The transformation of a centuries-old refuge in New Mexico

With 300,000 visitors every year, how can Chimayó’s history be preserved?

It’s a one-and-a-half hour drive from Albuquerque to El Santuario de Chimayó, a 200-year-old folk-Catholic compound in northern New Mexico. The trek to the town of about 2,100 curves and dips with the land as it swings from freeway to highway to two-lane street, suburbs to sparse foothills, Hispano communities to Native American pueblos. Keep an eye out for the roadside signs plugging the Santuario, because cellphone coverage out here gets spotty fast.

Neophytes can be excused if, at any point, they feel lost. But the faithful know to push on. Because they’ve seen the grand finale: a verdant valley that hosts old homes, pepper fields, cottonwood trees and the Santa Cruz River, with a 202-year-old adobe chapel at the center of everyone’s lives.

This shrine is devoted to Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas, a Guatemalan depiction of the crucified Christ that ended up in northern New Mexico, no one knows quite how. The Interior Department described the Santuario as a “very well-preserved and unrestored example of a small adobe pueblo church” in a 1969 survey, and it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It still has that old-fashioned charm. Twin bell towers flank the front door, and an adobe wall encloses the churchyard, which holds burial plots for the family that built it.

 

There’s Mass in English every morning at 11 a.m., but most visitors skip it in favor of a visit to an ancillary room not much bigger than a middle manager’s office. Here, they line up to scoop up dirt from the pocito, a hole refilled every morning with soil drawn from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and blessed by a priest. Believers swear by its alleged curative powers; just outside the Pocito Room there is a Milagros (“miracles”) Room, filled with visible declarations of faith: crutches and shoes, statues of the saints, photographs of the sick and saved.

The Santuario estimates that it receives about 300,000 visitors every year; more than 30,000 pilgrims walk from Santa Fe during Holy Week — the week before Easter — alone. But behind the Santuario’s saintly façade lies a more earthly story, one with competing visions for the site’s past, present and future, torn between clerics who want to make the shrine a worldwide attraction, and locals whose roots here go back generations, and who fear they are losing their Santuario for good.

Visitors take photographs before entering El Santuario de Chimayó.
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I FIRST VISITED CHIMAYÓ IN 2010. A massive snowstorm had blanketed northern New Mexico the day before my visit, transforming the town into a Christmas-card village. I had the Santuario largely to myself for an hour, and the self-guided tour wasn’t long. I got dirt from the pocito, bought rosaries for my siblings from a home-turned-gift shop, and peeked inside the nearby Santo Niño Chapel, built by Severiano Medina in 1857 to venerate an image of the Christ Child — a beloved Catholic icon of Zacatecas, the Mexican state where my parents were born.

I ended my visit with a green chile burrito and bizcochitos (anise-scented cookies) at Leona’s, a small restaurant a short walk away from the pocito. The hype was real: I’ve returned to the Santuario every summer since.

But what I didn’t know that first time was that I had accidentally walked into the beginning of a dramatic transformation.

I noticed the small changes every year, but didn’t think much about it at first. The Bernardo Abeyta Welcome Center opened in 2011, a huge gift shop and art gallery named after the farmer who originally built the Santuario, where legend says he found the Señor de Esquipulas crucifix buried in the ground. Soon came more places to pray: a former barn turned into a room dedicated to the Holy Family (not to be confused with a separate monument honoring the Nativity). A third gift shop sprang up. Behind the Santuario, next to the Santa Cruz River, the Madonna Gardens now featured statues of Mary appearing in multiple ethnicities, made of different building materials — a Vietnamese Our Lady of La Vang in glimmering marble, a Mexican Guadalupe in wood, the New Mexican La Conquistadora in what looks like sandstone.

Those were the tasteful tweaks, but others verged on Disneyfication, and they were inescapable.

Cartoonish guide maps placed around the growing campus (and on sale at the official gift shop for a quarter) turned the sacred grounds into an amusement park. Rock arches next to the Santa Cruz, erected to commemorate the Seven Days of Creation, are now graffitied with in memoriams or dates of visits by people from across the globe. A nearby “Three Cultures” statue depicts a kneeling settler, a Bible-wielding Hispano farmer, and — bizarrely — a Plains Indian.

