In Chimayo, N.M., how a religious legend is born:
On a chilly February morning, Rosa and Ben Salazar of nearby San Pedro, both 78, visited the Santuario to pray and replenish their supplies of holy water and dirt.
“We’ve had miracles here,” Mrs. Salazar said. They have stepped up their visits since her husband was found to have cancer. “He has spots on his lungs, and the doctor originally said he would have to have chemotherapy,” she said.
“We come here all the time to pray,” she said, and at home they rub the dirt on her husband’s chest and feet. And, lo, after his latest CAT scan, Mrs. Salazar said, the doctor told them that he looked better and that chemotherapy might not be needed after all.
Father Roca believes in miracles, too, but, he said, “They are the work of the Good Lord.”
“I always tell people that I have no faith in the dirt, I have faith in the Lord,” he said. “But people can believe what they want.”
Father Roca prefers to direct attention to the six-foot-tall wooden crucifix above the main altar, and he happily recounts its fabled history.
On a dark Good Friday in 1810, according to legend, men from the secretive Penitente Brotherhood were engaged in rites on a hill above Chimayo — whether self-flagellation, a crucifixion of a chosen member or just prolonged prayer is not clear. One of them, Don Bernardo Abeyta, saw a strange light shining upward from the valley.
When the men went down to investigate, the light disappeared but at its source they discovered a half-buried wooden crucifix. They sent for the nearest priest, 10 miles away in Santa Cruz, who had the crucifix taken in a happy procession to his parish church. But the next morning it was gone and had reappeared at the spot where the men initially found it.
This happened three times, the legend goes, before everyone got the message. Don Abeyta built a small chapel for the crucifix at the discovery site in the valley, which, historians note, had been a sacred area for Pueblo Indians. Soon, word began to spread that this was a place for the lame and the blind to be healed. Today’s dirt hole is said to be on the spot where the crucifix was found, accounting for its supposed
power and the continued faith of visitors even if they know the dirt is brought in from outside.
Father Roca said there was evidence that the crucifix had been brought to the area originally by a Guatemalan priest and from early on, it was called Our Lord of Esquipulas, after a major shrine in Guatemala.
As for the dirt, the best-known attraction of his busy little church, he said: “I don’t like to think about it. People come here not for the crucifix but for the dirt, and some people even sell it.”
Mrs. Salazar, the believer in its healing power, said she knew nothing of Father Roca’s vexation. “I think the dirt gets blessed by the priests, doesn’t it?” she asked.