El Santuario de Chimayó is a small Catholic church about 25 miles north of Santa Fe. The church itself is a beautiful example of Spanish Colonial architecture. It is one of several historical churches on the High Road to Taos, but, unlike the others, the Santuario is a National Historic Landmark with a story to tell.
Chimayó is an important Catholic pilgrimage site, often cited as the “Lourdes of North America.” The small chapel attracts 300,000+ visitors a year; however, the largest pilgrimage (by far) is on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, with up to 30,000 people participating from around the world. Some walk from as far as Albuquerque, which is about 90 miles south.
History of Healing
Archaeologists have documented thirty-three prehistoric settlements on the Santa Cruz River, including several around Chimayó. The influence of the Tewa people on the area is palpable. Chimayo was named after the hill directly behind the church, Tsi-Mayoh, one of four hills sacred to the Tewa people.
The site was associated with healing and worship long before the Santuario was built. Tewa legends reference an ancient spring in that valley the produced water with curative properties. Though the spring dried up, the soil retained the ability to heal. Taking some dirt is part of the experience for many. Visitors frequently gather vials of dirt with them as a remembrance or for curative purposes. For example, some pilgrims mix the dirt with water to create mud and apply it topically or they eat it. Supposedly it heals a variety of ailments. I wouldn’t know. Haven’t tried it.
Inspiration for the Santuario de Chimayo
There are several versions of the story about the chapel, but the Penitente Brotherhood and a gentleman named Don Bernardo Abeyta are central in all variations. The Penitentes are a Catholic brotherhood. They played a central role in the religious life of northern New Mexico. As Spanish settlers established small villages, there was a growing shortage of priests, because the Franciscans focused on converting the pueblos, which left devout Catholic settlers high and dry in terms of ministry. As a result, in northern New Mexico’s small, remote Spanish settlements the Penitente Brotherhood fulfilled the roles of the priesthood.
Don Bernardo Abeyta was a member of the Penitente Brotherhood in Chimayo, known as El Potrero at the time. Bernardo and the El Potrero brotherhood were engaged in a religious rite on Good Friday in 1810 when they saw a mysterious light emanating from the valley. When they investigated, they found a half-buried crucifix. The men sent for Father Sebastián Alvarez, the priest in nearby Santa Cruz. He had the men move the wooden crucifix to the church for safekeeping, but it vanished overnight. The men searched for it and, ultimately, found it back at the original location. They tried moving it to the church a few more times, with the same result. Eventually they decided to leave it where it was found. Don Bernardo Abeyta petitioned to build a chapel at the site in 1813. He dedicated the church to Our Lord of Esquipulas.
The legend of Our Lord of Esquipulas originated in Guatemala at a colonial shrine associated with healing. Devotion to Our Lord of Esquipulas spread throughout central Mexico and Sonora in the 1800s. There are several theories about how the influence migrated to northern New Mexico, but the most obvious explanation is some of the Franciscan missionaries worked in Guatemala or Mexico before settling in New Mexico. The shrines to Our Lord of Esquipulas in Guatemala and Chimayó are associated with pilgrimage.
Santuario de Chimayo (1816)
Don Bernardo Abeyta completed the original chapel in 1816. A local carpenter, Pedro Domíngez, crafted the elegant, carved doors. Later, his family interred Don Bernardo in his beloved chapel when he died in 1856. However, the Abeyta family retained ownership of the property until 1929 when the newly formed Spanish Colonial Arts Society in Santa Fe purchased it. They donated it to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.
Santo Niño de Atocha
Faith is a big factor in Chimayo. The small village is home to two historic churches, with the second one dedicated to Santo Niño de Atocha. Severiano Medina believed the Santo Niño de Atocha cured his rheumatism so he built a new chapel dedicated to the Santo Niño to express his gratitude. Building small chapels as memorials or to give thanks is not unusual in northern New Mexico, particularly when wandering on county roads.
Chimayo incorporated the second chapel into Catholic observances and erected a statue of the Santo Niño at the Santuario. At this point the Santo Niño de Atocha is as integral to Chimayó as Our Lord of Esquipulas due to the infamous Bataan Death March.
During World War II, the Japanese Army captured 60,000-80,000 U.S. and Filipino servicemen after the Battle of Bataan. Thousands of the men captured were from New Mexico. The Japanese forced them to march over sixty miles without food or water. Thousands died. Many of the soldiers from New Mexico said they prayed to the Santo Niño de Atocha during the march. Those who can participate in the annual Easter pilgrimage to the Santuario to commemorate the fallen, to reflect on their suffering, and to give thanks for their deliverance. As that generation passes, their children and grandchildren continue the tradition.
Santuario de Chimayo | Easter Pilgrimage
Easter Pilgrimage | The website contains information related to the Easter pilgrimage, including route, distance, potential hazards, tips, recommendations, preparation, etc.
Sunrise and sunset offer the best photo opportunities; however, they do not allow photography inside the church.