families have been conducting the pilgrimage for decades.
“We grew up like this,” said Jennie Aragon of Pojoaque, N.M., who walked with her family and her brother and sister-in-law, who live in Delta, Colo. Said her brother, Lawrence Duran: “We do it to thank God. He died on the cross for us. A little sacrifice for Him is not that much.”
But visitors from afar also join the walkers, whose safety is overseen by scores of law enforcement authorities who cordon off special lanes for them and are part of a 40-agency “catastrophic incident management plan” for responding to any pilgrimage emergency. Well-wishers distribute water, soft drinks, and fruit and other snacks. Members of a local evangelical Baptist church provide a rest stop for pilgrims with chairs, refreshments and Bible tracts in their quest to “save souls.”
Some pilgrims bear 100-pound crosses on their shoulders; others push baby strollers and bring toddlers up the hilly roads. They bring their dogs on leashes and carry rosaries, statues of saints and pictures of loved ones serving in Iraq or Afghanistan or long-deceased family members. Many walk and pray for ill or addicted relatives and friends. Others for peace or simply to give thanks — or both, as one couple said.
Wally and Claudia Collings of Chupadero, N.M., on their seventh consecutive Good Friday pilgrimage, said they began walking the 14 miles from their home to Chimayo after surviving a terrible car crash. “We probably should have been dead and we didn’t die, and so I said I’m going to walk because I feel grateful,” Claudia Collings said. “I do this because I can.”
Starting last year, they dedicated their walk to the hope for an end to the war in Iraq. “We’re still there,” Wally Collings said. “But we’re still hoping,” said his wife.
Two business colleagues said they left their meetings in Los Angeles to join the pilgrimage after reading about it in a travel guide. “In our detached urban lives — and not being Catholic and even somewhat atheistic — it’s nice to be around people who are spiritual,” said James Townsend of New York City. He and his colleague, Josh Klausner of Los Angeles, walked eight miles Friday from Espanola to Chimayo, mostly in silence.
“It was a time to stop and think about my own issues and problems and think about moving forward,” Klausner said. “All of this is good.”
One of the oldest Spanish settlements in the Southwest, Chimayo has been the site of pilgrimage and prayer for centuries. The chapel was built in 1814, after the miraculous events surrounding the discovery of a crucifix nearby, according to church legend. On Good Friday in 1810, a brother of a religious order saw a light emanating from a hill hear the Santa Cruz River. He walked out to the light, dug with his hands and unearthed a huge crucifix. The next day he and other worshipers carried it to the altar of the church in Santa Cruz. The next day the crucifix was gone, only to be found in its original location. Twice more, the same thing happened.
Church officials declared the site to be miraculous, and a few years later a chapel was built above the “pocito,” or little well of dirt, where the crucifix was discovered. Medical miracles attributed to the dirt were soon reported and continue today.
The wooden crucifix still occupies the altar in El Santuario de Chimayo. But it is the small well of dirt, in a tiny room off the altar, where Holy Week pilgrims and year-round visitors end their treks. Pilgrims go to Lourdes in France for its healing waters. Here, they scoop dirt into bags and bottles to take with them. Some simply rub it on themselves, like Kevin Kissler, a 17-year-old from Golden, Colo., who walked a bit as part of a senior class trip to northern New Mexico to study the culture of the region. “Maybe I’m trying to prevent anything bad happening,” he said. “I’m not religious, but I’d say I’m spiritual.”
Overseeing the huge event was the Rev. Julio Gonzalez, pastor of Holy Family Church in Chimayo, which serves nine missions, including El Santuario de Chimayo. Even he — a product, as he said, of “very rational” theological training in his native Barcelona, Spain — is taken aback by the fervor he sees at Chimayo during Holy Week.
“I actually believe the American people are very, very religious, and what we see here . . . tells us that we cannot live only on bread, that we cannot live only by money, that we need something else,” he said. “These people are coming here moved by a special energy, by a kind of love that you only have in your heart. You cannot buy this in a supermarket or a store.”