El Santuario de Chimayó is a beautiful example of Spanish Colonial architecture. The structure is one of several historical churches on the High Road to Taos, but the santuario is a National Historic Landmark.
Chimayó is an important Catholic pilgrimage site, referred to as the “Lourdes of North America.” The church attracts 300,000 visitors a year. The largest pilgrimage occurs on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. Thirty thousand people from around the world walk to the Santuario de Chimayó during Easter, including many who walk 90 miles from Albuquerque.
History of Healing
Long before the santuario was built, the site was associated with healing and worship. The influence of the Tewa people on the area is undeniable. Archaeologists have documented thirty-three prehistoric sites on the Santa Cruz River, including several around Chimayó. The settlement was named after the hill directly behind the church, “Tsi-Mayoh.” Tsi-Mayoh is one of four hills sacred to the Tewa.
Tewa legends reference an ancient spring in the valley the produced water with curative properties. Though the spring dried up, the soil retained the ability to heal. Many pilgrims mix the dirt with water to create mude. They eat it, or apply it topically, to heal a variety of ailments. Visitors often take vials of dirt with them as a remembrance.
Inspiration for the Santuario de Chimayo
There are several versions of the story about the construction of the chapel. The Penitente Brotherhood and a gentleman named Don Bernardo Abeyta are central in all of them.
The Penitentes are a Catholic brotherhood. They played a central role in the religious life of northern New Mexicans. As Spanish settlers established small villages, there was a growing shortage of priests. The Franciscans focused on converting the pueblos, which left devout Catholic settlers high and dry in terms of ministry. In northern New Mexico the Penitente Brotherhood stepped in to fill those roles.
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. They investigated and found a half-buried crucifix. The men sent for the priest in Santa Cruz, Father Sebastián Alvarez, and he moved the wooden crucifix to the church for safekeeping. It vanished overnight. The men searched for it and, ultimately, they found it at the original location. Though they tried moving it to the church several more times, with the same result, they eventually decided to leave it where it was found.
Our Lord of Esquipulas
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. The obvious explanation is that some of the Franciscan missionaries worked in Guatemala or Mexico before settling in New Mexico. The shrines in Guatemala and Chimayó attract pilgrims from all over the world.
Santuario de Chimayo
Don Bernardo Abeyta completed the original chapel in 1816. A local carpenter, Pedro Domíngez, crafted the elegant, carved doors. The church has unusual structural features, including two additional rooms that create an enlarged vestibule right before the nave.
Bernardo Abeyta was interred at the chapel when he died in 1856. His 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
Severiano Medina believed the Santo Niño de Atocha cured his rheumatism. He built a new chapel dedicated to the Santo Niño to express his gratitude. The community 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 lasting influence of 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 during the march. They 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.
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, there is no photography inside the church.