Many New Mexicans take part in a pilgrimage to El Santuario de Chimayó on Good Friday. Mostly are Catholic and here’s my experience with this amazing tradition.
In the late 80s, I moved to Raton, New Mexico, to teach. I had grown up on the northeast border of New Mexico, but had toured little of the state. When I moved to Raton, I spent many weekends doing day trips to different parts of the northern part of the state. I fell in love with Taos and visited whenever I could.
As I talked to many locals, I learned about the Good Friday pilgrimage to Chimayó. Yes, people as far away as Raton knew about the pilgrimage, and some took part. I’m Episcopalian and share some traditions and rituals with the Catholic church, so it appealed to me. That Lenten season, I sought a unique experience during Holy Week and went to El Santuario de Chimayó, which was the goal of the Good Friday pilgrims.
So, I had the day off from school. I loaded up my ten-pound poodle, Windy, in the car, some snacks and water, and off we went. It was a 200-mile trip, taking us about three hours. I left early in the morning so I would have ample time to look around—before that trip I had only been to Chimayó once with a girlfriend, and we stopped at Ortega’s Weaving Shop, but we didn’t stop at El Santuario de Chimayó. At that time, I did not know the significance it had in New Mexico Christian heritage.
“El Santuario de Chimayó is a Roman Catholic church in Chimayó, New Mexico, United States. (Santuario is Spanish for “sanctuary”.) This shrine, a National Historic Landmark, is famous for the story of its founding and as a contemporary pilgrimage site. It receives almost 300,000 visitors per year and has been called “no doubt the most important Catholic pilgrimage center in the United States.”
I remember enjoying the early spring morning ride up I-25 to Santa Fe, knowing this part of the road from trips to Albuquerque to visit my aunt and uncle when they lived there. Then I turned off I-25, and the world changed.
As soon as I drove through Santa Fe, the pilgrims appeared—some with large wooden crosses on their shoulders, many in a small cluster. Then I turned onto Road 503, which is the “High Road to Taos.” I had only been on that road once before, with my girlfriend on our previous trip to travel the High Road and go through Truchas, New Mexico, where The Milagro Beanfield Wars was filmed. Before the release of the film in 1988, I had read the book by John Nichols, howling at some of its hilarious situations and crying at its message about land and water rights. We had a great time on that trip.
The further I went with sage and pinon pines covering the mountainside, the number of pilgrims increased. As I motored by in my car, I glanced at serious faces on a mission. At one point, I felt a little ashamed of being in a car, but then I stopped and applauded myself for the effort.
When I arrived at the small village of Chimayó, I immediately knew the direction of the church. The masses walked towards it. I parked off on the side of the road, rolling down the windows for Windy and providing him with water.
I joined the crowd as it moved towards El Santuario de Chimayó. As we neared the gate in the adobe wall, a line formed and waited. Many people had told me about this part of the attraction to this place: holy dirt that heals.
So, I waited in line, marveling at the size of the crowd and the age of the attendees—many faithful people ready to receive something special this holy day at this sacred place. Upon entering the church, it had wooden ceiling beams, white-washed walls, with a few pews. The altar area captured my eye—a wooden depiction of Jesus and the crucifixion.
How respectful the people in line were—a reverent silence canopied the church as we made our way to a door on the side of the sanctuary where the holy dirt was. When I entered the small room tucked away, crutches lined the walls from healings. I saw the hole in the ground where the dirt came from. Then I grabbed my bag of holy dirt and left. As I walked out, pictures lined the walls of people who had been healed. I have kept some dirt from Chimayó in my home in a variety of spots ever since.
When I got outside, I returned to my car, put Windy on a leash and we wandered around the area. I soaked up the peaceful, reverent atmosphere and found a shady spot under a tree to relax. Windy curled up next to me and we noticed blissfully the pleasure of being with worshipping people. I hadn’t gotten into the habit of carrying a journal with me yet, so that day never got memorialized in a poem, but what I took away from it has lasted for over thirty years in my heart. Today, I still feel the serenity in that church’s courtyard.
In the following years, I returned once during Holy Week on Good Friday in the early 90s when I moved to Albuquerque and on other occasions to share this New Mexican treasure.
In the summer of 2009, I returned to Chimayó after a divorce. After moving into my townhouse, I remembered the holy dirt and realized I had misplaced it. I knew I needed some to heal my broken heart. This time I went alone because Windy had passed away. Again, a line formed but shorter and wove its way through the church. I gathered a bagful of dirt and brought it home, placing it around my townhouse, believing in its power to heal. This time I spent time with a notebook in the courtyard recording my experience.
In 2015, Lin and I vacationed in the Santa Fe area in the spring, and I showed him around Chimayó and El Sanctuario. We had a delightful time and the grounds surrounding it had changed a lot during my absence. We brought home a fresh bag of dirt to replace the old. All the pictures included here are from this trip.
As I face Holy Week this week, I remember my pilgrimage to El Santuario de Chimayó from Raton—every year I am reminded of my experience, still savoring the time there. It still blesses my heart in a special way!
If you are interested, here’s this year’s Holy Week schedule there: https://www.holychimayo.us/holy-week. Have you visited Chimayó? If so, what was your experience? Have you ever done a pilgrimage or something special during Holy Week? I’d love to hear about it!
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