My Pilgrimage to Santuario de Chimayo


When I was doing research for our New Mexico vacation this past summer, I discovered Chimayo, a small, rural town 25 miles north of Sante Fe within the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Chimayo is famous for a Catholic chapel most commonly known as El Santuario de Chimayo.

It was built in 1816 by Bernardo Abeyta, a man deeply devoted to Christ of Esquipulas, (a pilgrimage site in Guatemala where the clay was said to have healing powers) so the local people could worship Jesus as depicted at Esquipulas. The chapel is now managed by the Archdiocese as a Catholic church and has a reputation as a healing site -- many believe the dirt is holy. El Santuario de Chimayo attracts close to 300,000 visitors a year and has been called "no doubt the most important Catholic pilgrimage center in the United States."

I added El Santuario de Chimayo to our itinerary because I wanted to experience the beauty of its landscape, but also, I was a curious Catholic.

My husband and I started up the hill from the dirt parking lot toward the chapel as the church bells began to ring. Mass wasn't on the agenda, but without a word exchanged, we both accelerated our pace and bypassed all the sites, following the clanging into the opening of a modest, overcrowded chapel.

Inside the 19th century structure felt nearly 10 degrees hotter than the 102-degree desert outside, but I was comfortable watching the priest carry out all the rituals of my childhood and adolescence. Then he began to read from the Gospel of Luke, and I realized, like the hundreds of thousands of Catholics this year before me, I was making my own pilgrimage.

For months, I had been overcome with anxiety over our adoption process -- a long, emotional journey we began eight months earlier and still had a long way to go, and how parenthood was going to change everything, from our careers to our marriage to our relationships with family and friends.

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."

I understood that I was meant to be in Chimayo, New Mexico, that day to hear that gospel because I hadn't heard those words for over a decade, and if I have to be honest with myself, I may not have heard them in a church in New Jersey.

Perhaps the dirt at El Santuario de Chimayo has healing powers. Perhaps it doesn't. All I know is that many leave crutches in a small prayer room there after they've been physically healed, and I left my worries at the door.

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