Whether you’re a believer or not, there’s something about the serenity of small churches that makes them inviting. Add an unusual history or legend, and the attraction doubles.
So it is with El Santuario de Chimayo, a small church in Chimayo, N.M., between Taos and Santa Fe. Founded in 1816 by Bernardo Abeyta and other residents of the then-separate village of El Portero, it was purchased by the Spanish Colonial Arts Society in 1929 and donated to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe.
With its thick adobe walls, two bell towers and six-foot crucifix, the church is considered a prime example of Spanish Colonial architecture. But it’s probably best known for the supposedly curative powers of the “holy dirt” that’s found in its sacristy.
Each year, more than 300,000 Native Americans, Hispanics and people of other cultures visit the church. Some come in faith, some out of curiosity, but most come hoping to find miracle cures for their physical or emotional pains, illnesses or disabilities. It has been reported that during Holy Week, pilgrims walk the 30 miles from Santa Fe to the sanctuary; some even walk from as far as Albuquerque, about 90 miles away.
The church has been compared to Lourdes, and the National Park Service has called it “one of the most important Catholic pilgrimage centers in the United States.” In 1970, it became a National Historic Landmark.
Returning to Santa Fe from the High Road Art Tour in September, my husband and I took a short detour off State Road 76 (the High Road) to see the sanctuary. Visitors were few, so we were able to take our time admiring the church with its colorful decorations and wooden devotional paintings, called retables.
A door at the left of the nave opens to a small prayer room, with an amazing number of discarded crutches lining the walls. Above them, the walls are covered with photos and letters from people testifying to the healing power of the holy dirt, which is found in an even smaller adjoining room. The size of a walk-in closet, this room houses a tiny well, called el pocito, dug into the ground and holding the fine soil.
I stepped inside to get a glimpse of el pocito. I hadn’t come to get some dirt, but on an impulse, I decided to take some with me in case my achy knee worsened during the last days of our visit to New Mexico. But I worried that if I knelt down to reach the well, I’d have trouble getting back up.
A few minutes later, a couple joined me. They’d brought along an empty pill vial as a container and began digging up some of the soil to take home — the husband wanted it for his own knee injury. They were quite friendly, and the husband offered to collect some of the dirt for me. I handed him the only receptacle I could find in my purse, a small plastic sandwich bag, which he filled with the soil.
Back at home, I did some research on the holy dirt to learn more about its properties. The first thing I learned is that el pocito isn’t a bottomless pit. It has to be refilled each day by church workers who collect the dirt from the nearby hillsides in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Visitors haul away an estimated 25 to 30 tons each year.
A handout I’d picked up in the sanctuary offered clear instructions on applying the soil: “The Holy dirt is not to be eaten or to be drunk,” it read. It suggested some silent prayers to say as you rub the dirt over the part of your body in need of healing while invoking the name of Jesus.
Some visitors, however, apparently do decide to ingest the soil, sprinkling it on their food or in a beverage. And some people claim to feel its effects merely from having it in their possession.
A TV show called “Miracle Detectives” analyzed the soil a couple of years ago and found that even the high levels of calcium carbonate (which might have a beneficial effect on heartburn) can’t explain the apparently extraordinary healing properties of the holy dirt of Chimayo. More likely, the skeptical detectives concluded, the curative effects — although hard to document — can be explained by the placebo effect, or the “power of positive thinking.”
My knee, knock wood, hasn’t given me any trouble since my visit. I have the baggie of holy dirt in my night table just in case. But maybe it has already worked its magic.
Levine is a travel writer based in Chappaqua, N.Y. Her blog for the over-50 set is More Time To Travel.
El Santuario de Chimayo
15 Santuario Dr.
Daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. October-April and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. May-September. Masses held 11 a.m. Monday-Saturday and 10:30 a.m. and noon Sunday. Free, but donations accepted.