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Easter Pilgrimage in Northern New Mexico

Pilgrims' offerings

Hilltop shrine along the route

El Santuario in summer
by Susan Clough

[From Spring 2009]

Good Friday means itchy feet to me. It has for fifteen years. I’m not alone. My hiking buddies Jeanne and Audrey are just as afflicted each Friday before Easter. Who can remember now which of us had the original idea of making the Good Friday pilgrimage to El Santuario de Chimayó north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, a tiny 200-year-old chapel believed to have been built on sacred earth, rife with healing powers? The tradition has surely seeped into our DNA. We always have plenty of company. No matter the weather or Easter’s roaming date, each year masses of pilgrims inch their way to this humble Catholic shrine. Long before daybreak, a swell of hardy, early bird pilgrims carrying glow sticks take to these rural lanes that snake through the hilly, eroded Northern New Mexico landscape. Arriving footsore at the humble mud and wood holy spot – like to a mini Lourdes – the pilgrims may fulfill a personal promise, say a prayer or pocket a handful of the sacred healing dirt found in a hole under the floor in a small room next to the sanctuary.

It’s Friday, March 21, 2008, early in the year for Good Friday. Something about the moon. At 7000 feet on this first day of Spring we’re lucky not to need snowshoes. The weather is cool and sunny, boots are laced, pockets stuffed with antidotes for too much sun and fussy muscles. By tradition we will begin our trek at our friend Edward’s home in Nambe. Our routine is to park the car, hug Edward, drink coffee and join the throngs for the eight and a half miles to the church. After a suitable pause at the church we will about face and suffer the eight and a half miles back to our car. As we join the throng along Nambe’s normally quiet Route 503, we are caught in the déja vu Good Friday pilgrim clutch of cars, walkers and memories. The killer tsunami of pilgrims gathers force now, at daybreak, when it’s warmer and lighter. We’re caught in its crest. It’s slow going through this sea of metal and moving flesh. Nine miles from Portrero, the site of the Santuario, the roadsides are jammed with empty parked pilgrim cars and a seamless file of humanity. Most make the devotional journey on foot –either a few short feet or up to hundreds of miles. Some speed by on bicycles, motorcycles or on horseback. Infant pilgrims are pushed or pulled in carts or buggies. A few feeble walkers struggle along on crutches, often abandoning the crutches and, in a show of high drama and devotion, crawl the last few feet before joining the masses waiting hours to enter the chapel. Finally, mission accomplished, most hitch a ride back to their cars, crouched and crowded in the back of a Good Samaritan’s pick up.

People watching doesn’t get any better than this. One young guy, walking with his skinny girlfriend, sports a boa constrictor tight around his neck. Looking at the parade of baby strollers I wonder how in heck those plastic wheels can be up to the task. Identical commemorative t-shirts groups are frequent. Usually one in the group carries a large cross. They must take turns. Sometimes a whole shirt bunch has stepped off the road and, with heads bowed, prays in memory of the person pictured on their shirts. One middle-aged guy is moving at a snail’s pace because he’s the human engine dragging a 20-foot long wooden cross, constructed from 6’by 6s, which he has cradled on a metal contraption.

The cross is covered in multi-colored scribbled names – like an autographed cast on a kid’s broken arm. The cross driver invites us to sign in – telling us that, “I started in Newport Beach, California." I doubt it. He’s a grizzled guy with a dragging stomach, more P.T. Barnum than pilgrim. We cheer an old woman walking with her oxygen – “Way to go!” Cell phones abound. Water not so much. Roadside services run the gamut. A mortuary has posted an eye-popping advertising sign on a light pole next to their roadside table. Funeral workers are pressing Oreos and peanut butter granola bars into our palms. Port-a-potties dot the route with lines nearly as long as the route! Police cruisers roll by regularly. Fancy emergency care vans stand ready for the worst. Wow, do we pilgrims feel protected and coddled!

Who said there’s no free lunch? For the pilgrims suffering through this walk on Good Friday there is free lunch. Those who would rather not walk but want to be part of the Good Friday devotion scene set up shop along the verges offering free goodies out of open car trunks or under RV awnings. We pick and choose as we stride along. An Albuquerque produce company has spread out a seemingly bottomless plethora of fruit. Jeanne and Audrey think about calories and make good choices. By the time we pull in to the Santuario they have stockpiled hard-boiled eggs (one each), bananas (one each), a mortuary peanut butter granola bar (one each) and an orange (one each). I have squirreled away the same – one each – for lunch. But for the road my pockets are brimming with caloric contraband I’ve picked up on the sly – Tootsie rolls, broken chocolate chip cookies and popcorn. I bring up the rear.

So, three hours after joining the hordes outside Edward’s house we triumphantly limp into the churchyard. The lines waiting to enter are worse than at the port-o-potties. Jeanne and Audrey go directly to the sacred dirt door and talk someone into getting them some dirt for a dollar or two. We find a spare dusty spot in the shade and have at our healthy free lunch – before turning about face, walking back to Edward’s and enjoying another pot of coffee – well laced.

During Holy Week, thousands make the pilgrimage to El Santuario de Chimayó. Some come from as far as Albuquerque, more than 90 miles to the south. In 2009, Good Friday falls on April 10. Easter Sunday is on April 12.

For more history, directions and pilgrimage information, visit: or

For lodging in nearby Santa Fe, check out the comfortable and well-located El Paradero B & B (; the quiet Inn on the Alameda (; or the upscale Inn of the Anasazi (

Story photographs by Melissa Cicci. Preview photograph © SGCP,

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