Holy Dirt: A pilgrimage to Chimayo, the Lourdes of America
Well, we saw the cathedral yesterday morning, I said. After his morning Mass, the archbishop gave us a tour. The impressive Romanesque structure was built in 1884 by the first bishop of Santa Fe, Bishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy, the redoubtable French cleric on whom Willa Cather based her novel Death Comes for the Archbishop.
What about St. Josephs staircase? asked Bill.
Much of what I knew of the famous structure, I was embarrassed to admit, came from a cheesy television movie called The Staircase. As the story goes, in the late 19th century the Sisters of Loreto were searching for someone to build a staircase in their chapel. (The tricky spot had defeated the best efforts of two previous carpenters.) The sisters decided to make a novena to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. On the final day of their novena, a gray-haired man riding a burro and carrying a toolbox visited them. He was looking for work. With only a few tools the carpenter constructed a gracefully winding staircase that makes two 360-degree turns. He completed a structure that stands without nails or any visible means of support. Before the sisters could pay the carpenter, he left. The nuns concluded that none other than St. Joseph could have done such fine carpentry. (As an added mystery, the wood used is not native to New Mexico.)
Bill and I made our way to the chapel of Our Lady of Light, now a museum near the center of Santa Fe. At 2:35 in the afternoon, as the sun blazed above us, we found a sign announcing that the chapel had closed at 2:30. Ive come all the way from New York, I said to the guard, who stood silently beside the sign. Uh-huh, he said. Its still closed.
What about Chimayo? said Bill. Its on the way to Taos.
El Santuario de Chimayo, nestled in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, is often called the Lourdes of America. As with a visit to Lourdes, another town set in hill country, a pilgrimage to Chimayo makes little sense without some understanding of its history.
When Archbishop Michael Sheehan gave us a tour of the cathedral the day before, he showed us an impressive reredos (the wall behind the altar) in a side chapel. Some of the statues on the reredos, he said, were linked with the history of a still-active lay Catholic group called the Penitentes. The story of Chimayo springs from the experience of one of these 19th-century Penitentes, Don Bernardo Abeyta.
On the evening of Good Friday in 1810, as he prayed in the hills, Don Bernardo saw a strange sight: a light coming from the valley below. Though there was no moon out, the ground seemed to glow. He decided to investigate. Digging at the spot, like Bernadette Soubirous digging at Lourdes, he unearthed an elaborate wooden crucifix, five feet high. Don Bernardo and his fellow Penitentes alerted the local pastor in nearby Santa Cruz. Together the group carried the crucifix in procession back to their church.
The next day, however, they awoke to find that the crucifix had disappeared. Retracing their steps, they discovered that it had returned to the original site. Don Bernardo and his friends carried it away again, but the crucifix returned. After the third effort, they concluded that God wanted the crucifix to remain where it was, at Chimayo.
When I heard this story, I thought of what the British writer Anne Wroe had written about the tradition of relics. In the Middle Ages, she wrote in an essay in Awake My Soul, relics were not merely commodities, but expressed something of the will of the saint: The saint expressed himself through his body, in that when [the relic] was being carried by devotees from its original place of repose, it would indicate where it wished to rest. And it usually did so by becoming impossibly heavy to carry further when it had reached its desired home.
The Penitentes and local families built a chapel on the spot where the object was discovered. In time, pilgrims began to come to rub their hands in the soil that held the crucifix. Miraculous healing properties were attributed to the shrine. It was like Lourdes, but instead of water, the faithful at Chimayo rubbed dirt from the hole on their bodies, daubed it on photographs of family members, took it away in small portions and even ate it.
Today the site attracts 300,000 visitors each year, including, according to the custodian of the chapel, 30,000 pilgrims on Good Friday, some of whom walk from as far away as Albuquerque.
I first heard about Chimayo from a Jewish friend named Ned. He and three other Jewish friends were touring the American southwest. They met two Catholic sisters on their trip and visited the shrine with them. According to Ned, you had to duck in order to enter the room where the dirt was. The hole miraculously fills up with dirt every night, said Ned. Or at least thats what we heard.
The way from Santa Fe to Chimayo passed through some of the most beautiful countryside I have ever seen. In his dusty pickup truck, Bill and I rattled through a mountainous region dotted with greenish-gray sagebrush, blue cornflowers and cottonwood trees that were golden yellow against a brilliant blue sky. After an hour, we turned off onto a narrow road, passing small adobe houses. Bill said that one house always made him stop. A few minutes later he pulled over next to a small pink adobe house with a rusting car parked out front.