New art works inside Santo Niño Chapel, a children's chapel.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

A remodeled Santo Niño chapel resembles Catholicism as imagined by Precious Moments, with big-eyed child angels and gaily painted wooden birds everywhere. The new look was the antithesis of the stark, mournful New Mexican-style bultos (wooden statues of the saints) and reredos (altar screens painted in muted colors) inside the Santuario.

This last August saw the most disturbing developments yet. A seashell embedded with sandals — a stylized reference to the Santo Niño, who wears huaraches, and the Shell of St. James, which signifies completion of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain — now marked everything from statues to buildings. Leona’s was gone; a new, church-run restaurant will replace it. Santuario workers now wore clothes that identified them as staff, with a sartorial division of labor: Groundskeepers and shop workers wore cheap red T-shirts, while managers walked around in white polo shirts.

Down in the so-called prayer portals — makeshift shrines devoted to various saints — a scale model labeled the “Santuario Vision Plan” announced more changes to come. A picnic area. More prayer sites. And right in front of the Santuario, a retreat center complete with its own church.

I left saddened, disturbed at the idea of losing my Santuario. Other tourists didn’t seem to mind.

“The dirt is nice, but I’d want to stay a day here instead of just a couple of hours,” a white woman from Maryland told me. She wasn’t Catholic, but had read about the shrine online. “The more holy things here, the better.”

A couple in the Pocito Room where sand is replenished and blessed daily.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

THE BATTLE FOR THE SOUL OF THE SANTUARIO arguably began in 1916. That’s when El Palacio, the official publication of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs and the oldest museum magazine in the United States, ran a 24-page spread, complete with photos and maps, on what it declared a “New Mexico Lourdes.” It was, the author wrote, “probably the most charming bit of primitive Santa Fe architecture in existence.” The article urged people to “preserve the innate beauty, the natural grandeur, the romantic glamour, the precious heritage of (such) monuments hoary with age.”

Abeyta’s descendants, the Chaves family, still owned the chapel. The Archdiocese of Santa Fe, then under the control of French-born clergy, had long neglected it; leaders forbade Mass to be held there in an attempt to reel in New Mexico’s influential lay Catholic movements. Instead, the Archdiocese encouraged pilgrims to visit a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes, 25 miles away in Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo.

But Santa Fe’s elite fell in love with the Santuario. Many felt the Chaves clan couldn’t be trusted with maintaining the chapel, so they launched a public and private campaign to gain control.

In 1919, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported “with regret” that a newly installed red tin roof “detract(ed) tremendously from its picturesque beauty.” Soon, a group calling itself the Society for the Preservation and Restoration of New Mexico Mission Churches discussed how to take over the Santuario.

Outside the Pocito Room, crutches from those who say they were cured by the blessed dirt hang next to candles and statues.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

“Of course it is unsafe as long as it is in Native hands,” one member wrote to another, in a letter excerpted in Brett Hendrickson’s 2017 book, The Healing Power of the Santuario de Chimayó: America’s Miraculous Church. “They are likely at any time to go on a restoring (project) and ruin it.”

The “Natives” in question weren’t Pueblo Indians but rather Hispanos, the descendants of Spaniards who had settled in New Mexico as far back as 1598. The Anglo intellectuals who flocked to Santa Fe in the early 1900s romanticized their architecture, art and customs even as they stereotyped Hispanos as superstitious, fatalistic underachievers. Those caricatures made their way into American culture, from Willa Cather’s 1927 novel Death Comes for the Archbishop (based mostly on the life of Jean-Baptiste Lamy, the founder of the Santa Fe Archdiocese) and even the cult television show Breaking Bad.

The preservation society purchased the Santuario in 1929 from the Chaves family and transferred ownership to the Archdiocese, which renewed religious services once a month but otherwise neglected it. By the time Father Casimiro Roca arrived in 1954, the Santuario’s foundation had cracks and cavities.

