During Holy Week of each year, thousands make the pilgrimage to a small church in the northern New Mexico village of Chimayó. El Santuario de Chimayó is made of adobe, wood, fact, and legend and many believers trek through the night to reach this hallowed site. Although we visit long after the travelers have left, their energy and devotion is still apparent throughout the community.
AN ENCHANTED PLACE
At Chimayó’s entrance, hundreds of wooden crosses and plastic rosaries are threaded through the chain-link fence. Throughout the outdoor prayer area, numerous shrines are adorned with crosses, rosaries, candles, flowers, and children’s shoes. These symbols of devotion make clear: although heavily crowded at times, Chimayó provides its visitors with intimate moments of reverence.
Following the footsteps of so many before, we walk below an archway, across a brick courtyard, and through the thick, carved doors that lead into El Santuario de Chimayó. At the end of the 17th century, Spanish settlers took root in the area, enticed by the lush valley, protective foothills, and nearby Santa Cruz River. The church was built in 1816 on the exact spot where a villager found a large crucifix buried in the ground.
When miracles and healings began occurring in the area, they were not attributed to the crucifix or church, but to the very earth in which the crucifix was found.
When miracles and healings began occurring in the area, they were not attributed to the crucifix or church, but to the very earth in which the crucifix was found. And so, in the back of El Santuario de Chimayó, there is a small room with a shallow pit in the floor, containing tierra bendita (blessed earth). Believers take handfuls of the earth to eat, dissolve in water and drink, or make a paste to be applied to afflicted body parts. As we exit this sacred space, we notice that the hallway walls are lined with rows of discarded crutches.
Next, we peruse the galleries and artist studios found at Chimayó. The Spaniards who settled the area were not only skilled farmers, but also skilled artisans. Chimayó is still known for its crafts and wares, producing an abundance of art, including retablos and bultos (painted wooden slabs and sculptures featuring saints and religious figures), embroidery, weavings, and pottery.
Patricio and Shawna Chavez own the Chavez Gallery. Patricio specializes in stunning, unpainted bultos, while Shawna creates beautiful retablos. Patricio was born and raised in Chimayó, where his family settled over a hundred years ago. “It’s like walking around in your grandfather’s footsteps,” he tells us. “It is a very spiritual and holy place.” Looking around at the pastoral locale, it’s not hard to imagine the first settlers, unaware of the crucifix or imminent church, yet finding a similar peace amid the serene hillsides and calm waters of their village.