An annual pilgrimage during Holy Week brings thousands of believers to Santuario de Chimayó in New Mexico, where they pray for healing and protection

March 28, 2024 - 2:11 PM
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2018 file photo of entrance to El Santuario de Chimayo located in Chimayo, New Mexico. (BrettLewis88 via Wikimedia)

For decades, the people of northern New Mexico have marked the Christian observance of Good Friday with a walking pilgrimage to the Santuario de Chimayó in the village of Chimayó, New Mexico.

Referring to themselves as Hispanos, or Nuevomexicanos, they have lived in the region for generations, tracing their descent from Spanish colonists who arrived to New Mexico in the 17th and 18th centuries. Nuevomexicanos’ Catholicism developed at the far northern frontier of the Spanish Empire; a scarcity of priests led to the flourishing of many popular devotions in New Mexico, including the pilgrimage to Chimayó.

Built in the early 1800s, the santuario is a small church, built of adobe bricks, with a unique feature: In a little room adjacent to the church’s central worship space, there is a hole in the floor, the “pocito,” filled with the sandy earth of the area.

For at least 200 years, Nuevomexicano Catholics have used dirt from the pocito for its purported miraculous healing qualities. They rub it on their aches and pains, they hold it to focus their prayers, and, historically, ingested it.

In 2015, I participated in the annual pilgrimage as part of the research for my book, “The Healing Power of the Santuario de Chimayó: America’s Miraculous Church.” The santuario’s story is not merely a curiosity but also a significant part of the shifting identity of the U.S. Catholic Church, which is on the verge of becoming majority-Latino.

Legendary origins of santuario’s holy dirt

The source of the pocito dirt’s power for Hispano pilgrims is linked to two images of Christ.

The first is a large crucifix called the Señor de Esquipulas, or Lord of Esquipulas. Named for a famous and much older Guatemalan Christ figure also known as the Señor de Esquipulas, the crucifix lies at the heart of the most common origin story for the santuario’s holy dirt.

The legend goes that in 1810, a Chimayó community leader and landowner named Bernardo Abeyta witnessed light coming out of the ground in one of his fields. Upon examination, he is said to have discovered the crucifix partially buried in the soil. He dug it up and brought it to the nearest church at the time, some 8 miles away.

The crucifix, however, is believed to have returned on its own to the hole in Abeyta’s field. Given this sign, Abeyta sought and received permission to build a chapel around the hole, a chapel today known as the Santuario de Chimayó.

The Señor de Esquipulas crucifix hangs on the main altar screen in the santuario, and the Archdiocese of Santa Fe has promoted the story of its miraculous provenance.

A second Christ image, however, is by far the more popular among Hispano pilgrims. The Santo Niño de Atocha is a depiction of the Christ child dressed as a medieval pilgrim and is popular throughout northern Mexico and the U.S.-Mexico border region. A statue of the Holy Child is ensconced in the santuario in a room adjacent to the pocito.

For pilgrims, a visit to the santuario typically includes time in prayer in front of the Holy Child, where they ask for healing and protection for themselves, their children and other loved ones. They take home dirt from the pocito as a reminder and vehicle of Christ’s power to answer their prayers.

The annual pilgrimage

Hispano residents in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado made pilgrimages to the santuario for healing throughout the 19th century, but the massive walking pilgrimage during Holy Week, culminating on Good Friday, did not begin until after World War II.

Hundreds of members of New Mexico’s 200th Coast Artillery had endured the 1942 Bataan Death March, in which thousands of U.S. and Filipino prisoners of war were forced by the Japanese Imperial Army to walk for miles through the Philippines. Many died from either torture or exhaustion.

Upon returning home, Nuevomexicano survivors organized a walking pilgrimage to the santuario in 1946 to commemorate their suffering and to mourn their lost comrades. This pilgrimage soon evolved into an annual observance not only for veterans but also for Hispano Catholics in general.

The pilgrimage of Santuario de Chimayo.

Today, hundreds of thousands of visitors come to the santuario throughout the year, but the pilgrimage during Holy Week – the week before the celebration of Easter – is the high point. Good Friday, the day on which Christians believe that Jesus was crucified and died, attracts approximately 30,000 walking pilgrims, some coming from as far away as Albuquerque, 90 miles away. Others choose shorter routes, including a popular 9-mile walk from the nearby town of Española.

Latino Catholics

The santuario’s popularity continues to rise along with the numbers of Latino Catholics in the U.S.

The demographic shift in the U.S. Catholic Church toward a Latino majority is well underway. Timothy Matovina, a professor at the University of Notre Dame, writes in his book, “Latino Catholicism: Tranformation in America’s Largest Church,” that Latinos represent one-third of all U.S. Catholics and make up more than half of the U.S. Catholic population under the age of 25.

He also notes that, because of Latino population growth, the proportion of Catholics in California and Texas has increased since 1990, while the proportion in Massachusetts and New York has dropped. This demographic shift means devotional sites, like the santuario, that have Latino Catholic origins and immense popularity can expect to grow in importance.The Conversation

Brett Hendrickson, Professor of Religious Studies, Lafayette College . This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.