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The Nature of Sanctuary

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Millions of pilgrims, now about 300,000 a year, have visited the Sanctuary since its founding.

We keep hearing that the pace of change is accelerating, and the reference point is innovation in technology. A few days ago, however, I had a disorienting experience relative to an historic landmark—the Sanctuary of Chimayó.

As I descended into a new parking lot at the site about 25 miles north of Santa Fe, I realized that something really big had happened since my last visit. The old entrance had provided a frontal view of the rustic little church. Now the approach was from the side and behind via landscaping and construction designed to promote tourism. My friend and I were immediately unsettled by the new look.

The Sanctuary was founded in about 1816. Located in a green valley blessed by beautiful trees and water, it reportedly stands over what was a hot spring that dried up leaving healing earth. Today a sample of that earth, which can be rubbed on the body as well as ingested, is available in a little “posito” in the floor in a room to the left of the nave.

The Sanctuary has a mysterious connection with a church in Esquipulas, Guatemala. In fact, it was officially named The Santuario de Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas. The earth in Esquipulas was also said to be healing, and its church cross is is “alive” with sprouting leaves to symbolize the healing ministry of Christ. The figure on the crucifix is famously black, possibly because it was carved in ebony or stained by the soot of countless candles.

The story goes that a gentleman named Bernardo Abeyta found an Esquipulas-like crucifix on his land and recognized it. According to local legend, he took it home but the crucifix repeatedly returned to the place where he had found it. At that point, Abeyta petitioned to build a chapel on the chosen site, and construction became a community project.

Millions of pilgrims, now about 300,000 a year, have visited the Sanctuary since its founding. Two little rooms at the entrance to the nave were used from the very beginning to sell goods to visitors. The Sanctuary has always been a center of commerce, so the new gift shops are not out of character with the church community’s longstanding mission.

As I looked around, I had the sense of large ambition afoot, although I don’t know the story behind the redevelopment. A lot of money was invested in the work, which looks rather crude and is already deteriorating in places.

There are many statues on the grounds, many mosaics in windows and on walls, decoration that speaks more of devotion than art. Crosses are the obvious motif—standing in the grass and in big stone arches, woven by pilgrims into wire fences, adorning ironwork fences, and dangling from rosaries hung everywhere.

The best thing the developers did was to plant many new trees, and visitors are blessed by the cool shade of the giants that must have endured for centuries in some cases. In this new, theme-park-tainted environment, I felt the urge to hug an ancient trunk for comfort.

I hope the sacred endures somewhere on this site, but my friend and I could not sense it.  The effort to enhance its appeal may be appreciated by pilgrims whose spirituality can transcend the changes. For others—and I saw another cluster of dismayed visitors—there may be merely a sense of loss.

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