Rev. Casimiro Roca in the sanctuary of the Santuario de Chimayo in northern New Mexico.
Legend has it that the dirt is holy and can cure whatever is wrong with you. Given the reputation of the small chapel in Chimayo, New Mexico, who can blame me a few years back as I looked around the room with its hundreds of discarded crutches hanging on the walls and knelt at the hole in ground? I scooped up some of the miracle dirt, ate a little bit and rubbed the rest on my hands and arms as if I were washing them.
I have no way of knowing how many ailments the reddish dirt has cured in me. Perhaps I am alive today because of it. Perhaps it was just dirt and did nothing. Whatever the case, the situation at the Santuario de Chimayo speaks volumes about miracles.
The New York Times recently revealed that visitors to the little chapel each year abscond with so much of the holy dirt that it must be regularly replenished. The visitors bring their own baggies or they purchase bags of “blessed dirt” in the chapel’s gift shop. They eat it, brew tea from it, make a muddy ointment from it or just rub it on their bodies to invoke its healing power.
“It’s not the dirt that makes the miracles!” an exasperated Rev. Casimiro Roca told the Times reporter. “I always tell people I have no faith in the dirt. I have faith in the Lord. But people can believe what they want.”
Father Roca, having spent 50 years at the chapel, pointed to a small nearby outbuilding. “I even have to buy clean dirt,” he said. He stores the dirt in the building until it’s time to replace the dirt in the hole inside the chapel.
This all got started on Good Friday in 1810 when a group of penitents practicing a secret ritual spotted a light shining upward from the valley below, in an area considered sacred by the Pueblo Indians. There they found a half-buried wooden crucifix and carried it off to the church in Santa Cruz, 10 miles away. But the next morning, the mysterious cross was back in its hole in the ground. Three times the cross was carried to Santa Cruz and three times it enigmatically returned to the original hole. The priest from Santa Cruz built a chapel around the hole and word spread that the dirt could heal the lame and the blind.
Now, each Good Friday several thousand pilgrims walk several miles in a procession to the Santuario de Chimayo, some carrying heavy crosses, some crawling eight or so miles on their knees. And throughout the rest of the year, thousands more visit the chapel known as the Lourdes of America.