It is the tradition of tens of thousands of people to make a pilgrimage walk to El Santuario de Chimayo each year on or around Good Friday. In some cases the pilgrims walk for hundreds of miles, sometimes bare-footed, sometimes carrying crosses which are often left on the grounds of El Santuario. Some walk as an expression of their culture and beliefs. Some walk to give thanks for prayers answered. Some walk to pray for divine intercession, healing for themselves or their loved ones, or for enlightenment.
This story talks about the beginning of this tradition. It is a story that spans over one thousand years and three continents. It is a story about a child, about the strength of faith, and about thanksgiving.
The story begins in the seventh century when a statue of the Virgin Mary holding her infant son Jesus was discovered in a field in central Spain. The wondrous discovery of the statue and subsequent miracles in the area, attributed to the Virgin Mary, inspired the people to create a small chapel at the site of the field, in the tiny community of Atocha. The chapel was built larger, destroyed, rebuilt and destroyed several times over the years.
The belief in the intercession of both Nuestra Señora de Atocha (Our Lady of Atocha) and her infant son, is what has remained steadfast. Probably the original statue and, in any event, a more elegant statue of Our Lady built in 1162 were created so that the infant Jesus was detachable. In fact, it became common for believers to remove the child Jesus and keep him nearby when a woman in their family was about to give birth.
Shortly after the small chapel was built in Atocha the Moors crossed over from North Africa (in 711 A.D.) and Spain became a brutal battleground between the predominantly Muslim Moors and the predominantly Catholic population in a series of conquests and re-conquests that would last for over seven hundred years.
It was in the 13th century that the town of Atocha was taken by the Moors. The Christian men were imprisoned under orders of the conquering Caliph. As was common, the feeding and care of the prisoners remained with their families but, in this case, the Caliph, fearful of insurrection and conspiracy, decreed that only children under the age of twelve were allowed to bring food and water to their imprisoned family members. For those men whose families were too poor to provide food or who did not have a child who could bring them food, this order by the Caliph was a sentence of lingering death. Helpless against this decree, except for their prayers, the women of Atocha went to the chapel to pray to Our Lady for her intercession.
Soon reports from the Atocha children returning from the prison were that an unknown boy, dressed as a pilgrim and carrying a gourd of water and loaves of bread, was feeding the prisoners. It was said that he would slip past the sleeping guards or simply smile pleasantly as he walked past them unchallenged. The people of Atocha soon became convinced that this was the child Jesus sent at the bequest of his Mother. When they went to the chapel in Atocha to give their thanks it was noted that the shoes of the statue of the infant Jesus were worn and dirty. As often as they were replaced with new shoes they too would become dirty and worn. This was proof to the people of the nightly excursions of the infant in helping those in need. He became known as Santo Niño de Atocha (the Holy Child of Atocha).
By the end of the Moorish Wars in 1492, both Nuestra Señora de Atocha and her son, the Santo Niño were widely revered. This worship was carried over to the recently conquered Mexico. While the city of Fresnillo was being built in 1540 in what is now the state of Zacatecas in north-central Mexico, the Spanish general overseeing the construction ordered a statue of Nuestra Señora de Atocha from Spain. When it arrived he placed it in the church of St. Augustine in the nearby community of Plateros. Shortly after the arrival of the statue in Plateros there was an explosion at a nearby silver mine and several miners were trapped. The women gathered around the statue to plead for the intercession of Our Lady. They noticed that the detachable statue of Santo Niño was missing. Shortly afterwards the miners were able to escape the mine.
They told the story of being rescued by a young boy who appeared to them in the collapsed mine, gave them water, and led them to safety. After hearing this story the people returned to the church to find the Santo Niño statue back in his place in the arms of his Mother, although with clothes and shoes that were now dirty and full of holes. As a result of this and many other miracles attributed to Santo Niño he became an important religious symbol in Mexico and Latin America. Santo Niño is said to protect, in particular, travelers, miners, the imprisoned and “Los Desamparados” (The Abandoned).
Santo Niño reached New Mexico when Severiano Medina, a prominent member of the tiny village of El Potrero, became seriously ill and promised that, if he recovered, he would complete a pilgrimage to Plateros and the shrine of Santo Niño de Atocha. He carried out this promise and, unable to return with a statue, brought a papier mache doll of the Santo Niño instead. Immediately upon his return he received permission to construct a private chapel to house the doll. This chapel was built within a few hundred yards of El Santuario de Chimayo which had been built about 40 years earlier.
It was at this chapel, built by the Medina family, that the people of northern New Mexico learned about the Santo Niño and where the child became part of the culture of the northern Rio Grande Valley. By 1941, many of the 1,800 New Mexico National Guardsmen comprising the 200th Coast Artillery Regiment were familiar with the story of Santo Niño and some had visited the chapel in Chimayo. Stationed in the Philippines at the outset of WWII, they were the first to fire on the wave of Japanese fighter planes and bombers that attacked on 8 December 1941.
They prayed to the Santo Niño as their supplies dwindled, as their numbers dwindled, and as they, and their Filipino compatriots, began the slow retreat across Luzon to the very tip of the Bataan Peninsula where they made their last stand. With no hope of victory or of aid from the decimated U.S. Pacific Fleet, they must have truly felt themselves “Los Desamparados”. Finally, on 9 April, 1942, they surrendered, only to learn that their personal trials and torment had just begun. 75,000 American and Filipino troops began what is now known as the “Bataan Death March” to the prisoner-of-war (POW) camp, Camp O’Donnell. As many as 18,000 soldiers were murdered by the Japanese soldiers on this 61-mile march. The remainder faced 40 months of interment in various POW camps; many were transported in “hell ships” to slave labor camps in Japan and Manchuria.
At the end of the war only half of the 1,800 New Mexico National Guardsmen were still alive; New Mexico soldiers having suffered the highest mortality rate of any state. Yet, those who returned talked about how they attributed their survival to their faith and to the intercession of Santo Niño de Atocha.
By the late 1940s some of the surviving soldiers and their families, numbering about 2,000 people, began what has become the annual Easter pilgrimage to Chimayo as a means of expressing their profound gratitude to Santo Niño. Because the Santo Niño Chapel was a private chapel (until 1992, when it was acquired by the Archdiocese of Santa Fe) a statue of Santo Niño was placed in a side room in the chapel of nearby El Santuario de Chimayo. Thus, El Santuario, established because of the miracle associated with Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas (Our Lord of Esquipulas), became, somewhat inadvertently, identified with Santo Niño de Atocha.
Today the Easter pilgrimage is taken by as many as 40,000 people annually. By the efforts of the Holy Family and the Medina family, Santo Niño chapel is completely restored. Inside a small room adjoining the main chapel is a wooden statue of Santo Niño made by the famous santero, Felix Lopez. Filling shelves resting against the adobe walls are pairs of children’s shoes left by the faithful, some with names and dates, some with notes of entreaty or thanks. They are intended, as such offerings have been for over one thousand years, for the Holy Child so that he may have clean shoes as he travels on his journey to provide comfort to those in need.