Updated: May 9
A drive from Santa Fe, Taos or Espanola during Holy Week generally requires a driver to navigate crowds of thousands who line the roads on a pilgrimage - a pilgrimage to Chimayó. This year, however, due to COVID-19, the pilgrimage has been cancelled. Now, instead of crowds, you will see digital road signs that read, "Walkers Turn Back! Pilgrimage Cancelled." Santa Fe County is expecting everyone will heed the warning: unlike previous years, those taking on the walk independently won't find portable restroom facilities, the fire station will not have increased staffing, and there will not be stand-by ambulances in service.
The cancellation of El Santuario de Chimayó Pilgrimage is a big deal in New Mexico. Like seeing lines queued outside stores, or people wearing masks and gloves, the cancellation of the pilgrimage is another stark reminder of the crisis facing our nation.
Holy Week is an important time of year for Christians throughout the world, but it is especially important in New Mexico. Many New Mexicans have been devout Catholics ever since the brutal conquistador Juan de Onate and his Franciscan missionaries entered the New Mexico territory in the late 1500’s, over 400 years ago. The final week of Lent, Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter. It is a week of reflection on the Passion of Jesus Christ, the time span from when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem to when He was arrested, placed on trial, and was crucified.
In New Mexico, Holy Week is not only a week of remembrance, but it is also a participation event, with the pilgrimage route through the foothills of the beautiful Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the village of Chimayó. The tradition which started after World War II, by New Mexico National Guardsmen who were survivors of the Bataan Death March, and has taken place every Holy Week since the 1970's.
Even though we cannot experience the physical pilgrimage this year, we can still focus on the spiritual journey through words, reflection and taking time to consider the history.
If you haven’t seen or taken part in the pilgrimage in years past, let us describe it for you now. An estimated three hundred thousand people would make this pilgrimage annually, and they would fill the highways, county roads, streets, sidewalks, and fields during Holy Week as they made their way to Chimayó. They would head north from Santa Fe, west from Taos and east from Espanola. Some would travel from Albuquerque, 90 miles way. Many roads would be closed, and signs would line the streets providing directions to the pilgrims and encouraging caution from drivers. The pilgrims would travel by foot, horse, bicycle, in wheelchairs and on crutches. You might hear silence, or beautiful singing or praying as they make their journey. Many would carry photos or mementos, some would even carry full-size crosses. Locals on the path would greet the pilgrims and hand out water, food, support and encouragement. It would be a journey of faith, hope, devotion and love.
Their destination would be El Santuario de Chimayó, a historic church located in the village, situated in a valley, about 30 miles north of Santa Fe. This now-famous site has been known for its healing properties dating back to the 12th century when the area was inhabited by Puebloan tribes. In fact, the name Chimayó is derived from the Tewa word for hills of Tsi Mayoh. The Tewa Indians believed the hot springs that flowed through the area were inhabited by healing spirits, and they used the hot spring for its healing powers. When the hot springs dried up, legends said that the healing energy stayed in the land.
After the Spanish conquest of New Mexico, the sacred land where the Santuario now stands was owned by Don Bernardo Abeyta, one of nineteen families who lived in the Chimayó valley. One legend has it that, during Holy Week, Abeyta saw a light shining through the dirt on the land. He investigated, dug in the area where the light was coming from, and discovered a buried crucifix. He took the crucifix to the Santa Cruz church, but the crucifix miraculously returned back to the location where he originally dug it up from. This happened multiple times – he would bring the crucifix to the Santa Cruz church, and the crucifix would return to the spot. After this, he built a small chapel on the site.
A second legend says Abeyta was in sick, in his field with his sheep, and suddenly had a vision of his patron saint in the distance. His saint called him over. He went to the spot where the saint had appeared and fell to the ground, and was instantly cured of his illness. In thanks, he built the chapel on that spot.
And, finally, a third legend recounts a priest who was one of the first settlers in Chimayó was killed at that spot by Native Americans. In remembrance, a shrine was built and dedicated to the priest.
Regardless of which legend is accurate, the chapel was built on the grounds in 1810 and it continued to be known for providing cures and healing. The number of people seeking healing continued to grow, and in 1812, Abeyta wrote to the Archdiocese to obtain permission to build a larger church so all the people could be accommodated. His request was approved and the church, which still stands today, was erected in 1816 in a Spanish colonial style.
After Abeyta’s death, his daughter, and then granddaughter, inherited the property. Donations from pilgrims who visited for healing were the major source of their income, so they resisted requests to turn the church over to the Archdiocese. In 1929, while Abeyta’s granddaughter was the owner, she ran into financial trouble and sold the church and property to the Spanish Colonial Arts Society, which then donated it to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.
On April 15, 1979, El Santuario de Chimayó was dedicated as a National Historic Landmark. It is now one of 46 Historical Landmarks in New Mexico. The National Historic Landmarks designation officially recognizes the church for its outstanding historical significance. Only 3% of the over 90,000 places on the National Register of Historic Places are designated at National Historic Landmarks.
El Santuario is an adobe church with two bell towers, one on each side. The church is entered through a walled courtyard which leads you to the main doors, which were hand carved by the 19th-century carpenter Pedro Domínguez. When you enter the church, you will find the crucifix, five reredoses, and a statue of St. James the Great.
Attached to the church is el pocito (the little well), a small room that contains the hole filled with magical healing dirt. People visit from around the world and are welcome to take samples of dirt, fill it in small containers, or rub it on places that need healing.
In the adjoining Prayer Room, you will find walls covered with signs of miraculous healing: canes, crutches, wheelchairs and other items no longer needed after healing.
Located across the walkway from the Prayer Room is the Santo Niño chapel. There is a history with this chapel, too. The chapel feels as if it is dedicated for children, and located inside is the statue of Santo Niño. Devotion to Santo Niño in New Mexico dates back to 1857, when a prominent member of the village of El Potrero became ill. He prayed and made a promise that, if he recovered, he would pilgrimage to the shrine of Santo Niño De Atocha in Mexico. After he returned, he was granted permission to build a chapel to honor Santo Niño. The chapel holds a statue of Santo Niño, and its walls are lined with children’s shoes. The shoes, left by visitors, are for the Holy Child. Legend has it that when people were imprisoned, the Holy Child would take food and water to them, wearing out His shoes in the process. Baby shoes line the wall so the Christ Child may have new shoes during his travels to heal and comfort those in need.
Santo Niño is an important saint in New Mexico culture. When the New Mexico National Guardsmen fought in WWII, they prayed to the Santo Niño as they ran out of supplies, had to surrender, and were forced on the 61-mile “Bataan Death March” to a prisoner of war camp. At the end of the war, half of the New Mexico National Guardsmen - 900 in total - had died. Those who survived the camp gave credit to Santo Niño for their survival. It was these surviving soldiers who, as a means of expressing gratitude and thanks to Santo Niño, started the annual Holy Week pilgrimage to Chimayó.
So, while you can’t participate in the 2020 pilgrimage during Holy Week, you can look forward to Holy Week 2021, and pray for a healthier world. And, remember, please don't attempt the walk on your own this year. This Holy Week is a week of unimaginable sadness in our country as we see new cases of COVID double and triple, and death rates increase to levels we just cannot comprehend or bear. So let's keep the visual of the pilgrimage in our minds as we all socially isolate to flatten the COVID-19 curve.
Wishing you all a Happy Easter.
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