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The Lourdes of America

The little settlement of Chimayo, in the hills above Sante Fe, has been a site of pilgrimage and miracles for centuries. But it is also a place where the Native American traditions have been preserved, blended with a veneer of Christianity.

Philip Coppens


The further north one heads from Albuquerque, past Santa Fe, the closer you come in contact with how this region must have looked like in pre-Columbian days. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to find Native American traditions in this part of New Mexico. But more surprisingly, probably, is the fact that we also find heretical Christian traditions in these parts.
The tiny town of Chimayo was founded in 1740 as a type of penal colony for Hispanic troublemakers. In Tewa, the word “tsimayo” means “good flaking stone”, and it was indeed an obsidian quarry used by the Native Americans that gave the town its name. But today, it is not its quarry that for which Chimayo is famous. Chimayo is a place of miracles – which is why it is known as the Lourdes of America, for the number of miracles that have been witnessed here. However, the origins of the miracles are not linked to any apparition of the Virgin Mary, but to a left-over of the Native American religion: the so-called sacred dirt.
The Sanctuario de Chimayo is the focus of the religious life of Chimayo. The church proudly displays an old cross hanging above the main altar. The story goes that during Holy Week of 1810, specifically on the night of Good Friday, Don Bernardo Abeyta, a member of the Hermandad de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno, the local penitential organisation, was performing penitence around the hills of El Potrero. Many of these penitent brotherhoods had fled mainland Europe, where their practices of self-flagellation in the streets on the eve of Good Friday had been forbidden. The members of these organizations wanted to suffer in the same manner as Christ, and they therefore had a particular devotion to the instruments of the Passion.
During his penitence, Bernardo Abeyta saw a light originating from one of the slopes near the river Santa Cruz – Holy Cross – that flows through Chimayo and went towards it. He started to dig and found a crucifix, the very one now on display in the church. He brought the cross to various churches in the area, but the cross always somehow managed to return back to where he had found it, so Abeyta believed that he should build a church that would house it.
The miracle of the returning cross cannot be explained, but the presence of a cross, can. It is known that a Guatemalan priest had accompanied the first settlers to Chimayo. He preached and carried a large cross with him. That Abeyta’s cross is his can be validated by the fact that the type of wood from which the cross is made, is unknown in New Mexico. Alas, the priest was killed by the Native Americans. The settlers buried him at El Potrero, along the river. It is thought that when the Santa Cruz River flooded in 1810, the crucifix and the body washed up, and this is how Abeyta found the cross. The Guatemalan priest was from Esquipulas, which is how the cross got its nickname. Of course, it does not explain the anomaly of the light that Abeyta saw. Indeed, there is a different version of this story in circulation, and it has all to do with the sacred dirt.
Next to the altar in the Sanctuario is a small door, which leads into a room that could be mistaken for an orthopaedic storage room. It is a visual reminder of the miracles that the Sanctuario has performed, including the many that came on crutches, and left without them, walking, healed. It is the little room, known as “pocito”, off it, that contains the “holy dirt”. One legend has it that it was in this precise location that Bernardo Abeyta found the crucifix, though not everyone is in agreement on this.
The pocito is a small room, its central feature a “hole in the ground”. It is a place where red sand continuously wells up – in itself believed to be a miracle. The local priests state that the hole is frequently replenished by sand taken from the hills and that there is therefore no miracle. One local Native American, however, relates how he once stood at the well for an entire day, when hundreds of people came to take the sands. Throughout the day, the level of the well replenished itself, without any priestly intervention. So the self-replenishing well is a “miracle” in itself, though it might be explained through geology. Is it possible that there is an underground cave system, filled with this sand, and that this system pushes and thus replenishes the sand?
Either way, the holy dirt continues to be scooped and taken away. There are warning signs not to eat the dirt, as in the 21st century, this could lead to all kinds of legal claims. But the warning is in place because according to the Native American tradition, the red clay was indeed to be eaten.
But not as such. The clay was to be mixed with the water of a spring, which originally was next to it, but which has since disappeared. Or not quite. If one drives along the river into the direction of the dam, one comes across a small clearing on the right hand side of the road. A few dozen yards in, stands a tree, the roots of which are bathed in the waters of a small pool. According to local information, this is the same water that once emanated from the spring that stood in the immediate vicinity of the pocito, but which the local priests boarded up.
And this is where another version of the legend comes about: the Sanctuario was built between 1813 and 1816, after the landowner, Bernardo Abeyta, was told by a visiting priest about the shrine at Esquipulas in Guatemala, which had arisen at a similar spring venerated by the Guatemalan Indians. Though the town of Esquipulas is most famous for its image of its basilica which houses the Shrine of the Cristo Negro, the Black Christ, it is also famous for its Tierra Santa, Holy Earth. Here, the clay is taken from local deposits and pressed into small cakes and which are said to have medicinal use. Apart from eating the clay, the clay is also rubbed on a person’s body.

