A pilgrimage to El Santuario de Chimayó is synonymous with Holy Week in northern New Mexico. And each year roughly 30,000 people from all over the world make their way during this spiritual time to what is considered to be one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the U.S. (More than 300,000 people visit the site annually.) “Pilgrims” go on this spiritual trek for a variety of reasons such as to honor a loved one who is sick or who passed away, to seek the healing powers of the “holy dirt,” or to demonstrate faith and devotion. Some choose to walk 50, 75, or 100 miles—others pick a point much closer to the destination. But for all, it is a journey of faith and reflection.
Shane Suina, who is 27 years old, says he has been making the annual walk since he was in fifth grade – originally to pray for a sick family member. “It is a family tradition and we walk from Cochiti Pueblo, which takes four days.” He says it seems to get harder and harder each year, and the weather is always a consideration. “I remember the first time we walked there was a foot of snow on La Bajada Mesa and our feet were soaked.” He hopes that this year will be mild. “We pray for other people, not just our family. My dad always makes and carries a small cross, which he gives to someone when he returns. I like seeing these special crosses in people’s homes over the years.”
The “holy dirt” at El Santuario is believed to have miraculous healing powers stemming from a 200+-year-old story of the Wooden Crucifix. Legend has it that a group of men in 1810 saw a mysterious beam of light and when they investigated they found a buried crucifix in the dirt. The wooden crucifix was taken to a nearby church in Santa Cruz and placed in the high altar. However, the following day it was missing and found in the hole where it had been buried. This happened several times until the priests decided to build a small shrine over the hole where the crucifix had been found. Stories spread about the curative powers of this special soil, and people starting coming to seek their own miracles. In 1816, a larger Santuario was build to accommodate the growing numbers of pilgrims. The church is considered a terrific example of Spanish Colonial architecture featuring thick adobe walls, two bell towers, and a six-foot crucifix. It is interesting to note that the site where the crucifix was found was already considered sacred by the Tewa Indians long before the Spanish arrived in the region.
Pilgrims to El Santuario usually make a small donation and bring some sort of offering or photo to leave on the outdoor altar. They also often bring a small container in which to place some of the holy dirt. While the healing powers are in the eye (or some other sense) of the beholder, many pilgrims claim to feel an aura of peace and well being while on the sacred ground.
From the north side of Santa Fe, the route is approximately 26 miles (and an estimated nine miles) if travelling from U.S. 84/285, through Pojoaque and Nambe, and then NM 503 to County Road 98. Keeping pilgrims safe is a momentous effort by New Mexico State Police and the State Department of Transportation and volunteers stationed along the route provide water and snacks for pilgrims. Volunteer Deborah Sparks has been helping pilgrims with their journey for 15 years. “It is a beautiful experience to hear the walkers in prayer as they make their way to the Santuario,” she says. This year she will be a volunteer with a booth set up by the Santa Fe Fiesta Council by the church in Nambe. She adds that there are certain important aspects that make for a good walk. “From what I have seen the most successful walkers have reflective clothing, layer their clothing for the weather, and wear sensible walking shoes.”
Top Tips for Pilgrims
- Be aware of surroundings and stay on road shoulders.
- Wear layers of clothing and keep abreast of expected weather conditions.
- Night walkers should wear bright, reflective clothing and bring flashlights (and extra batteries).
- Bring plenty of water and snacks.
- Pack a first-aid kit.
- Bring a hat and use sunscreen.
- Do not walk alone.
- Let someone know your plan and keep in touch via phone.
For those who wish to visit the site but are not planning to walk or drive, the North Central Regional Transit District usually adds an additional Blue Bus along the Espanola-Chimayó route on Good Friday. Visit ncrtd.org to get details.
To those of you who are planning to walk to El Santuario, stay safe, wear good shoes, and enjoy the journey.