Roca served the Chimayó community on and off for 61 years, until his death in 2015. The padre not only rehabilitated the chapel but oversaw the introduction of new grottoes and an outdoor worship area behind the Santuario, down next to the Santa Cruz River. He helped to negotiate the purchase of the Santo Niño chapel from Severiano Medina’s descendants in 1992. Last year, the Santuario dedicated a bronze statue of Roca outside the Abeyta Welcome Center, which also sells wood figurines of him for $100.

But even Roca worried that he had irrevocably changed the Santuario. “The crowds are out of proportion,” he told United Press International. “The facility sometimes becomes a mess.”

This was back in 1987.

Gil Martinez with the first piece that Father Julio Gonzalez saw in his art studio — a carving of Saint Francis of Assisi — which Martinez later donated to the Santuario.
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GIL MARTINEZ, WHOSE ANCESTORS settled in the state over 400 years ago, had visited Chimayó almost every month throughout his adulthood when Father Julio Gonzales walked into his arts and craft store sometime in 2007.

“Santuario for northern New Mexico is an icon,” says the 62-year-old graphic designer for the city of Santa Fe. “Everyone goes. If someone is sick, or you have a hard time, that’s it. You go there.”

Gonzales was slowly assuming Roca’s duties at the Santuario, so Martinez offered the priest a 9-foot-tall wooden statue of St. Francis of Assisi for free.

“We deliver it weeks later, and he tells me, ‘My dream is to redo this whole (Santo Niño) chapel,’ ” Martinez remembers. “ ‘I want to do a children’s chapel.’ That was the best day of my life.”

Gonzales hired Martinez to completely renovate the chapel. He removed the ceiling to expose the original vigas (load-carrying wooden beams) and installed modern artwork, pews and an altar. Gonzales was so impressed that he encouraged Martinez to do more. He donated a statue of a pilgrim, which now stands near the Santuario’s restrooms, and designed most of the area around the Santa Cruz River, including the “Three Cultures” statue, gazebo and prayer portals.

Santo Niño Chapel, recently renovated as part of a redevelopment plan supported by the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

“Once we met the priest and we started, he had so many dreams to get things done, we just made it happen,” Martinez said. “It was a match that was meant to be.”

But soon, some began complaining that Gonzales and Martinez were cheapening Chimayó.

Villagers have a history of resenting ambitious newcomers who want to remake their home. In 1837, Native Americans and Hispanos in northern New Mexico rebelled against the Mexican governor in what became known as the Chimayó Revolt. Nearly 150 years later, merchants chased out Robert Redford, who wanted to film The Milagro Beanfield War (which dramatized northern New Mexico’s struggle between modernity and development), over fears that he would alter the town square. And in 2008, locals forced the Federal Communications Commission to paint a T-Mobile cellphone tower brown to better blend in with the landscape.

In 2011, the Santa Fe Archdiocese announced plans for a multimillion-dollar spiritual retreat. It had bought about 45 acres of land in Chimayó over the years, and the shrine’s booming popularity, advocates argued, meant the Santuario needed to expand.

The proposed project would restore the former homes of Bernardo Abeyta and Severiano Medina, which stood across the street from the Santuario, and repurpose them as part of a complex that included conference rooms, a restaurant, another chapel, and rooms for overnight stays. Martinez would head a foundation to raise funds, while his brother, Louis, drew up designs.

“We’re bringing the spirituality back into Chimayó,” Martinez told the New Mexican at the time.

Other residents resisted. They formed Chimayó Citzens for Community Planning to fight the Archdiocese. Its president was Raymond Bal, an Abeyta descendant who, with his sister, runs El Potrero Trading Post, which stands between the Santuario and the Santo Niño Chapel. His grandparents opened it as a general store in the 1920s, but over the years it evolved into a gift shop for tourists.

The Santuario “was a place that belonged to us,” says the 61-year-old, who remembers when the daily 7 a.m. Mass was in Spanish because that was the primary language of the elders.

