“Cock-a-doodle-doo!” a rooster crows, announcing the break of dawn. Streaks of orangey-red begin appearing on the horizon. “Peter denied Christ thrice and the rooster crowed twice,” a wide-eye young man tells another pilgrim. “It almost makes you feel like you’re right there in Jerusalem during Holy Week.”
“Why are you here today?” the pilgrim asks in reply.
“To thank God for unshackling me,” he says, spinning a crucifix-ring around his thumb. “I was a drug addict and did terrible things. Even stole a chalice from a church. People prayed for me, and now I’m standing in the gap for others to be redeemed from that horrible bondage.”
Mile after mile, the God-stories pour out. “For my six-year-old daughter with leukemia.” “I think God is calling me to the priesthood.” “I lost my job.” “My husband deserted me and my kids.” “I’m suffering from depression.” “I’m trying to get pregnant.” A litany of reasons, a litany of prayers.
As the sun rises, more throngs of pilgrims join this Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows): parents pushing their young peregrinos in strollers, singles, boyfriends and girlfriends, grandparents and grandchildren, a woman with a pilgrim-Chihuahua, gray-robed Franciscans, and blue-veiled nuns. Reminiscent of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, a man leads a donkey down the road.
Nobody knows when the Good Friday pilgrimages to El Santuario began, but making the walk has long been a sacred tradition. During World War II, New Mexican soldiers captured by the Japanese and forced to make the Bataan Death March beseeched God. “Spare our lives,” they begged, “and we promise to make the Good Friday walk.” And they did in 1946, their first year back home. They came on crutches, in wheelchairs, on their knees, and in the arms of other soldiers.
The historic adobe El Santuario de Chimayo. (Photo by author)
When El Santuario was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970, the Good Friday pilgrimages began to swell from hundreds of pilgrims to tens of thousands. Today, the Good Friday walk to Chimayo is the country’s largest religious pilgrimage — pilgrims extending father than the eye can see.