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
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.