“We had a tangible connection to the past,” he said. “It was like time stopped, and maybe we were time itself because we were the link between the past and the future. This imbued me and the people of the area with that feeling of, ‘This really matters to me.’ ”

Raymond Bal, a descendant of the farmer who originally built the Santuario, heads Chimayó Citzens for Community Planning, formed to fight the Archdiocese’s expansion plans.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

Bal also worried that the Archdiocese was starting to limit access, creating new rules and blocking easements around the property of his grandmother and others.

“The only person you could talk to is from the church, and they’d have a lawyer,” he said. “And you would need a lawyer. Like any older person would, they’d throw up their hands and say, ‘I can’t fight this.’ So they have to sell. And the only buyer is the church.”

At crowded town hall meetings organized by the Chimayó citizens’ group, Martinez and the Archdiocese tried to present their case. Most of those in attendance were skeptical.

“We see the change is slow,” Bal now says. “We see the change tries to be organic. It’s organic to a certain degree until you realize that it’s not from the residents. And now, the future is somebody else’s yet-to-be-seen plan.”

In August 2015, residents went public with their community plan which prioritized the preservation of historical sites and highlighted their “connections to our rural resilient culture by restoring our natural environment, our fields and orchards, our shared acequia systems, our homes, and places where we gather as a community.”

The following year, their wishes for stricter zoning would come true with a new zoning code. Declared traditional community areas could only have development on 50% of their land; rural residential areas only 25%.

The Archdiocese put the retreat plans on hold. (Neither Gonzales nor the Archdiocese responded to requests for comment.) Martinez still feels “horrible” about the death of what he calls a “beautiful project.”

“In my mind, I thought we were doing a wonderful thing for the community,” he said. “It was going to help them with (the economy) in the area, because nobody has work there.”

He puts the blame squarely on Bal.

“He was the biggest complainer of them all,” Martinez said. “As long as he’s around, he’s got enough power around the community that it’ll (never) happen.”

Built as a refuge from the troubles of mankind, the Santuario was now drowning in them. 

Inside the original chapel at El Santuario de Chimayó, in its original state.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

WHEN I SPOKE TO BRETT HENDRICKSON, describing the recent changes, I could hear him wince. “Oh, no,” he’d say. Or just a subdued, “Wow.”

Hendrickson is a professor of religious studies at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania who specializes in Mexican-American popular religious devotions. He last saw the Santuario in 2015, as he finished research for a book about its history.

As a scholar of shrines, Hendrickson is sympathetic to the Bals and Martinezes of Chimayó. “A place has to stay dynamic to keep relevant,” he said. “You need the money and attention to keep it from decaying, but once you open the door, it’s like Pandora’s box. You can see how both sides have need for the place. They all want it to thrive, just in different ways.”

A statue commissioned by Gil Martinez and Nidia Corral Gomez called “Three Cultures,” depicting an Anglo-American settler, a Hispano farmer and a Plains Indian.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

And the Santuario is clearly thriving. An article in the Santa Fe New Mexican about Conrado Vigil, a World War II veteran whose 1946 walk from his New Mexico hometown of Belen to the Santuario (a trip of about 120 miles) has inspired other pilgrims ever since, brought renewed media attention. This past summer, Forbes recommended a day trip; in October, Architectural Digest named Chimayó one of its “50 Most Beautiful Small Towns in America,” specifically citing the Santuario.

Meanwhile, Louis Martinez says he last worked with the Archdiocese on its expansion plans about three years ago. But his design firm still prominently displays a “Chimayó Retreat” page among the featured projects on its website.

You don’t abandon beloved spots just because they’re changing, so I’ll continue to make my annual pilgrimage as long as I can. Entering the Santuario, praying at the Santo Niño chapel, still soothes, still serves as a respite from the clamor of day-to-day life.

But the changes hurt. The world is seeping into the Santuario, whether I like it or not. So now when I step into the Pocito Room, the one place that has remained relatively untouched for two centuries, I kneel down to scoop up my dirt — and to remember the past. 

Gustavo Arellano is a features writer for the Los Angeles Times and the author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America Email HCN at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Research Fund.