Santuario Chimayo, New Mexico

The Santuario de Chimayo is located in Chimayo, New Mexico, about 22 miles by rural roads north of Santa Fe. The town, once the most important in the Rio Arriba, home to the weavers of Rio Grande blankets, is at the verdant convergence of the Amado and Rio de Santa Cruz, an area famed for producing the most flavorful chilis in all New Mexico.

The weavers of Chimayo were twice involved in rebellion. In 1837, they rebelled against Presidente Santa Anna’s appointed governor, Albino Perez. In 1847, they rebelled against the new American governor, Charles Bent.

The land where the Santuario (shrine; place of pilgrimage) now stands belonged to Don Bernardo Abeyta, one of the first members of Los Hermanos de la Fraternidad Piadosa de Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno (the Penitentes). Sometime before 1805, Don Bernardo journeyed to Guatemala and was there impressed with the cult of Christ of Esquipulas. In 1810, he built a small chapel where the Santuario now stands and in 1816 completed the current chapel. The Santuario de Chimayo has become a pilgrimage site. They come on foot walking all night during Holy Week from Albuquerque, Santa Fe and the Rio Arriba.

They come seeking the Terra Bendita, the Holy Earth. Visitors to the church take a small amount of the “holy dirt”, often in hopes of a miraculous cure for themselves or someone who could not make the trip. They often eat the clay. This is one of only two places in North America where geofagy is practiced, the other being the original shrine of Esquipulas.  The Church replaces the dirt in the pocito from the nearby hillsides, sometimes more than once a day, for a total of about 25 or 30 tons a year.

During Holy Week, at least in times past, the Penitentes came as well practicing their painful and bloody rituals. Their symbols are among those on the church’s altar screen. As might be expected, Padre Antonio Jose Martinez had strong ties to this church as both a pilgrimage site and a Penitente place of worship.

In 1830, Bishop Zubiria of Monterey in Mexico, visited New Mexico marking the first visit by a bishop in 80 years. He was shocked by the crude bultos, carvings of saints, and retablos, paintings of holy subjects – now considered masterworks of folk-art – and ordered them removed from all of New Mexico’s churches. He also proscribed the Penitentes. Padre Martinez, then serving as a religious leader of the Brotherhood, ignored both orders saving New Mexico’s folk-art for future generations. Perhaps the Padre reasoned that it would be another 80 years before a bishop checked to ensure compliance and by then it would be someone else’s problem. 

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