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Despite its modest size and appearance, a little adobe church in Chimayo, N.M., is one of the most-visited sacred sites in America. Each year, more than 300,000 visitors from around the world come here to gather dirt that's said to have healing properties. Even if you're skeptical of miracles, the tranquillity, beauty and rich history of the village of Chimayo make this an attractive destination.
Long before the Spaniards arrived in the region, Chimayo was considered sacred by the Pueblo Indians, who thought that healing spirits inhabited the hot springs in the area.
Chimayo's fame spread to the larger world in 1810, when a story began to circulate of a local man who saw a light springing from one of the hills near the Santa Cruz River. After following it to its source, he found in the earth a cross bearing a dark-skinned Jesus. In 1813, a small chapel was built in Chimayo to house the crucifix.
Through the years, the story of the crucifix became intertwined with earlier indigenous beliefs. Even though the hot springs had dried up, the earth in that spot was said to have healing properties.
Humble Chimayo's reputation for miracles gradually spread, especially after World War II when survivors of the Bataan Death March made a walking pilgrimage to the church on Good Friday in gratitude for their deliverance. The tradition of a Holy Week pilgrimage continues to this day, when more than 30,000 people walk to the church before Easter. Many travel the eight miles from the town of Nambe while others walk from as far away as Santa Fe or Albuquerque.
The adobe church, which is officially known as El Santuario de Chimayo, is one of the finest examples of Spanish Colonial architecture in New Mexico, with a timbered ceiling, rough-plastered interior walls, and simple wooden pews. Five reredos (panels of sacred paintings) done in colorful folk-art style adorn its walls, one behind the altar and two on each side of the nave.
An adjoining small room is known as the pocito, which in Spanish means 'little well.” By tradition, this is the spot where the miraculous crucifix was found in 1810. A small hole in the ground is kept refilled with fine-grained dirt taken from the surrounding hills. Thousands of people come here each year to scoop up a handful of powdery soil to take home.
Another room in the church gives ample evidence of the faith of those who come here seeking healing. A row of crutches hangs on one wall, presumably left by those who no longer need them, and photographs lining the walls testify to the prayers that have been said here, from soldiers in uniform and elderly women in hospital beds to tattooed motorcycle riders and babies with oxygen tubes.
Even at Chimayo, however, a certain matter-of-factness reigns. In a 2008 interview, Father Casimiro Roca, who served as rector at the church for more than five decades, said that the dirt is replenished each day by human hands, not miraculously replenished as some believed. 'I always tell people that I have no faith in the dirt, I have faith in the Lord,” he told a New York Times reporter. 'But people can believe what they want.”
While not as well-known, another church in the village also draws many visitors. This church is dedicated to El Santo Nino de Atocha, the Holy Child of Atocha, whose devotion has roots in Spain. In contrast to the rough-hewed somberness of the Santuario, this church has a brighter, more modern feel. On its altar is a statue of a sleeping young boy. A charming custom in this church is to buy pairs of shoes for this Holy Child, who is said to be dozing because he spends each night helping people in trouble. Hundreds of pairs of shoes line the walls of the shrine, given by some of the many pilgrims who come here each year.
After visiting the churches and wandering through the picturesque village of Chimayo, it's easy to see why some travelers return to this destination again and again. Whether or not you receive a miracle, you're likely to leave with a lighter heart.
IF you go
Chimayo is located 30 miles north of Santa Fe, N.M. The closest airport is Albuquerque, N.M., which is a 90-minute drive from Chimayo. In addition to its churches, the village is known for weaving shops that sell some of the finest handmade blankets and rugs in the Southwest. And be sure to have a meal at Rancho de Chimayo, a village landmark known for its traditional New Mexican cuisine. For information on the shrine, see holychimayo.us; for information on New Mexico tourism, see newmexico.org.
Visit Georgia O'Keeffe Country
By Lori Erickson, correspondent
From Chimayo, N.M., drive north for an hour to explore a region famed for its connection to artist Georgia O'Keeffe.
O'Keeffe became fascinated by New Mexico on a visit to Santa Fe in 1917 when she was 29. 'From then on, I was always on my way back,” she later said. For a number of years that meant summer visits from her home in New York, but in 1949 she moved permanently to the region, first to a house at Ghost Ranch and later to one in the small village of Abiquiu. The dramatic countryside of northern New Mexico, a landscape of undulating hills and multicolored cliffs and canyons, became her artistic and spiritual home.
Ghost Ranch (ghostranch.org), which now is an education and retreat center, offers tours based on the artist's time in the region. Many of O'Keeffe's paintings of whitened animal skulls and high desert vistas were inspired by her time at the ranch.
Visitors also can tour O'Keeffe's home and studio in the small village of Abiquiu, a dozen miles to the south. After purchasing a rundown house there in 1945, O'Keeffe spent three years restoring it and then made it her home for the rest of her life. To further explore the artist's life and creative legacy, visit the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum (okeeffemuseum.org) in Santa Fe, which has the world's largest collection of her work and personal memorabilia. The museum also runs the tours at Abiquiu.