Santuario de Chimayó
During Holy Week, about 50,000 people come into town on foot, starting days in advance to arrive on Good Friday and often bearing large crosses (or at least police-issued glow sticks while they’re walking the highways at night). Smaller crowds participate in pilgrimages on Mother’s Day and in early June.
The inspiration for the group treks, a tradition begun in 1945 as a commemoration of the Bataan Death March, is the Santuario de Chimayó (www.holychimayo.us, 9 a.m.–4 p.m. daily Oct.–Apr., 9 a.m.–6 p.m. daily May–Sept.), a small chapel that has gained a reputation as a healing spot, as it was built in 1814 at the place where a local farmer, Bernardo Abeyta, is said to have dug up a miraculously glowing crucifix.
Unlike many of the older churches in this area, which are now open very seldom, Chimayó is an active place of prayer, always busy with tourists as well as visitors seeking solace. (Mass is said at 11 a.m. weekdays and at noon on Sunday year-round.)
As you approach from the parking area, you will see that previous visitors have woven twigs into the chain-link fencing to form crosses, each set of sticks representing a prayer. Outdoor pews made of split tree trunks accommodate overflow crowds, and a wheelchair ramp gives easy access to the church.
But the little adobe chapel seems untouched by modernity. The front wall of the dim main chapel is filled with an elaborately painted altar screen from the first half of the 19th century, the work of Molleno (nicknamed “the Chile Painter” because forms, especially robes, in his paintings often resemble red and green chiles). The vibrant colors seem to shimmer in the gloom, forming a sort of stage set for Abeyta’s crucifix, Nuestro Señor de las Esquípulas, as the centerpiece. Painted on the screen above the crucifix is the symbol of the Franciscans: a cross over which the arms of Christ and Saint Francis meet.
But most visitors make their way directly to the small, low-ceiling antechamber to the left of the altar. It holds el posito, the little hole where the cross was allegedly first dug up. From this pit they scoop up a small portion of the exposed red earth, to later apply to withered limbs and arthritic joints or to eat in hopes of curing internal ailments. (The parish refreshes the well each year with new dirt, after it has been blessed by the priests.)
The adjacent sacristy, filled with handwritten testimonials, paintings, and abandoned crutches, is devoted to a shrine for Santo Niño de Atocha, a figurine that is also said to have been dug out of the holy ground here. At the time of research in 2008, a new museum was set to open next to the santuario—expect to see plenty of documentation of local miracles.
© Zora O'Neill from Moon Santa Fe, Taos & Albuquerque, 2nd edition