El Santuario de Chimayo, New Mexico. Photo taken by H.S. Poley circa 1918.
An adobe church with two bell towers, wooden doors, and a walled courtyard with wood doors at the arched gate with cross on top. H. S. Poley collection. Courtesy of the Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library.
Santuario de Chimayó
by William H. Wroth
Following in a long tradition of miraculous shrines in Mexico and Spain, it is no doubt the most important Catholic pilgrimage center in the United States. As many as 300,000 pilgrims visit the shrine every year, approximately 30,000 during Holy Week alone. There is no formal founding date for the settlement of Chimayó, but Tewa Indians had long lived in the area before the Hispanic settlements were established. At least 33 prehistoric sites have been documented along the Santa Cruz River and its tributaries which include the Chimayó area. In 1695 Diego de Vargas attempted to re-settle Tewa-speaking Tano Indians at “Zimayo,” but they refused to take up this new settlement. After the Reconquest in 1696, the returning and newly arrived Hispanic families at Santa Cruz de la Cañada began to spread out along the river and its tributaries, and the lush area known as El Potrero (The Pasture), the future site of El Santuario, soon attracted settlers. The first formal community was nearby Plaza del Cerro (its chapel dedicated to San Buenaventura), which was established by 1751.
By 1805 if not earlier, devotion to a miraculous Guatemalan image of Christ crucified known as Our Lord of Esquipulas (Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas) had become popular at El Potrero. In that year a child was christened with the name Juan de Esquipulas by Fray Sebastián Alvarez, the resident Franciscan friar at Santa Cruz de la Cañada. In 1813 Bernardo Abeyta (uncle of the child so christened) petitioned in the name of the residents of El Potrero to the same Fray Sebastián for permission to build a chapel dedicated to Our Lord of Esquipulas, who had already been honored since 1810 in a small chapel of the Abeyta family. Fray Sebastián wrote in support of Abeyta’s petition in 1813 that people had been coming to Abeyta’s chapel for some time to “give praise to the sovereign Redeemer” and “to relieve their ailments.” He also stated the location and name of the new chapel “at the said plaza or Rancho del Potrero, which is called El Santuario de Esquipulas.” By 1816 the Potrero chapel was completed and its elegant carved door, still to be seen today, was made by carpenter Pedro Domíngez at the expense of Fray José Corea, the resident friar at Santa Cruz, who had succeeded Alvarez.
Devotion to Our Lord of Esquipulas originated at an early colonial shrine in Guatemala where the earth itself was said to be effective in curing illnesses. This miraculous statue of Christ is attached to a “living” cross, painted green and sprouting leaves and branches, symbolic of its healing and life-giving qualities. At both the shrine in Guatemala and at El Santuario pilgrims come from distant places to be healed, and there has been much speculation concerning the way in which the devotion to the miraculous image and the healing earth of such an apparently remote shrine in Guatamala came to be transplanted to New Mexico. Some have suggested that Abeyta or perhaps a friar must have traveled to Guatemala. However, the devotion to Our Lord of Esquipulas, although originating in Guatemala, was by 1800 already widespread throughout central Mexico and was found also in the north, ranging as far as northern Sonora. So there is no reason to posit a direct introduction to New Mexico from Guatemala, leapfrogging Mexico.
It appears that devotion to this dark-complected image of Christ crucified was spread through Mexico primarily by Franciscan friars. In the 1690s friars from the Convento de la Santa Cruz in Querétaro, Mexico, led by Antonio Margil de Jesús and Melchor López de Jesús, were sent to Guatemala and in 1694 founded the Hospice of the Calvary. In the year 1704 Margil de Jesús founded the Colegio de Cristo Crucificado in the city of Santiago de Guatemala (now known as Antigua) and spent several years traveling all over the country before returning to Querétaro and later founding the Colegio de Guadalupe in Zacatecas. Without doubt Margil de Jesús and his fellow Franciscans were perfectly familiar with this miraculous image of Our Lord of Esquipulas, who by 1704 was already one of the patron protectors of the city of Santiago de Guatemala.
It is likely that Margil de Jesús and his friars brought this devotion back to Querétaro, and the many shrines and altars to Our Lord of Esquipulas in Nueva Galicia (the present states of Jalisco and Michoacán) owe their origin to Franciscan friars of the eighteenth century. This devotion did not exist in northern Mexico in the early 1700s, before Margil and his friars returned from Guatemala. Later during the 1700s the devotion was found in many of the Jaliscan communities under Franciscan auspices and apparently had been established by the resident friars. Among the towns in Jalisco where the devotion to Our Lord of Esquipulas is found are Zapotlan (Ciudad Guzmán), Tuxpan, Cocula, Tenamaxtlán, and Juchitlán, as well as in the city of Colima, just south of Jalisco.
Thus it is quite possible that Fray Sebastián Alvarez or some other Franciscan could have introduced the devotion to Our Lord of Esquipulas to the Chimayó area of New Mexico where it was avidly embraced by Bernardo Abeyta. As Borhegyi notes: “The correct spelling of the name Esquipulas as we find it in Don Bernardo's letter and in the parish records, as well as the proper iconographical style of the crucifix in the Santuario of Chimayó, indicates that someone must have had first-hand knowledge of the original image and cult in Guatemala.” That someone with accurate knowledge could have been a Franciscan friar, or it could have been Don Bernardo Abeyta himself, and he could well have visited one of the many shrines to Our Lord of Esquipulas in central and northern Mexico, seen the sagrada copia of the miraculous image and brought home devotional booklets giving the history, feast day and other information concerning this devotion.
