"If you are a stranger, if you are weary from the struggles in life, whether you have a handicap, whether you have a broken heart, follow the long mountain road, find a home in Chimayó."
So reads a poem displayed on the walls of Chimayó's Santuario. Tucked into the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, the village of Chimayó may seem far off the beaten track. In fact, tens of thousands of pilgrims make their way each year to the tiny church, sometimes called the Lourdes of America. Many make the long trek on foot each year during Holy Week, starting from Santa Fe, Taos, Albuquerque—even Old Mexico. They come carrying heavy wooden crosses and walking sticks, pushing baby carriages and wheelchairs. They come seeking miracles of healing from the church and its little well of sacred red dirt found in a room off to the side of the altar. They bring small bags or vials and take a spoonful of dirt home with them. Some rub the dirt on the part of the body that needs healing. Others take it home to place on an altar. Those who have been healed often make a second pilgrimage to the Santuario to give thanks, leaving behind their crutches, braces, and prayers of thanks, which fill another side room.
There are many stories about the miracle that led to the construction of the church. The one most often repeated begins with a villager named Bernardo de Abeyta. He was a Penitente, a member of the brotherhood that kept the Catholic faith alive in New Mexico when priests were sparse. In about 1811 Abeyta was performing the rituals of penance for which the Penitentes are known when he saw a light shining from a spot in the earth. Digging down, he found a large crucifix with a dark Christ. He and the other villagers carried the crucifix in grand procession down to the nearest church, some eight miles away in Santa Cruz. The next day, when the villagers awoke, the crucifix was back. The story goes that the procession was repeated two more times before the villagers realized they needed to build a church on the spot. According to neighboring Tewa Indians, the spot had been sacred to various Indian tribes for generations. Originally a spring had bubbled up there, rich in iron and other minerals. When the spring dried up, they still came for the dirt and for healing. Perhaps they ate the pale red dirt, rich in minerals. Arms and quarrels between tribes were laid aside when approaching the sacred site. Many Tewa also held sacred the mountain behind the church, T'si Mayoh, which gave the village its name. Whatever the story, what is known is that in 1813 Bernardo de Abeyta petitioned the church for permission to build a church on a site where many miracles were taking place. In the next few years, the villagers built the adobe church and placed in it the crucifix of a dark Christ. They named it the Señor de Esquipulas after a similar crucifix in Guatemala. Abeyta was a merchant who traded as far south as Mexico, where he may have heard of the Guatemalan dark Christ.
The church itself is exquisitely handmade, full of odd angles of wood and adobe carrying the imprint of the loving hands of the community that built it. Both the church and the two towers were once flat-topped; the pitched roof and charming wooden caps on the towers were added in the 1920s. Through a charming archway you enter a little courtyard before walking through heavy, carved wooden doors into the church. Inside, the walls are lined with reredos, brightly painted wooden screens, restored with the help of Santa Fe's Museum of Folk Art in 2003. The reredos portray various saints. Some of the reredos were painted by a well-known artist known as Molleno, the Chile Painter. There are also bultos, or statues, of saints. The small bulto on the altar is Santiago (Saint James), to whom the Christians prayed in their fights against the Moors. He is shown riding on a horse. In earlier times, pilgrims would bring him tiny handmade boots, spurs, and halters.
To reach the room with the holy dirt, walk up to the altar, turn left, walk through a little passageway, turn right, and duck through a low doorway. In the center is the pozito, or little well. Bring a baggie, or you can purchase a small container from one of the little stores nearby. Note the poem on the wall, quoted at the beginning of this article. When you emerge, you will be in the room housing the crutches, handmade rosaries, and gifts brought to the Santuario by those asking or giving thanks for healing. There is also a statue of the Santo Niño de Atocha, whose story is told below.Go to Map
Opening in 2010 is the Santuario's new Bernardo Abeyta Museum. Visitors can discover the history of the Santuario de Chimayó and what led Bernardo Abeyta, an Hermano Penitente, to build the Church that now is known as the "Lourdes of America." You can also learn about the Penitente Brotherhood inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, which has flourished in New Mexico since the end of the sixteenth century. The museum offers permanent exhibits of traditional religious art made by New Mexico santeros (traditional artists who carve and/or paint images of saints) and other world-renowned artists. Their art offers opportunities to visualize through their eyes the passion, suffering, and redemption of Christ, as well as popular saints and other inspiring subjects.Go to Map
The story of the Santo Niño begins in Spain during the time of the Moors, Spain's Muslim conquerors. In Atocha, outside Madrid, many Christian men had been imprisoned. The jail did not feed the prisoners, and the caliph ordered that only children could visit and bring food to them. The women prayed to Our Lady for help. Soon word spread that a small boy was visiting and feeding the prisoners. His basket was never empty of bread, and his water gourd was always full. He was considered a manifestation of Jesus as the Holy Child, the Santo Niño. In 1492 Catholics drove the Muslims out of Spain. In the succeeding years, Spanish colonists brought worship of Our Lady of Atocha and her Holy Child to the village of Plateros, Mexico. As in Spain, there was a statue of the Virgin with the Holy Child in her arms. The child was often removed and brought to help with difficult births. Over time, the Santo Niño's reputation for miracles grew. It was said that he wandered the countryside at night spreading miracles, especially among the imprisoned, the poor, and the ill.
