The Holy Dirt of Chimayo, New Mexico

Chimayo, New Mexico, is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in North America. (Bob Sessions photo)

Chimayo, New Mexico, is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in North America. (Bob Sessions photo)

In this post we journey to one of the most visited holy sites in America:  Chimayo, a little adobe church in the foothills of the Sangre de Christo Mountains in northern New Mexico. This religious sanctuary has an importance far in excess of its small size.

Chimayo—its full name is El Santuario de Chimayo–is sometimes called the Lourdes of North America. Like that famous shrine in France, it attracts those who are seeking healing of body, mind, or spirit. I’ve been to both Chimayo and Lourdes, and I must say I prefer the simplicity and peace of Chimayo. It is indeed a place for renewal and healing.

Long before the Spaniards arrived in this region, this spot was considered a healing sanctuary by the Pueblo Indians who lived in the area. Healing spirits were thought to inhabit the hot springs in the area.

Chimayo’s fame spread to the larger world around the year 1810, when a local friar saw a light springing from one of the hills near the Santa Cruz River. After following it to its source, he found in the earth a crucifix bearing a dark-skinned Jesus. The local villagers paid homage to the relic and then took it to a church in nearby Santa Cruz. Mysteriously, during the night the crucifix returned to its original location. After this happened two more times, the locals built a small chapel to house the crucifix in Chimayo.

Through the years, the story of the crucifix became intertwined with earlier indigenous beliefs. While the hot springs had dried up, the earth they left behind was said to have healing properties.

This blending of traditions across time and cultures is common in many holy sites. Druid shrines became  churches; altars to goddesses were re-dedicated to the Virgin Mary. I think the Spirit is not overly concerned with externals. What’s important is that pilgrims come to these places with open hearts.

Thousands of people make their way to Chimayo each year, coming from places around the world. Holy Week is a particularly popular time to make a pilgrimage, with many people making the journey on foot from Santa Fe. The tradition was started after World War II by survivors of the Bataan Death March, who walked to the church in gratitude for their deliverance.

I first visited Chimayo fifteen years ago. When I returned there this past spring, I was struck by how much the infrastructure around the church has grown. There are now gardens, a walkway next to the river, a visitor center, and outdoor spaces where groups can celebrate mass.

A walkway lines the river bank at Chimayo. (Bob Sessions photo)

A walkway lines the river bank at Chimayo. (Bob Sessions photo)

Our Lady of La Vang statue at Chimayo (Bob Sessions photo)

Our Lady of La Vang statue at Chimayo (Bob Sessions photo)

One indication of the growing international reputation of this holy site is that it includes a shrine dedicated to a Vietnamese manifestation of the Virgin Mary. In 1798, a group of Catholics fleeing religious persecution hid in the forest of La Vang in Vietnam. While praying the rosary under a banyan tree, they saw a beautiful lady with an infant in her arms. She spoke words of comfort to them, promised to be with them, and directed them to gather leaves from nearby bushes to make a drink that would heal their illnesses. Mary appeared in the forest a number of times after this initial apparition, and La Vang became a famous holy site. A statue of Our Lady of La Vang  was erected at Chimayo in 2011 and attracts many pilgrims of Vietnamese and Filipino descent.

Bob and I arrived at Chimayo on a Sunday morning, and when we entered the church I was relieved to see that while the exterior grounds have changed, the church itself has not. As I remembered, its interior mixes Spanish and Indian iconography, with colorful Hispanic folk art on its altar. It’s a cozy, intimate worship space.

During mass, the priest gave a wonderful homily, full of good humor and humanity. Every pew in the little church was filled. Many of the people seemed to be locals, but there were also people from other countries.

After the service, some of us went to a side chapel to the left of the altar. This area contains El Pocito, a small pit of dirt located in the place where Don Bernardo Abeyta found the crucifix in 1810. The soil is still said to have miraculous properties.

One by one, people knelt to put a small amount of dirt in containers they’d brought with them or purchased in the gift shop. On our way out, we walked through a room whose walls are covered with discarded crutches, photographs, and other tokens left by those who have received cures here.

As at many shrines, I would guess that most of the healing that happens at Chimayo is emotional or spiritual, with people leaving with lighter hearts than they arrived. But I have little doubt that physical cures have happened here as well.

As for me, I know that my own spirit was soothed and blessed at Chimayo, this small church bordered by a flowing stream, filled with tokens left by the faithful, and steeped in centuries of prayer.

For more information see Santuario de Chimayo/Holy Chimayo.

Offerings left at the base of a statue to the Virgin Mary at Chimayo. (Bob Sessions photo)

Offerings left at the base of a statue to the Virgin Mary at Chimayo. (Bob Sessions photo)

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