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El Santurario de Chimayo in the mountains of northern New Mexico.

CHIMAYO, N.M. >> During my first visit, I didn't have the small plastic bags I brought with me, so I stuck my right hand into reddish soil, lifted it out and made the sign of the cross, touching my forehead and shirt.

Between Tuesday, Sept. 20, and Thursday, Sept. 22, on a week-long trip to New Mexico and Colorado I visited what is often called The Lourdes of North America, a place I did not even know existed a year ago. Unlike Lourdes in France with its healing waters, El Santurario de Chimayo, in New Mexico, is known for its healing dirt.

Chimayo is an unincorporated town of about 3,000 about 30 miles north of the state capital of Santa Fe. It lies in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Mountains.

Celebrated for its hot chiles, delicious apples and woven blankets, the community is best known for El Santurario de Chimayo, a shrine which attracts pilgrims from all over the world.

During Easter weekend, thousands of these pilgrims walk to it, many carrying crosses large and small. Hundreds of these crosses can be seen attached to or lined up against fences at the shrine.

The town's name comes from a high mountain near the valley called by the Tewa Indians Tsi Mayoh. They believed that the area was sacred and had healing earth. The little Santa Cruz river runs behind the shrine grounds.


Too few of us know that Spanish settlement of parts of the American West happened no later than the colonization of the East by the English, Dutch and French. Spanish colonists settled the Chimayo area after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and peaceful reconquest of 1692. These settlers were Catholics, often very devout.

Several legends, similar in their origins, exist to explain the founding of the shrine. In what is the most popularly accepted story, on Good Friday in the year 1810, a wealthy landowner named Bernado Abeyta — also a local leader in the Penitente Brotherhood — was doing penance on a hill above the Santa Cruz River when he saw a light that led him to a partially buried crucifix.

The crucifix was in the genre of a cross originating in eastern Guatemala called Nuestro Senor de Esquipulas or El Cristo Negro (the Black Christ). This devotion dates from 1594 and has spread to many places.

"Three times this crucifix was taken in procession to the neighboring village and three times it disappeared, only to be found again back in its hole in the hillside," states the shrine's website. It became clear the crucifix wanted to remain in Chimayo.

Abeyta sought and received permission to build a chapel on the site of the discovery.

"Soon the miraculous healings began, and by 1816 the original chapel had been replaced by the current Santuario." states the website.

In time, the healings and the devotion became less associated with the crucifix, than with the "holy dirt" from a small "posito" or well located just in a room just off the altar of the shrine.

This is thought to be the place where the partially buried crucifix was uncovered. This is the spot where I began this article.

The doorway from the shrine to the room with the well is very low, perhaps by design to force people into a more reverent position as they enter. Crutches left by those who have been healed are hung up not far from the well of soil.

Legend once had it that the well replenished itself regularly after pilgrims came and took dirt away, but those in charge of the site have more recently openly admitted that the soil is regularly replenished by the staff. Rather than an appeal to magic, emphasis is put on the faith one brings to the encounter with the shrine and the soil.

The shrine is overseen by priests from the Sons of the Holy Family religious order. The Rev. Casimiro Roca, SF, who died last year at 97, worked wonders in revitalizing and promoting the shrine in the last half of the 20th century. A 2008 New York Times article centered on how his view of the healing power of the soil varied from that of some pilgrims.

"It's not the dirt that makes the miracles!" he told the Times reporter. "They are the work of the Good Lord."

This attitude explains the flyer given to me at the Shrine's visitors center suggesting how to use the "Holy Dirt" in a prayerful manner, not as some type of magic substance.

The Santurario itself has a concrete floor and simple wooden pews with un-padded wooden kneelers, providing the opportunity for prayerful endurance during devotion or Mass.

The area behind altar and sides of the shrine contain magnificent reredos (series of sacred paintings). Photography is not permitted in the shrine, though cameras are positioned at various places to deter vandalism or theft.

The Rev. Julio Gonzales, SF, is the current pastor of both the Santurario and Holy Family Parish in Chimayo. The day I attended Mass there, he preached of God's mercy as shown in the call of Jesus to the tax collector Matthew (Matt. 9:9-13). He did not bat an eye when one of the pilgrim's cell phones went off for an extended period during the service. At one point in his homily on mercy, Gonzalez mentioned St. Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938), known as the "Apostle of Divine Mercy." For me, this was a connection to home, as the National Shrine of Divine Mercy, which promotes her message, is located in Stockbridge, Mass., in Berkshire County.

Under Roca's leadership, the Santurario became a national historic landmark in 1970. In 1980, 20 heads of state from Latin America visited on the occasion of the signing of the Panama Canal Treaty. Close to 300,000 people visit each year. Many are no doubt devout; some are seeking healing; others are like many of those I saw getting off a tour bus and quickly moving along the grounds— just another stop on the scenic route between Santa Fe and Taos.

