I came across a random picture last year when I was planning our next road trip. The picture I found was unlike most others I’ve skimmed through while working on the itinerary. This place was enchanting, mysterious, and completely different from everything else I’ve seen so far.
“Huh? Why?!?” my husband muttered at the clear conflict of all things fun after I pitched the idea. “A church???”
(We’re not religious.)
But when you’re stuck with planning an entire road trip itinerary because it’s long hours with no pay and no one else wants to do it, you get certain perks like putting destinations on said itinerary. Even if they’re filed under the maybes. They’re there.
And this, my friends, was no ordinary church.
This was a miraculous healing shrine!
Also known as the “Lourdes of America” and declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970, El Santuario de Chimayó is one of the most important Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of people visit the shrine. Some come in faith, others out of curiosity like me.
Visiting El Santuario de Chimayó
El Santuario de Chimayó is located between the towns of Taos and Santa Fe in northern New Mexico, in a small historical village called Chimayó.
Nestled in a valley within the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the scenery surrounding Chimayó is beyond picturesque. As for Chimayó itself, it’s a colorful and charming tiny town with a dark side.
New Mexico ranks high among states with the biggest drug problems, and even this small community wasn’t spared a persistent drug trafficking problem and high drug-related violent crime. The situation here has improved significantly over the past years so there is no need for visitors to feel inherently unsafe, but I’d say it’s not an area to go poking around, especially after dark.
Don’t miss it!!!
The church is not immediately visible from the road. It’s kind of tucked away along a side road and lies within a picture-perfect adobe-walled courtyard.
A few small parking areas are available near the courtyard entrance, with a large parking lot SE of the church.
The interior of the church was just as charming as the outside view of the structure.
I didn’t spend a lot of time here because there were several people praying in the pews and I didn’t want to disturb their sacred and intimate experience by my impious presence. Coming solely out of curiosity, part of me felt like an invader. But I came with good intentions, and the church welcomes everyone regardless of faith.
The interesting part about this church is that there isn’t just one single room here to visit. To the left of the altar is a doorway leading to a second room from which you can continue to your right to yet another room. This last room is very small and has a round pit in the middle filled with dirt.
That’s “el pocito” (“the little well”). The single biggest reason people come here.
— The Holy Dirt of El Santuario de Chimayó —
In this small room you’ll see visitors kneeling down before the pit, scooping dirt into baggies or small boxes. Many arrive here seeking miracles for their physical pains or emotional scars, and it is this dirt that holds the key to their healing and hope.
According to the information the church provides, you should rub yourself with the dirt in order to heal from an ailment, but some people admit they mix the dirt with water and drink it as well or just consume it straight up.
The holy dirt in the pocito is in high demand and not miraculously self-replenishing like people once believed. Visitors take home so much dirt that approx. 25-30 tons has to be hauled into the church every year!
How real are the healing powers of El Santuario de Chimayó?
Sourced from the nearby hills, the origin of the fabled dirt is anything but mystical. It’s an ordinary dirt merely blessed by the priests. Yet, many people swear by it.
The Church takes no stance on the miracles of the healing dirt at Chimayó.
According to my observations, only a few leave without any dirt. I did. I can’t tell you if it has curative properties, sorry!
Backing up to the second room…
I wasn’t expecting to feel what I felt.
At least not in that magnitude.
Besides plentiful religious objects and fascinating old paintings, when you enter the room, you’ll notice the walls are covered with photographs.
So many faces here…thousands? Adults, kids, and even babies.
Curious, I leaned closer to find a few testimonies to the healing power of the holy dirt, and many prayer requests of those in need of a miracle.
But the rest of them and what seemed to be the vast majority? Pictures displaying birth and death dates of the loved ones lost. Thousands of beautiful faces… So many innocent children here. So many children and babies. My heart sank.
A wall collection of discarded crutches hangs as a silent reminder of the power of the holy dirt, but my eyes immediately veer away. There is an overwhelming amount of personal talismans and toys here left by someone completely brokenhearted, and little shoes of kids and babies loved deeply and gone way too soon.
The feeling of grief over the losses mourned is really intense in this room.
But also felt is an immense amount of love. There is so much love here. And hope. If you just listen, you can almost hear the lines of prayers bouncing off the walls.
Yet, it wasn’t a negative experience if that makes any sense. The pure origin of the raw emotions was almost therapeutic on a collective spirit level. I felt the unity, and the goodness of a human being.
Legend has it…
Who doesn’t love a good legend, right?
Actually, there is a whole series of legends connected to the shrine!
Of them all, the most popular one says that in 1810 on Good Friday, Don Bernardo Abeyta – a member of the secretive Penitente Brotherhood – saw a bright light beaming up from the valley. Upon further inspection, he noticed the light was coming from a crucifix, half-buried in a hillside.
He dug up the crucifix with his bare hands and turned it over to a local priest who placed the crucifix on the altar in his church. Mysteriously, the crucifix disappeared the next day and was found in the exact same spot where Abeyta had originally found it. This was repeated two more times.
Another version states that Abeyta once had a vision of his patron saint when he was sick. After he had visited the exact same spot from his vision, he found a buried crucifix. He was cured immediately, and associated his healing with the dirt where the crucifix was found. After that, other people reported the dirt to be effective in curing their ailments as well.
A miraculously moving crucifix or dirt with healing powers, a chapel was in order! It was built by none other than Abeyta right on the spot where the incidents were said to have happened.
The shrine you see today is not the same original structure though – the current one was built between the years 1813 and 1816.
There are other variations to the legend. One talks about the first Spanish settlers in Chimayó and a priest from Esquipulas, but I know very little about that one so I won’t even attempt to share.
The legends don’t end there though.
They go way back.
El Santuario de Chimayó is not the oldest church in the U.S. or even the oldest church in New Mexico, but this iconic church has been a place of worship long before the beginning of its construction in 1813.
The same spot where the original small chapel was built had been a sacred place for the Pueblo Indians who lived in the surrounding area long before the first Hispanic settlers had arrived.
According to the Tewa legends, there was a hot spring here with healing properties that was sacred to the Tewa Indians. Eventually, the hot spring dried up, but the dry bed left behind retained the same healing properties.
In a way, the Tewa legacy continues. The name “Chimayó” is actually of Tewa origin. It was the Tewa people that named this place after “Tsi-Mayoh”, one of the hills sacred to them that lies directly behind the church.
There is more to El Santuario de Chimayó than just the shrine.
If you want to visit, give yourself enough time to explore the grounds. (Don’t accidentally skip the Santa Niño de Atocha Children’s Chapel located just a few steps away LIKE I DID).
Apart from numerous interesting surrounding structures, there is a beautiful garden with giant cottonwoods to the back of the shrine where you can sit in solitude.
We had spent a few hours on the church grounds, and I would have loved to have a little more time to reflect and soak in the peace.
Be prepared for more happy and sad tears out here as well.
Chimayó isn’t just about religion.
Most notably, Chimayó is known for traditional Hispanic and Tewa Indian arts.
It’s also somewhat of a hub for artists with quite a few galleries and quaint shops which may or may not be your cup of tea.
Another thing Chimayó is famous for is the superior Chimayó chile pepper! It’s grown right here from the original heirloom seeds and in small batches, just like in the olden days.
Whether the dirt has healing properties or not, I’ll let you be the judge… I personally do believe in the power of a prayer because I do believe in the power of thought.
15 Santuario Drive, Chimayo, NM 87522
(Free to visit, donations accepted.)