Pil­grims Make Trek to ‘Lour­des of Amer­ica’

New Mex­ico Chapel, Said to Be Built on Sa­cred Ground, Is Des­ti­na­tion for Thou­sands

The Washington Post Sunday - - National News - By Sylvia Moreno

CHI­MAYO, N.M., April 7 — The first pil­grim ar­rived a week ago, hav­ing walked 90 miles from Al­bu­querque over three days. At dawn on this Holy Satur­day, the faith­ful, the pen­i­tent and even just the curious con­tin­ued to stream into an adobe chapel in the San­gre de Cristo Moun­tains known as the “Lour­des of Amer­ica.”

By Easter Sun­day, tens of thou­sands of pil­grims will have vis­ited the small San­tu­ario de Chi­mayo, a shrine built upon a well of dirt re­puted to have heal­ing pow­ers. Most walk for miles along wind­ing two-lane roads in what is prob­a­bly one of the na­tion’s largest pub­lic dis­plays of de­vo­tion dur­ing Holy Week. As many as 75,000 pil­grims were re­ported sev­eral years ago. Re­cent es­ti­mates have ranged from 40,000 to 60,000 a year.

Most are His­panic res­i­dents of New Mex­ico and neigh­bor­ing Colorado or Mex­i­cans from the nearby states of Coahuila and Chi­huahua, whose fam­i­lies have been con­duct­ing the pil­grim­age for decades.

“We grew up like this,” said Jen­nie Aragon of Po­joaque, N.M., who walked with her fam­ily and her brother and sis­ter-in-law, who live in Delta, Colo. Said her brother, Lawrence Du­ran: “We do it to thank God. He died on the cross for us. A lit­tle sac­ri­fice for Him is not that much.”

But vis­i­tors from afar also join the walk­ers, whose safety is over­seen by scores of law en­force­ment au­thor­i­ties who cor­don off spe­cial lanes for them and are part of a 40agency “cat­a­strophic in­ci­dent man­age­ment plan” for re­spond­ing to any pil­grim­age emer­gency. Well­wish­ers dis­trib­ute wa­ter, soft drinks, and fruit and other snacks. Mem­bers of a lo­cal evan­gel­i­cal Bap­tist church pro­vide a rest stop for pil­grims with chairs, re­fresh­ments and Bi­ble tracts in their quest to “save souls.”

Some pil­grims bear 100-pound crosses on their shoul­ders; oth­ers push baby strollers and bring tod­dlers up the hilly roads. They bring their dogs on leashes and carry rosaries, stat­ues of saints and pic- tures of loved ones serv­ing in Iraq or Afghanistan or longde­ceased fam­ily mem­bers. Many walk and pray for ill or ad­dicted rel­a­tives and friends. Oth­ers for peace or sim­ply to give thanks — or both, as one cou­ple said.

Wally and Clau­dia Collings of Chu­padero, N.M., on their sev­enth con­sec­u­tive Good Fri­day pil­grim­age, said they be­gan walk­ing the 14 miles from their home to Chi­mayo af­ter sur­viv­ing a ter­ri­ble car crash. “We prob­a­bly should have been dead and we didn’t die, and so I said I’m go­ing to walk be­cause I feel grate­ful,” Clau­dia Collings said. “I do this be­cause I can.”

Start­ing last year, they ded­i­cated their walk to the hope for an end to the war in Iraq. “We’re still there,” Wally Collings said. “But we’re still hop­ing,” said his wife.

Two busi­ness col­leagues said they left their meet­ings in Los An­ge­les to join the pil­grim­age af­ter read­ing about it in a travel guide. “In our de­tached ur­ban lives — and not be­ing Catholic and even some­what athe­is­tic — it’s nice to be around peo­ple who are spir­i­tual,” said James Townsend of New York City. He and his col­league, Josh Klaus­ner of Los An­ge­les, walked eight miles Fri­day from Es­panola to Chi­mayo, mostly in si­lence.

“It was a time to stop and think about my own is­sues and prob­lems and think about mov­ing for­ward,” Klaus­ner said. “All of this is good.”

One of the old­est Span­ish set­tle­ments in the South­west, Chi­mayo has been the site of pil­grim­age and prayer for cen­turies. The chapel was built in 1814, af­ter the mirac­u­lous events sur­round­ing the dis­cov­ery of a cru­ci­fix nearby, ac­cord­ing to church leg­end. On Good Fri­day in 1810, a brother of a re­li­gious or­der saw a light em­a­nat­ing from a hill hear the Santa Cruz River. He walked out to the light, dug with his hands and un­earthed a huge cru­ci­fix. The next day he and other wor­shipers car­ried it to the al­tar of the church in Santa Cruz. The next day the cru­ci­fix was gone, only to be found in its orig­i­nal lo­ca­tion. Twice more, the same thing hap­pened.

Church of­fi­cials de­clared the site to be mirac­u­lous, and a few years later a chapel was built above the “poc­ito,” or lit­tle well of dirt, where the cru­ci­fix was dis­cov­ered. Med­i­cal mir­a­cles at­trib­uted to the dirt were soon re­ported and con­tinue to­day.

The wooden cru­ci­fix still oc­cu­pies the al­tar in El San­tu­ario de Chi­mayo. But it is the small well of dirt, in a tiny room off the al­tar, where Holy Week pil­grims and year-round vis­i­tors end their treks. Pil­grims go to Lour­des in France for its heal­ing wa­ters. Here, they scoop dirt into bags and bot­tles to take with them. Some sim­ply rub it on them­selves, like Kevin Kissler, a 17-year-old from Golden, Colo., who walked a bit as part of a se­nior class trip to north­ern New Mex­ico to study the cul­ture of the re­gion. “Maybe I’m try­ing to pre­vent any­thing bad hap­pen­ing,” he said. “I’m not re­li­gious, but I’d say I’m spir­i­tual.”

Over­see­ing the huge event was the Rev. Julio Gon­za­lez, pas­tor of Holy Fam­ily Church in Chi­mayo, which serves nine mis­sions, in­clud­ing El San­tu­ario de Chi­mayo. Even he — a prod­uct, as he said, of “very ra­tio­nal” the­o­log­i­cal train­ing in his na­tive Barcelona, Spain — is taken aback by the fer­vor he sees at Chi­mayo dur­ing Holy Week.

“I ac­tu­ally be­lieve the Amer­i­can peo­ple are very, very re­li­gious, and what we see here . . . tells us that we can­not live only on bread, that we can­not live only by money, that we need some­thing else,” he said. “Th­ese peo­ple are com­ing here moved by a spe­cial en­ergy, by a kind of love that you only have in your heart. You can­not buy this in a su­per­mar­ket or a store.”

PHO­TOS BY LAUREN CLIFTON FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Al­fred Gar­cia of Al­bu­querque, with god­son Thomas Jaramillo and Jaramillo’s mother, Angie, car­ries a 40-pound cross that bears the names of peo­ple who asked Gar­cia to pray for them on Fri­day. Some of the crosses weigh 100 pounds.

Five-year-old Faith Martinez of Santa Fe dis­plays art she bought from a road­side ven­dor dur­ing her pil­grim­age.

Hun­dreds of peo­ple wait on Good Fri­day to get into El San­tu­ario de Chi­mayo in Chi­mayo, N.M. Pil­grims started ar­riv­ing a week be­fore Holy Satur­day.

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