El Chimayo: Visiting a Holy Place
There seems to be something in the human heart which calls us to return to the location of momentous events to better recall the meaning of these events. It is this impulse that has led to the Catholic practice of Pilgrimage. A pilgrimage can be defined as a religious journey made to a holy site for veneration, prayer, and to seek supernatural aid. More simply put, a pilgrimage is a journey to a holy place to have an encounter with God. The time spent on the journey provides an opportunity for spiritual reflection. Moreover, travel is often filled with inconvenience and unexpected sacrifice. These moments can become occasions of sacrifice which can be offered to God. In this way the very process of pilgrimage becomes a source of preparation, preparing the soul to encounter God when one arrives at their destination.
Chimayo, New Mexico
Often, when we think of pilgrimages, we think of traveling across the world. In medieval times, the Holy Land was a common site of pilgrimage. However, pilgrimages can be large or small and we have a great number of holy sites right in our own backyard. One such site is Chimayo, New Mexico. Chimayo lies a short drive (approximately 90 miles northwest) of Albuquerque and within walking distance (30 miles north of Santa Fe). There are also 4 shorter traditional pilgrimage walks which join Chimayo to other local religious sites. These shorter routes vary in length from 5 to 17 miles and a short description of each can be found here.
The History of Chimayo
The history of Chimayo, which is known for its “holy dirt” (more on this later), is somewhat uncertain. There are two competing accounts related to the origin of the site according to the official Holy Chimayo website. The first story indicates that on Good Friday in 1810 a man named Bernardo Abeyta was praying when he saw a bright light eminating from the ground. When he went to investigate, he found a crucifix buried in the ground. He quickly retrieved the crucifix and took it to the nearby church in Santa Cruz and then went to bed for the night. When he returned to the church the next day, the cross was missing, but was rediscovered at the spot in which he had originally found it. It was therefore determined that God wanted the cross, known as El Señor de Esquipulas, to remain at Chimayo where a small chapel was eventually built.
The second story is slightly less miraculous. It claims that the cross was brought to the region by a missionary priest who preached to the Native American population. Upon his death, he was buried along with the crucifix, but both were brought back up when the Santa Cruz river flooded in 1810. Locals recognized the priest as the missionary from Esquipulas. Hence the cross became known as "Our Lord of Esquipulas."
Regardless of which story is true, the origin of the sanctuary of Chimayo can be dated back to 1813 with a letter from Bernardo Abeyta to the Bishop of Durango, Mexico in which he asks for permission to build a chapel which was then built in 1814. It was held as a privately-owned chapel until 1929 when it was taken on as a mission of nearby Santa Cruz.
Chimayo is now one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in the United States. I had the pleasure of visiting the site approximately 20 years ago. It is located amongst beautiful scenery. The shrines are tinged by a combination of native Indian and Latin American culture which is breathed into the art, architecture, and faith of Chimayo.
Each year, thousands of pilgrims visit the holy site. The pilgrimage is especially popular during Holy Week, likely due to its connection to Good Friday. There exist today two chapels that contain historical significance. These are the Holy Child of Atocha Chapel and the Christ of Esquipulas Chapel. The Holy Child of Atocha Chapel was originally constructed as a private chapel by Severiano Medina in thanksgiving for recovery from illness. Today the chapel holds the wooden statue of Santo Niño. There is a tradition of pilgrims leaving pairs of children’s shoes at the shrine so that the child Jesus may have new shoes as he journeys to bring comfort to the world.
The Christ of Esquipulas Chapel is the more famous of the two chapels. It is known not only for the miraculous cross but also as the home of “el pocito” or the small pit of “holy dirt”. Many people are familiar with the famous spring in Lourdes, France which is known as the site of many miraculous healings. So too, the dirt of el pocito has become associated with miraculous healings. The prayer room is filled with crutches and canes which have been discarded by the ailing after praying at Chimayo. You will find the grottoes filled with tokens and gifts of thanksgiving to God for blessings received.
Chimayo is truly a pilgrimage site that must be seen to be understood. The shrine's website has a great video on pilgrimage to Chimayo which can be found here. If you would like to find out more about travel and activities as well as blogs and testimonials to the power of Chimayo you can visit the official website.