The image of red clay – sacred earth – and spring water – sacred water – to heal is of course very powerful. Combined, they make for a red substance, which for the Native Americans must have been identified with the menstrual blood of Mother Earth, which the local Native Americans considered to have curative powers. Furthermore, the sacred hole echoed what the Hopi called the sipapu, the point of emergence, so sacred in the Native American tradition. The sipapu existed in the centre of the kiva, the sacred room of the Native Americans.
So what we see here, is truly Mother Earth bleeding. It is but a small step to see this sacred blood transformed in the Blood of Christ, which he shed on Good Friday… and which is but another reason why the local mountains are called “Sangre de Cristo” – the Blood of Christ. It may be one of the reasons why the penitential movements decided to settle in this specific area.

Official history has given too little attention to the brotherhood to which Abeyta belonged, however. In the 19th century, the hills above Chimayo were the heartland of the Penitents. The Spanish expedition that founded New Mexico performed public self-flagellation on Good Friday 1598, as it marched up through Mexico, and similar acts by early Franciscan missionaries attracted the scorn of the Pueblo Indians. It was against this backdrop that Abeyta found a mysterious cross in 1810.
After Mexico gained independence, the penitents were truly lost. Under Bishop Lamy, in the second half of the 19th century, they were largely driven into hills, as he had little sympathy for them, especially its leader, Father Martinez of Taos. They nevertheless continued to organize their mass religious processions during Lent; in 1947, they were finally officially recognized in Santa Fe by the bishop.

Chimayo has two other religious features that need to be singled out. One of them is a little church dedicated to Santo Niño, the Lost Child, which is dedicated to children. During recent refurbishments, the church was definitely given an extremely child-friendly atmosphere!
The central focus is the image of a child, with shoes, as if he had walked during the night. Indeed, local legend says that the statue was once said to have walked during the night and ever since, worshippers bring baby and infant shoes for the statue to wear, as he is thought to wear them out during his nightly travel in aid of people.
The cult actually originated in Spain, with the El Santo Nine de Atocha. During the Moorish invasion of the town of Atocha, one day, a child, dressed as a pilgrim, appeared, carrying a basket of water and food. The prisoners were fed, but the basket and gourd remained full. As a consequence, the people concluded that the child was Jesus disguised as a pilgrim and he became the patron saint of those unjustly imprisoned.
Some believe that the image was actually found in the hole where the holy dirt rises to the surface. Another story is told about a man who, when ploughing his fields with oxen, heard the church bells ringing and begged the family to dig, which they did. They found the bells and a wooden statue.
The church itself was built in 1857, by Severiano Medina, a near neighbour of Bernardo Abeyta. In 1856, Medina was very ill and promised that if he recovered, he would make a pilgrimage to the shrine of El Santo Nino in Plateros, Fresnillo, in Mexico. When he came home in February 1857, he built the private chapel in honour of El Santo Nino.
The final point of interest is a small hill roughly sitting between the Sanctuario and the church of El Nino, though further out of town. It is a hill with a cross on top, known as El Calvario – Calvary Mound. The mound is conical in shape and is clearly linked with Golgotha. The question is: when did this association come about? Though it is entirely possible that the hill was labelled El Calvario by the penitents – who had after all a predisposition towards all things Passion-related – it is also entirely possible that the hill was already sacred to the Native Americans.
Outside of Tucson (Arizona) is San Xavier del Bac, a mission which has incorporated a similar conical hill, most commonly known as “Grotto Hill”, which is still used by the local Native Americans in their daily religious practices. As in San Xavier del Bac, so in Chimayo?
Though there are therefore many parallels between Chimayo and other sites, at the same time, Chimayo is definitely unique. And that sense of uniqueness hangs in the air. It is an extra-ordinary site, in which so many traditions are all woven together, but whereas spirituality is quite often the first victim of such blends, in the case of Chimayo, its sacred nature has always been maintained.