Ever since the Spanish marched north into New Mexico, Catholic churches have had a prominent place in our culture. There are churches, like the San Francisco de Assisi Mission in Rancho de Taos, made famous by artists and photographers. There are church ruins, like those at the Salinas mission pueblos of Abó, Grand Quivera, and Quarai. And there are churches whose history raises prayer for the faithful and eyebrows for the skeptic.
El Santuario de Nuestro Señor Esquipulas at Chimayó is one of these.
Chimayó is a village east of Española, about 40 miles north of Santa Fe. Soon after the Spanish reoccupied the Province of Nuevo México in 1692, colonists founded their village on an old Tewa pueblo situated near a hill called Tsi Mayo. Tsi Mayo is Tewa for good flaking stone, a name most likely applied because of the abundance of obsidian in the area.
So far from civilization — Chimayó could be a two-day wagon ride to Santa Fe, which was six-month’s journey from Mexico City — the people depended on their own skills. They farmed fields irrigated by Rio Quemado. They herded sheep. They made their own furniture and clothing. But there was still time to express themselves creatively. They became wood carvers and painters, making bultos and retablos. They did tinwork and colcha embroidery.
And because they herded sheep, it was natural for weavers to thrive. Even today, descendants of the original Ortega and Trujillo families continue weaving in Spanish Colonial tradition.
The people of Chimayó also had to defend themselves from Indian raids and bandidos. Homes were built around the village’s central Plaza de San Buenaventura in such a way walls opposite the plaza served as defensive redoubts. There were but two entrances into the plaza and a torreon on the south side where defenders could watch for enemy. Because a siege could defeat the people, they dug their acequia madre so it flowed through the plaza, ensuring a water supply.And so they lived, farming and weaving,
Then in 1810, Don Bernardo Abeyta was performing his customary Good Friday penance. He was on a slight hill above the river. So, the story is told, Abeyta saw an unusual light in the pasture below. Walking to the source, he found the light was coming from the ground and dug up a crucifix.
Being a religious man, he took the crucifix to the church at Santa Cruz, a few miles west. The next day it was missing. When people searched for it, they found the crucifix in its original location. When this happened twice more, villagers were convinced the cross was meant to remain in Chimayó, so they build the chapel they named El Santuario de Nuestro Señor Esquipulas.
That’s when the healings began.
Many people came to the chapel and took a bit of dirt from the hole in which the crucifix had been found. Many who had been ill or crippled were healed. You might be a skeptic to think a bit of dirt blessed by a priest could effect a miraculous healing. Perhaps you’re right. Perhaps it was the person’s faith in God that brought healing.
In any event, so many claimed to be healed, Bernardo Abeyta supported the building of a larger adobe chapel on his land in 1816. Two hundred years later, the building remains in use. It is probably the most visited church in New Mexico.
The crucifix still resides on the chapel altar, but for some reason its curative powers have been overshadowed by El Posito, the hole with its holy dirt in the smaller prayer room that now adjoins the larger chapel.
After 200 years, so much dirt would have been removed, there’d be a cavern. So, it’s certain the priests replenish the hole with dirt they have blessed. People come with small containers, plastic bags, even envelopes. Some purchase an empty “Blessed Dirt” petri dish for $2 at the gift shop. They scoop some of the dirt from the hole and pray, hoping their trouble will be cured as so many others’ have.
The evidence is in that small room. There are crutches, braces, and shoes of those who have found healing. The Roadside America website recorded this testimony of Danise Koppenhaver:
“I don’t know about any other miracles, but I do know that my daughter was diagnosed with a rare cancer, and we were told she had approximately three months to live. She had over 21 sites in her bones with tumors. She remembered a school trip made to this church in Chimayó and asked if we could take her.
“We took the dirt home and, weeks later, she woke in the middle of the night with pain in her right tibia. Not wanting to walk on it, she took her saliva and mixed it with the dirt on her leg. The next scans showed this particular tumor was gone, and the doctor could not explain it. He said even if a tumor is gone, it takes years for it not to show up on a scan. That was 11 years ago and she is a happy and healthy young lady.”
Ever since the chapel was built, people have come on Good Friday to worship. Most have walked. Some a few miles. Some hundreds of miles. Some have come bare-footed. Some carry crosses. They come to express their culture and beliefs. They come to give thanks for prayers answered. They come to pray for divine intercession — for healing for themselves or a family member or dear friend. In modern times, as many as 40,000 people have come over the Easter weekend — a quarter million or more each year.
The people of Chimayó have supported the chapel called by some the Lourdes of America. Visitors will find restaurants, bed and breakfast hostelries, and gift shops. That’s what you’d expect around a place that attracts thousands annually. They can also stop in the shops of weavers to watch them work looms that could readily have been used in the 18th century. Blankets, vests, wall hangings, and other items are for sale.
Still, despite the commercialization, it is this small church, whose raison d’être are miraculous healings and whose roots are so very deep in New Mexican history and culture, that remains the focus of all who come to visit.