The Shrine at Chimayo

North of Santa Fe, in the mountains, is the town of Chimayo.  There is a Catholic church there that is the site of pilgrimage of people for two things.  One is the site (they believe) of the discovery of a crucifix buried in the earth, discovered around 1810.  One day Bernardo de Abeyta saw a beam of light coming out of the ground. He dug, and found a crucifix in the earth, about six feet tall. He carried it to the local church, but the next day, wanting to show it to people, he discovered it was gone. Returning to the place of discovery, he found the crucifix in the same spot- now excavated, of course. Again he carried it to his church, but the next day– it was gone, back in its original spot. Clearly, Chimayo was where the crucifix wanted to be, so a small shrine was built around it. Soon, micracles of healing began to occur there, and the crowds grew so large that a small adobe church was built in 1816. The crucifix was moved into the church, but the ‘post hole’ for the crucifix was kept open in a small room adjacent to the altar. The dirt from the hole is believed to be holy and capable of healing the ill.  They scoop a little dirt out of it, rub it on themselves (and sometimes eat it.)  It isn’t the dirt that’s holy, it is the posthole, so the local priest refills the hole with a bit of dirt every day.  The place has crutches leaning against walls, and various testimonials as to how the pilgrim was healed.

Photograph of the adobe church of Chimayo

The second reason for pilgrimage is from 1856, when a second chapel was built nearby to venerate the “Santa Nino de Atocha.”  The Santo Nino comes from the wars between Spanish Christians and Moors, (which ended in 1492.)  Sometime in the 1300s, after the battle of Atocha, near Madrid, a number of Christian soldiers were captured by the Moors, who were Muslims.  The familiesof the captives made repeated attempts to bring them food, water, and care, but they were consistently turned away.  One day, a child came to the Moorish camp, carrying bread and water.  The Moors let him in, and he gave the supplies to the prisoners.

The belief arose that this child was really Jesus, and the “Holy Child of Atocha” became associated with prisoners- some call him the ‘patron saint of prisoners.’  For nearly a century this second shrine was a minor attraction compared to the posthole of the crucifix.

But in 1941 the New Mexico national guard was doing a rotation overseas in the Philippines and were captured by the Japanese. These were a large part of the brutal “Bataan Death March.”  Some of the National Guardsmen knew of the Santa Nino, and began praying to him to be saved.  After the war, those who survived the march and the POW camps began annual pilgrimages to the shrine as a ‘thank you” for surviving.  From that nucleus, families of all types of prisoners began to make the pilgrimmage. There is a statue of the Santa Nino holding a basket of bread and a gourd of water, his gift to the prisoners.

The Santo Nino statue, carrying bread and water.

Somewhere in time, someone thought that the Santa Nino, a child making those journeys to bring aid to those imprisoned would wear out his shoes.  So now the shrine is adorned with hundreds, maybe thousands of pairs of baby shoes, which have been nailed to the walls. On some of them prayers are written, such as “please see that my son is granted parole.” It is touching to see these thousands of shoes, all representing someone’s hopes and prayers.  The photo shows a tiny fraction of them.

Dozens of pairs of baby shoes, nailed to a wall.
Call it faith, call it gullibility, it is, in the end, moving.

4 thoughts on “The Shrine at Chimayo”

  1. When we lived in Santa Fe there was a yearly pilgrimage from Sana Fe to Chimayo. There would be a line of people of all ages strung along the highway with emergency people standing by, and family and friends bringing water for the walkers. I worked with a retired navy man on the maintenance crew at the community college and he walked the walk every year. He was approaching his second retirement but insisted on walking the 29 miles. It was an act of faith for him, something to do with his whole being.

    1. A great memory. I’ve seen photos of the crowds on Good Friday, but haven’t been there for that day. I did see penitents kneel-walking the last mile or so to the Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City. That memory still makes me wince, but it clearly was important for the pilgrim.

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