Much to see and ponder

A stone's throw from the shrine is the Santo Nino Chapel, dedicated to Santo Nino de Atocha. The legends attached to this devotion get complicated. Basically, however, the story goes that in Atocha, Spain, Christian men jailed by Moorish authorities were given bread and water by a child said to be an appearance of Jesus. The legend spread and the holy child was said to walk far and wide helping travelers and prisoners.

For this reason, there were numerous baby shoes left in the chapel when I visited. Additionally, there were hundreds, if not thousands of photos of children brought by pilgrims lining the walls.

As I looked at the depictions of El Santo Nino all over the site, I could not help but think of another "little boy" I saw earlier in the week at the Bradbury Science Museum of Los Alamos National Laboratory. This was a full-scale model of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, code-named "Little Boy."

Over the years, El Santurario de Chimayo has expanded and evolved. It features numerous gift stores and coffee shops. Spiritual highlights include the Three Cultures Monument, a favorite of mine; an outdoor prayer area/chapel, the Native American Cenacle; the Pilgrim Monument and much more.

The Penitentes

Part of the spiritual lure of northern New Mexico for me were stories of the Penitente Brotherhood. Numerous newspaper stories over many years have at times portrayed them as secretive fanatics, tending to excess in their devotion to the crucified Christ. This in turn resulted in them becoming somewhat embittered and secretive, say those who have studied them.

Even church authorities in the past tended to disapprove of them, more likely because they were operating outside of formal church authority rather than anything heretical in what they were doing.

In fact, there is much to admire and little to disdain about the Penitente Brotherhood.

"Few aspects of New Mexico's history have sparked so much interest, speculation, and misunderstanding as the activities of this Catholic lay men's organization whose beliefs and practices center around recreating the passion and death of Jesus of Nazareth. Even the origins of the hermandad, or brotherhood, remain unclear," writes Robert Torrez on the website "Some historians have suggested that it had its beginnings within the Third Order of St. Francis, a lay organization brought to New Mexico by Spanish Franciscan missionaries in the eighteenth century. Others believe that it is based on Mexican or Central American flagellant societies which were based on medieval Spanish practices and brought to New Mexico by immigrants in the early 1800's."

Regardless of their origins, the Penitentes helped keep the faith alive and also did numerous charitable works in their communities, such as supporting widows, helping bring in the harvest and assisting with funerals.

"Following Mexico's declaration of independence from Spain in 1821 the Catholic Church removed the Dominican, Franciscan and Jesuit priests from the provinces of Mexico. This left many areas in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado without any priests," states the shrine's website. "The Penitentes assumed the crucial role in keeping the Hispanic religious traditions alive and helping their communities with charitable acts."

As noted above, Don Bernardo Abeyta, who found the crucifix which led to the building of El Santuario, was a penitente. The brotherhood, in full accord now with the official church, continues to be active today.

'Lamy of Santa Fe'

Willa Cather's 1927 novel "Death Comes For the Archbishop," which I read early this year, also spurred my interest to visit New Mexico. In it, Bishop Jean Marie Latour travels and labors with his friend and vicar Joseph Vaillant to bring some order to a vast southwestern territory, including what are now the states of New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado.

It's a true story, masterfully embellished by Cather. The bishop's real name was Jean-Baptiste Lamy (1814-1888) and his friend was Joseph Projectus Machebeuf (1812-1889).

They became friends while boys in France, went to the seminary together, and both served as missionaries in Ohio together. When Lamy accepted the appointment as apostolic vicar of New Mexico and was ordained a bishop, he took Machebeuf with him.

Theirs was a story of physical danger, including shipwreck, wagon crashes and Indian raids. Compared to today, travel for them was an interminable ordeal. As Lamy became the first bishop of Santa Fe when it became a diocese, so Machebeuf became the first bishop of Denver, originally coming up from Santa Fe to minister during the Gold Rush.

Perhaps more than anything else — even the constant need for more money and personnel to adequately serve a vast area — Lamy was beleaguered by his conflicts with the local Mexican clergy he inherited when his mission territory was broken off from the diocese of Durango, Mexico, after the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).

One of Lamy's most formidable adversaries was Father Antonio Jose Martinez of Taos (1793-1867), priest, publisher, educator, rancher and politician. I saw myself the large statue of him in the main square in Taos. His was a complicated legacy, and the monument has two large pages of text in front of it about his full life.

All of this history is masterfully told Paul Horgan's 1975 book "Lamy of Santa Fe," which won the Pulitzer Prize for history.

Inspired by Horgan's book, I greatly wanted to see the Romanesque cathedral Lamy had built in Santa Fe and the well-know statue of him that stands in front. This statue is part of what inspired Willa Cather to write her book:

''I never passed the life-size bronze of Archbishop Lamy which stands under a locust tree before the Cathedral in Santa Fe without wishing that I could learn more about a pioneer churchman,'' she wrote, noting that his countenance expressed ''something fearless and fine and very, very well-bred."

My first full day in New Mexico, I was fortunate to arrive in Santa Fe from Albuquerque just in time to attend the 10 a.m. Sunday Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi.

For more information about El Santurario de Chimayo, visit Mark Rondeau is the religion editor of the Banner.