- Associated Press - Friday, March 25, 2016

CHIMAYO, N.M. (AP) - More than 200 years ago, an illiterate, charismatic man placed the image of a dark-skinned Jesus Christ on the cross in a tiny chapel in Chimayo.

Don Bernardo de Bitia, a merchant from Santa Cruz de La Canada, had conceived of building the shrine on a site reputed to have healing powers.

Once the chapel was built, Bitia, who is now known by the surname Abeyta, got permission in 1816 from the bishop in Durango, Mexico, to celebrate the sacraments in the chapel. Bitia often journeyed to Chimayo to trade before he died in 1856. His family buried him under the chapel’s altar.

“He is at the very heart of the church,” said Felipe R. Mirabal, who by the summer of 2017 expects to publish what he calls the first comprehensive book on the history of the chapel.

El Santuario de Chimayo each year during Holy Week becomes the destination of pilgrimages by Roman Catholic faithful, some of whom walk for days to reach the bucolic valley in Northern New Mexico. Many pray for relief from ailments. Inside the chapel, some leave pictures of hearts, hands and eyes - images that represent maladies from which they or those they love suffer.

This year, as Good Friday pilgrims approach on foot and in cars, El Santuario de Chimayo enters its 200th year as a place that beckons people from near and far.

On Thursday, some walked alone or in pairs past crumbling hills, some pushing strollers, others moving stiff-legged with canes.

“Nothing has changed,” Mirabal said.

People who tend to the chapel spent weeks preparing more than 5,000 small bags of dirt from the site to share with people seeking cures to cancer, infertility and other bodily ills.

This year, though, it’s all happening without the Rev. Casimiro Roca, a fixture of the santuario for more than half a century, who died in August. He was known for telling visitors that healing power came not from the dirt, but from their faith, that the dirt was symbolic.

Mirabal said it is a common theme in pilgrimages around the world: People return from religious journeys with relics they hope will heal those who stayed home.

As he walked along U.S. 84/285 on Thursday, David Kufahl, 57, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, prayed for many things, including the victims of Tuesday’s terrorist bombings in Belgium that killed at least 31 people. His friend, occupational therapist Cheri Lorenzo, 60, walked by his side as they approached a hotel in Pojoaque where they planned to spend the night. She said she prayed for a 9-year-old boy she treats at a hospital in Colorado Springs.

“I’m praying that he might have any voluntary control of his hands,” she said. “Right now, it’s just eye gazes.”

The sacrifice they are making - walking more than 30 miles from Santa Fe to Chimayo - is also for their own benefit, they said. It is stronger than a bedside prayer, they said. Kufahl said his feet blistered after they passed Tesuque, “and every time you feel that pain, it reminds you that you’re sacrificing.”

During most pilgrimages throughout the world, Mirabal said, people are changed before they reach the end.

He made his first Chimayo pilgrimage when he was 3. He said you can feel the change. People laugh and make light of the walk while they’re on it, but “at some level it will transform them,” he said.

Pilgrimages by Hispanic Catholics date back to A.D. 40, says Steve Martinez, a Santa Fe Community College history professor. Spaniards exploring the New World brought the tradition with them, he said.

After World War II, this symbol of faith and commitment drew Hispanic survivors of the Bataan Death March, he said.

A 1946 article in The New Mexican reported that seven survivors of that tragedy at the hands of Japanese captors planned to make a 31-mile pilgrimage to Chimayo in April of that year.

“Any veteran from any theater is welcome,” former Sgt. Jesus M. Silva told a reporter at the time. “It doesn’t matter what religion a man is.”

Another veteran said, “Maybe we’ll dig a foxhole and sleep. I’ll bring along my bolo (tie) and cut my way right through that Chimayo jungle.”

Martinez said such war veterans helped the pilgrimage evolve into what it is today.

“They survived this march, across the Pacific, basically while they were devoutly, piously Catholic,” he said. “Many of them saw this as a way to thank God for surviving. Imagine if you had survived walking across the Philippines. Do you see the symbolism in that?”

Today, all types of people seek change and healing from the chapel.

Carmen Montoya, a 57-year-old IRS employee from Albuquerque, walked 11.5 miles Thursday through the rolling desert with four others and a Yorkie named Bentley.

Her mind traveled during the trek, she said. Her thoughts wandered to her father, who died in 2003, and her mother, who died in 2013. Her thoughts traveled to those she loves. Standing under pink blossoms outside the chapel, friends who had walked with her said the slow pace gave them time to appreciate life and being alive.

“I think you need to slow down sometimes and just stop,” Montoya said. “We’re always in such a hurry.”

___

Information from: The Santa Fe New Mexican, https://www.sfnewmexican.com

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