The original miraculous statue of Our Lord of Esquipulas was popular with the Indians in Guatemala, in part because of the dark complexion of the face of Christ, and it is not surprising that the image at El Santuario was also popular with Pueblo Indians in New Mexico. The site of Santuario was said by the Tewas to have originally been a hot springs which eventually dried up leaving the healing earth. This healing earth had long been known and used by the Tewas prior to the Spanish occupation of the Santa Cruz valley. The name Chimayó derives from the Tewa words Tsi Mayoh, meaning “Hill of the East.” This hill rises just above Chimayó and is a prominent landmark seen from all directions. According to Alfonso Ortiz, it was one of the four sacred hills in the Tewa cosmology. In historic times both Indians and Hispanos have traditionally been pilgrims to El Santuario, and they have parallel stories concerning the miraculous origin of the statue of Our Lord of Esquipulas. Like many similar images of superhuman origin in Mexico and in Spain, the statue was said to have been miraculously discovered by some one at the future site of the El Santuario (Bernardo Abeyta is the discoverer in some local Hispano versions) and taken to Santa Cruz (or to Santa Fe) to the priest, but it inexplicably returned to El Potrero. After this happened several times, it was clear that Our Lord wanted to stay at this place, and therefore the church was built.
Bernardo Abeyta died in 1856 and was buried with ecclesiastical permission in El Santuario. At about the same time another chapel was built in El Potrero just a short distance away from El Santuario. Built by Severiano Medina, this chapel was dedicated to the Santo Niño de Atocha, a very popular miraculous image from Fresnillo, Zacatecas. According to family tradition, Medina built the chapel as a promesa because the Santo Niño had cured him from severe rheumatism. The cult of the Santo Niño de Atocha became especially important in northern Mexico and New Mexico after the 1820s. Many images of him, both paintings and sculpture, were created by local santeros in New Mexico in this period, and the name Atocha starts to frequently appear in baptismal records. This second chapel was soon incorporated into the local Catholic observances, and the Santo Niño became associated with the healing earth at the Santuario, where a statue of him also appeared, to some degree replacing in importance Our Lord of Esquipulas.
The church structure, completed in 1816, is unusual for having two additional rooms forming a sort of enlarged vestibule before entering the nave. These rooms were part of the original structure or added shortly thereafter. They are noted in an 1818 inventory, which also lists large quantities of local woven goods and other items stored in these rooms, most likely for the purpose of selling them to pilgrims and itinerant traders. Pilgrimage sites have traditionally combined piety with commerce. Large trading fairs in colonial Mexico were held annually at such miraculous shrines as Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos in Jalisco, where many New Mexicans traveled every year, so it is not surprising that El Santuario would also have a commercial aspect to it.
Its spiritual aspects also replicate those of Mexican pilgrimage shrines. The nave of the church is decorated with remarkable examples of nineteenth-century religious folk art, including altarscreens by José Rafael Aragón, José Aragón, Molleno, and other santeros. Behind the altar the miraculous statue of Our Lord of Esquipulas commands the attention of every pilgrim, before he or she enters the room containing the healing earth. On the left side of the nave near the altar are two separate rooms. In one the walls are covered with a multitude of expressions of thanks for the cure of ailments, including some pictorial images similar to the ex-votos paintings found at Mexican shrines, and the other small room contains the posito, a small circular hole in the ground in which is found the healing earth.
El Santuario remained in the ownership of the descendants of Bernardo Abeyta until 1929 when the Spanish Colonial Arts Society in Santa Fe, headed by writer Mary Austin, artist Frank Applegate and architect/preservationist John Gaw Meem, purchased it from the family and donated it to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. Today El Santuario continues to be an important spiritual center, attracting pilgrims from all over the Southwest and elsewhere through the entire year. During Holy Week every year thousands of pilgrims walk to El Santuario from Santa Fe and other starting points.
Borhegyi, Stephen F. de. "The Miraculous Shrines of Our Lord of Esquipulas in Guatemala and Chimayó, New Mexico," El Palacio, vol. 60 (1953), pp. 92-95.
Borhegyi, Stephen F. de. "The Cult of Our Lord of Esquipulas in Middle America and New Mexico," El Palacio, vol. 61 (1954), pp. 387-401.
Gutierrez, Ramon. “El Santuario de Chimayó: A Syncretic Shrine in New Mexico,” In Feasts and Celebrations in North American Ethnic Communities. Ed. by Ramon Gutierrez and Genevieve Fabre. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.
Howarth, Sam and Enrique Lamadrid. Pilgrimage to Chimayó. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1999.
Novena del Milagroso SS. Christo de Esquipulas que se Venera en el Reyno de Guatemala, y por su Sagrada Copia, en la Iglesia de N.P.S. Juan de Dios de la Villa de Colima. Mexico, 1784.
Orozco, Luis F. Los Cristos de Caña de Maiz y Otras Venerables Imagenes de Nuestro Señor Jesucristo, vol. I. Guadalajara, 1970.
Ortiz, Alfonso. The Tewa World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.
Paz, Nicolás de. Novena y Bosquejo de los Milagros y Maravillas, que Ha Obrado La Santísima Imagen de Christo Crucificado de Esquipulas. Mexico, 1781. Reprinted in Guadalajara, 1817.
Paz Solorzano, Juan. Historia del Santo Cristo de Esquipulas, Guatemala, 1949.
Usner, Don J. Sabino’s Map. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1995.
Wroth, William. Images of Penance, Images of Mercy. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.
Contemporary Photos by Annie Sahlin
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