CHIMAYO, N.M. -- They come in pain and in prayer, seeking cures and a cup of sand from a tiny adobe church called Chimayo.
For two centuries, Hispanic and Native American pilgrims have sought help from El Santuario de Chimayo (pronounced CHEE'-mah-YOH'), located in a mountain hamlet in northern New Mexico. They clutch pictures of sick loved ones, hobble weakly on crutches, and bring stories of hopeless conditions. They leave small slips of paper asking for mercy and miracles, promise to give up drinking and show more compassion, and they light candles in front of images of saints and La Virgen de Guadalupe, patron of the Americas.
Before they leave, they visit a room in the shrine that houses "el pocito," which means the little well, a small pit of holy adobe-colored dirt which some say possesses the power to cure. Just one touch, say those who believe, and cancer might go into remission, an injured knee might heal, and leukemia might be held off long enough to witness a child's birth. Along the wall hang crutches that are no longer needed, material proof from those who say they've been helped.
"People discover that there's something special here when they come with an open heart and mind," said Rev. Jim Suntum, a priest at Chimayo. "There's a kind of peace that's available here that you can't find anywhere else."
Chimayo is a National Historic Landmark, described in the landmark citation as a "well preserved, unrestored example of a small adobe church, notable for its original decorations, including numerous superb religious paintings." Some 200,000 people are estimated to visit each year, and Suntum says many of those visits occurring during Easter Week. The Archdiocese of Santa Fe says Chimayo has been called the "Lourdes of America."
The history of el pocito goes back 200 years, when legend holds that a friar, performing penances, saw a strange light streaming from a hillside near the Santa Cruz River. The friar began to dig to find the source of the light, and soon uncovered a crucifix. The crucifix was taken to a nearby church several times, but according to the story, it kept mysteriously returning to the place where it was found.
A chapel was built there in 1813, and followers have been returning to pray at el pocito ever since. They take so many cups of dirt to spread over foreheads, hearts and knees, that Chimayo officials must refill the pit periodically with replacement sand that's been blessed. Visitors can purchase small containers of sand for $3 to take to a sick relative, or even order the sand from the shrine's website.
Suntum said Chimayo officials typically refill el pocito with fresh, blessed desert dirt every day. During the crowded week of Easter when the shrine can see as many as 100,000 visitors, Suntum said officials have to refill the hole every hour.
The hallway outside el pocito is covered with photos of the sick on one side and soldiers and police officers on the other. Many pictures have notes attached, like one that asks God to protect a Marine from the Navajo Nation who is serving in Iraq. Another note asks the Guadalupe virgin to "hold off my cancer until I can see my daughter graduate from college. After that, I'm yours."
On a recent Sunday, an elderly woman walked into the hallway staring at the photos of sick children and infant shoes left as offerings. She knelt by the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe, placed her head in her arms and wept so loudly it seemed to shake the flickering candles. Her husband quietly patted her back.
Next door to the Chimayo chapel is another shrine called Santo Nino de Atocha, built in 1856. Here parents of sick children, especially infants, leave toys, clothing, photos and notes seeking miracles in curing autism and other rare conditions.
One note told the story of a boy named Anthony who had meningitis. His parents were told by doctors he would not "walk, talk or go to school." They prayed to Santo Nino de Atocha, and the husband promised "that he would never drink alcohol again."
"You heard our prayers and our son made a full recovery to a healthy, happy baby," wrote the mother, who signed the note as Rosemary and included photos of her son as a baby and a few years later, wearing a baseball uniform.
But the sites are not just for the faithful; they attract tourists as well. Jenny Hwa, 33, of Winston-Salem, N.C., stopped at the site in July during a cross-country trip with a friend. Not knowing the history, Hwa did not have "a lot of expectations" until she saw people around el pocito.
"People were scooping it up like it was gold bars," said Hwa, who was attracted to the artwork around the shrine. "I can see how it can be powerful to some people."
Other visitors, reading the notes, are inspired to get on their knees and pray, while some pull out their cellphones and try to quickly snap a forbidden photo.
Suntum said the notes are "part of the experience of peace" and healing at the shrine. "Why God would choose this place to do his work here...I have no idea," said Suntum. "But he's doing his work here and people are experiencing it."
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