Chimayó, the Lourdes of America

Can a spoonful of dirt transmit a miracle of healing? To the more than 40,000 people who make a pilgrimage to El Santuario de Chimayó every year, miraculous recoveries in both body and mind have shown again and again that it can — whether by the power of the divine or the power of faith and belief.

Located in a high and remote valley northeast of Santa Fe, Chimayó has been considered a sacred site for centuries. The native Tewa Indians considered the fertile valley sacred because of a spring that bubbled from the ground in the surrounding hills; the Spanish settled here in the 1600s for the same reason. But when Don Bernardo Abeyta, a member of a local Catholic brotherhood, followed a mysterious dancing light down to the river, everything changed. Here’s how the wonderful story goes:

Señor de Esquipulas, the Chimayó crucifix

The light appeared to be coming out of the dirt itself, so Abeyta began digging, and eventually uncovered a six-foot-tall wooden crucifix featuring a dramatic, dark-skinned Christ. Abeyta called others to see the crucifix, and together they organized a procession to carry the heavy statue to the parish church in Santa Cruz, eight miles away, where they installed it in the altar.

Except the next morning it was gone. When they looked for it, they found it back in the same spot on the riverbank where it was originally found. A second time it was brought to the church — and a second time it mysteriously migrated back to its spot of origin. When this happened a third time, the diocese got the message and a small chapel was built in Chimayó to house the statue. The current Santuario was built in 1814.

War, though, was what truly created the Chimayó pilgrimmage as it exists today. During WWI, terrified New Mexican boys huddled in the trenches made a prayerful promise that if they returned alive, they would make a pilgrimage of gratitude to Chimayó. Since then, through the second World War, the Korean War, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, servicemen and women and their frightened families have come to Chimayó to pray for — and give thanks for — their safe return.

The healing Chimayó dirt

New Mexico has the honor of contributing more young people to the armed services than any other state, and today, an entire wall of the antechamber is papered with photos of young soldiers. Many of them are accompanied by heartfelt notes from parents, spouses and siblings requesting divine intervention and protection.

How did Chimayó’s dirt, dug from a small well known as El Posito, come to be considered healing? The connection was never made completely clear to me. But why wouldn’t dirt from which a statue miraculously emerged have divine powers? The dirt itself, a reddish soft powdery dust, is dug with a child’s playground shovel from an unprepossessing hole in a closet-sized room. And church staff are quite open about the fact that the dirt visitors dig up is no longer original dirt from the chapel — it’s carried in by the bucketful to replenish the supply every night. And yet every year tens of thousands of visitors, of all ages and every faith, visit Chimayó to pray for health, taking home baggies and vials of the dirt to distribute amongst their loved ones.

Crutches, walkers, and discarded medical equipment

As I sat in the simple sanctuary, moved by these 300-year-old images of devotion, I decided it couldn’t hurt to join my own voice to those echoing through the ages. As I was saying a tentative, non-denominational prayer for a friend currently undergoing treatment for cancer, I heard the roll of wheels. A mother entered, pushing a girl who looked to be about 15, the same age as my own daughter. Paralyzed and palsied, the teenager looked around her with a tremulous mixture of hope and doubt; her wary expression told me she feared her mother’s potential disappointment as much as she hoped for her own possible recovery.

They paused to pray before the altar, then disappeared through the door into El Posito. Not wanting to disturb their solitude, I stayed in the sanctuary — so no, I don’t know what happened next. But when I made my way next door, the first thing I saw was a long row of crutches, walkers, and wheelchairs, left behind by those who ostensibly no longer needed them.

El Niño, who protects the children

And wait, there were more: braces, asthma inhalers, prosthetic devices, and vials of medicines filled the shelves that lined the walls. What had that young girl experienced when greeted by those discarded implements?

It occurs to me, looking around the shrine, that here at Chimayó is an expression of our deepest fears and sorrows. What shakes us more deeply than the illness or loss of a child?

Within the anteroom is an enclosed shrine honoring Santo Niño de Atocha, an embodiment of the infant Jesus. He is surrounded by baby shoes of all kinds, from hand-knit booties to miniature high top tennies, a traditional gift of supplication to El Niño. The walls of the shrine are papered with pleas for intercession on behalf of sick children, prayers for those who have died, and expressions of gratitude for children restored to health.

I can barely look at first, but then I begin to peer closely and carefully at each tiny photo and name, feeling the force of the love of the mother or father who placed it here.  And it occurs to me that this may be the most powerful force of all:  The love we have for our children, our other family members and friends, the strength of our desire to see them live long healthy lives.

And yes, I too brought home Chimayó dirt – as much as I could take without seeming greedy.

The traditional Chimayó pilgrimage is made on foot walking (or rolling, in the case of wheelchairs) from Santa Fe during Holy Week between Good Friday and Easter. During this time, and in the weeks leading up to it, busloads of visitors arrive organized by religious organizations and hospitals around the country. It’s a sight well worth seeing, but be prepared for crowds.

The perfect place to stay while visiting Chimayó is the Hotel St. Francis in Santa Fe. A member of the Heritage Hotels brand, Hotel St. Francis has the serenity-enhancing spareness of a Franciscan monastery, the perfect atmosphere for the thoughtful mood you’ll be in after visiting Chimayó.