In 1857, Severiano Medina made a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Santo Niño de Atocha in Mexico and brought back a statue to his home in Chimayó. He built a chapel in honor of the Santo Niño near the Santuario. The popularity of the Santo Niño spread, and soon the Santuario, too, placed a statue of the Santo Niño in a room to the side of the altar. Today he is beloved across New Mexico.
In images of the Santo Niño de Atocha, he wears the garb of a pilgrim and carries a bread basket and a pilgrim's staff to which is tied a water gourd. It is said that the Santo Niño roams the valleys of Chimayó at night, wearing out his little shoes. Pilgrims bring him baby shoes, which line his niche and a shelf along the wall, along with photos of children and prayers for his intervention on their behalf. New Mexico traditionally contributes the highest proportion of men and women to the military of any state. During World War II, many New Mexicans suffered through the seige of Corregidor, the Bataan Death March, and internment in Japanese prison camps. They prayed to the Santo Niño, and upon their return, some 2,000 made a pilgrimage to the Santuario—some walking barefoot—to give thanks for their lives.
The Santo Niño Chapel is just a short walk from el Santuario. The chapel is built in the traditional northern New Mexico style using adobe wall spanned by great wooden vigas and rough stone floors. The chapel has recently been renovated and filled with stunning works of contemporary art, including exquisite wood carvings, paintings, and hand-carved Spanish colonial furniture. In a small prayer room adjoining the main chapel is a large wooden sculpture, or bulto), of the Santo Niño de Atocha depicted with his water gourd and basket of bread. Lying at his feet and lining the wall against which he sits are shoes left by chapel visitors, many containing entreaties for the intercession of the Santo Niño or offered as thanks for prayers answered. The chapel has been rededicated in honor of children.Go to Map
Scheduled to open in 2010 is the new Santo Niño Museum. Its purpose is to relate the childhood of Jesus and to honor the transcendent spirituality of children, family, joy, innocence, and humility. Learn the stories of the depiction of the child Jesus as the Santo Niño de Atocha, Santo Niño de Prague, and Santo Niño de Zebú. The museum also describes the history of La Capilla del Santo Niño in Chimayó.Go to Map
Chimayó Museum was established in 1995 by the Chimayó Cultural Preservation Association (CCPA) as a means of honoring and preserving the traditions and culture of Chimayó and the surrounding area. The museum is located in the Plaza del Cerró, the center of the original Spanish settlement of Chimayó and, what is now, the last remaining walled settlement in the United States. The museum is located in the ancestral home of the Ortega family who were instrumental in establishing the high quality wool weavings that made Chimayó famous. The museum houses artifacts from the past including furniture, tools and clothing. In addition, it has an extensive collection of black and white photographs from the late 1800's and early 1900's depicting common life scenes.
Over the last few years, the Chimayó Museum has become the focal point for educating local children on their culture and heritage. This includes the establishment of a program called Los Maestros (The Masters) who revive in young children the crafts and skills of the past including tinwork, retablo making, straw applique, hide painting, colcha making, weaving, wood carving, pottery, and making retablos, paintings (usually of saints) on small wooden slabs. In addition, the museum sponsors the annual Española Valley Student Art Show. This is the largest student art competition of its type in northern New Mexico and features work from high school students throughout the northern Rio Grande valley in various media, including furniture making, weaving, fine art, photography, and pottery.
Photographs courtesy of Chimayó Museum.Go to Map