On the side of the house was a vividly colored portrait, perhaps three feet tall, of the head of a suffering Christ, gazing skyward. A lurid crown of thorns encircled his head. To me, thats New Mexico, Bill said. We sat for some time before the painting.
Though my friend Ned had told me that Chimayo was small, I wasnt prepared for how small. We turned onto a dusty road, passed a few shops selling santos, and there in the middle of a compact plaza was a yellow adobe structure with two small towers topped with wooden roofs. It looked as if it were about to collapse.
Inside we met a friend of Bills, the custodian of El Santuario, Father Julio, a Spanish-born priest who is a member of the Society of the Holy Family. Father Julio told us something of the history of the chapel. Several decades after its construction the chapel fell into disrepair. John Meem, an architect who had heard of the site, was passing through New Mexico. Surprised by its deterioration, Meem, an Episcopalian, began to restore the chapel along with the help of a local preservation society. In 1929, after completing the restoration, Meem purchased the site from its original owners and turned it over to the archdiocese. So we have an Episcopalian to thank for this Catholic shrine.
In the interior, its wooden pews nicked and its walls covered with paintings of dozens of saints, were a few pilgrims. On a far wall, in the center of an impressive reredos, was the mysterious cross that Don Bernardo had found. As Father Julio mentioned, it was not of a style one would expect to find in the area. Even the wood was foreign. How had it gotten to Chimayo?
For the last 12 years I have suffered from carpal-tunnel syndrome, which is sometimes painful and always makes typing a challenge. Each year when I am invited to accompany the Order of Malta on their trip to Lourdes, I pray for healing. Yet each year I find that my hands have gotten no better. (On the other hand, theyve gotten no worse.)
During my first visit to Lourdes I visited the baths twice. The next day a Jesuit friend with whom I was traveling said, Are you cured? I shook my head. I guess Mary said no, he said. Maybe next year!
When it comes to places like Chimayo, I try to give the story the benefit of the doubt. (Lourdes is of a different order, however. Cures there have been authenticated by the church and by medical doctors, who have attested to 67 miraculous healings since 1858.) My faith does not depend on these traditions. On the other hand, I figure that if God can create the world out of nothing and raise his son from the dead, then moving a crucifix from one place to another is simple by comparison.
The Room of Miracles, also called El Pocito (literally, Little Well), is near the main chapel, connected by an anteroom where one finds an explosion of paintings of dozens of saints, holy cards, letters of gratitude and crutches hung on the wall in testimony to the healings received. As Ned had told me, you have to duck to enter El Pocito. Once inside you see even more prints of the saints and letters tacked to the walls. In the middle of the earthen floor is a small hole, about the right size for planting some flowers. Somewhat incongruously, into the hole were stuck three brightly colored plastic shovels, like those a child would use at the seashore.
Saying a prayer, I bent down and rubbed my hands in the dirt. Would I be healed here? Was Chimayo where God wanted me to be freed of my little ailment? The dirt was cool and silky.
On the way out, I gingerly asked Father Julio about my friends tale of the miraculously refilling dirt. Oh no! he said cheerfully. Some people believe that, but its no secret: we refill it every morning, and during Holy Week and the summertime several times a day. We take the dirt from a nearby hillside, so its the same earth in which the crucifix was discovered.
The next day, Bill and I woke up early and drove to San Francisco de Asís Church in Ranchos de Taos. At 6 a.m. the morning star was still visible in the inky sky. Bills pink adobe church is best known as the subject of several moody Georgia OKeeffe paintings, in which the church becomes a mass of shapes looming against a cloudy sky. I cant believe I have a key to this work of art, he said as we walked in. It was the feast of St. Jude, one of my favorite saints. The Mass, celebrated in Spanish and punctuated with songs accompanied by a guitar and an accordion, was deeply moving.
After a colossal breakfast of huevos rancheros, which we shared with a few parishioners, Bill drove me to the Albuquerque airport, where the customs inspector asked me to open my bag. Inside was a small tin canister I had bought from one of the santos stores in Chimayo with an image of another local devotion, the Infant of Atocha.
Whats inside? he asked suspiciously.
All I could think to say was, Its holy dirt.
Ah sí! said the inspector, and I noticed for the first time his Hispanic features. Chimayo! he said.
My hands have not improved much. But then again, I have been able to write this article, so I will credit the pilgrimage to El Santuario of Chimayo for a little healing. Maybe just the amount that I needed.
Watch an audio slide show of Chimayo narrated by Fr. Jim Martin.