El Santuario de Chimayo is a small Catholic church tucked into the hills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains about 25 miles north of Santa Fe. The church is a beautiful example of Spanish Colonial architecture; one of several on the High Road to Taos. However, Chimayo has far more prestige than the small churches of Truchas and Las Trampas, because it is an important site for Catholic pilgrimage. Known as the “Lourdes of North America”, Chimayo attracts over 300,000 visitors a year, with the largest pilgrimages occurring during the Easter holiday when approximately 30,000 people from all over the world embark on the trek to the Santuario de Chimayó. The largest pilgrimages occurring on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. Many pilgrims walk 90 miles from Albuquerque. The site was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970.
At least 33 prehistoric sites have been documented along the Santa Cruz River and its tributaries, including the Chimayó area. The site of the Santuario was associated with healing long before the arrival of Europeans. It was a site of worship long before the Santuario was constructed in 1813.
The town was named after “Tsi-Mayoh,” one of four hills sacred to the Tewa people. Tsi-Mayoh is directly behind the Santuario. Tewa legends reference a healing spring that existed in the valley long ago. Though the spring dried up, the soil retained the healing properties. It is said that the earth at Chimayo can be mixed with water to make mud and eaten or applied to the skin in order to heal a person of an ailment. It is the belief in the curative power of the earth in Chimayo that led to the construction of the Santuario and to the legacy it has amongst Catholics. Some pilgrims take vials of the sand with them as a remembrance. Fortunately there is plenty of soil available to satisfy the ongoing demand. The Church replaces the dirt in the pocito from the nearby hillsides, supplying 25 to 30 tons of soil to visitors each year.
According to a legend (with numerous variations), the Penitente Brotherhood were engaged in religious rites on a nearby hill on Good Friday in 1810 when one of them, Don Bernardo Abeyta, saw a mysterious light emanating from the valley. When he investigated, he found a half-buried crucifix. The men sent for a priest, Fray Sebastián Alvarez, in nearby Santa Cruz. Fray Sebastián had the wooden crucifix moved to his church, but it was gone the next morning and discovered at the original site. They tried to move the crucifix to the church two more times with the same result before concluding that the crucifix should remain where it was found. In 1813, on behalf of the residents of El Potrero (the communal pasture of Chimayo), Don Bernardo Abeyta successfully petitioned for permission to build a chapel dedicated to Our Lord of Esquipulas at the site.
The legend of Our Lord of Esquipulas originated in Guatemala at a colonial shrine associated with healing. At both the shrine in Guatemala and at El Santuario pilgrims come from all over the world to be healed. There are various theories about how devotion to Our Lord of Esquipulas migrated to New Mexico. One theory, that makes sense, is that some of the Franciscan friars in New Mexico spent time in Guatemala prior to being assigned to parishes in New Mexico. Regardless, devotion to Our Lord of Esquipulas was widespread in central Mexico and Sonora by 1800.
The chapel was completed in 1816. The elegant, carved doors were crafted by a local carpenter, Pedro Domíngez, at the expense of Fray José Corea, the friar who succeeded Alvarez in Santa Cruz. The church structure has unusual features, including two additional rooms that create an enlarged vestibule right before the nave. These rooms were either part of the original structure, or they were added within a couple of years of the initial construction, because an 1818 inventory references them.
When Bernardo Abeyta died in 1856 he was interred, with ecclesiastical permission, in El Santuario. The property remained in the ownership of his family until 1929. At that time the newly formed Spanish Colonial Arts Society in Santa Fe, founded by writer Mary Austin, artist Frank Applegate and architect/preservationist John Gaw Meem, purchased it from the family, donating it to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.
The same year that Don Bernardo passed away another chapel was being built in El Potrero by Severiano Medina. This chapel was dedicated to the Santo Niño de Atocha. Medina built the chapel as a ‘promesa,’ because he believed that the Santo Niño had cured his severe rheumatism. The cult of the Santo Niño de Atocha became increasingly important in northern Mexico after the 1820s.
This second chapel was soon incorporated into the local Catholic observances, with a statue of the Santo Niño erected at the Santuario. Today Santo Niño de Atocha is as integral to the site as Our Lord of Esquipulas due in part to the survivors of the infamous Bataan Death March. Many of the U.S. soldiers and sailors from New Mexico prayed to the Santo Niño during the march. When, the survivors started an annual Easter pilgrimage to the Chimayo chapel in memory of their suffering and to give thanks for their deliverance.