The little town of Chimayó was settled in the late 1700s by Spanish families who gathered around several small enclosed plaza (the better to guard against attacks from nomadic Indian tribes). The area became known for its apple orchards and the beautiful weavings down by these families from the wool of their own sheep—a skill that has been handed down through the generations, as attested to by the many family-owned weaving shops that still dot the area’s roadsides.
At one of these plaza enclaves, known as El Potrero, lived the prosperous Abeyta family. The story goes that in the year 1810, Don Bernardo Abeyta (the devout patriarch of the family) was performing his Good Friday penances—praying and probably flagellating himself with a whip made from the leaves of the yucca plant—when he saw a bright light a few yards away near the Santa Cruz River. There he discovered a large wooden crucifix, which he named for Our Lord of Esquipulas, also known as the “Black Christ,” whose shrine had been venerated by his family for generations. Don Bernardo showed his neighbors his surprising find, and they set off to show the crucifix to the priest at Santa Cruz, some seven miles away.
The crucifix was placed in a niche (nicho) in the altar screen of the church there; the next morning, however, it was gone. It was found again in Chimayó, at the very same spot where Don Bernardo had found it the day before. The crucifix was returned to Santa Cruz, but again disappeared and reappeared in Chimayó. Eventually, Don Bernardo built a room onto his home to shelter Our Lord of Esquipulas.
In 1813, Don Bernardo Abeyta asked for—and received—permission to build a chapel on the spot where he’d found the crucifix. He hired the most famous santeros of the day to paint the beautiful reredos (altar screens) that still grace the sanctuary and the side walls of the nave. The wooden crucifix of Our Lord of Esquipulas was placed in the center of the main altar screen. In a tiny room next to the sanctuary is a hole in the center of the floor over what is said to be the very spot the crucifix appeared. From this hole, visitors have been scooping up the “holy dirt” which makes the santuario a place of pilgrimage for the devout and the sick (The hole is refilled daily with dirt from the yard outside the chapel). An adjacent room holds crutches, braces, and other testaments and notes of gratitude left by those who have found healing at Chimayó.
Legend says that the Tewa Indians who lived here long before the Spanish settlers came had always recognized this land as a “power spot” and its earth as having healing properties. Today, visitors come from around the world to experience Chimayó and take home some of its holy dirt. Every year on Good Friday, thousands of pilgrims journey to Chimayó, many walking the thirty-five miles from Santa Fe or even farther.