This oil painting lives in Denver, CO. It’s large by my father’s standards, but the subject clearly required it. The scene is of the Santuario de Chimayó, a chapel in a little Northern New Mexico town about halfway between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. It’s where John Nicols set the Milagro Beanfield War, the first novel in his New Mexico Trilogy, and it is the heart of New Mexico’s strain of magical realism and the Penitente Brotherhood. In fact, Chimayó is considered to be one of the most important Roman Catholic shrines in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of people travel there each year. At Easter some pilgrims endanger themselves and others by shuffling along on their knees from as far away as Albuquerque (90 miles). I remember one year, when I was about ten, a man tried to walk the whole way wearing only shorts and with a giant crucifix on his back. He made it about 5 miles (to Bernalillo) and collapsed on the side of the road. Fortunately, his family was following him in a pick-up truck. They revived him, gave him a shirt, put the crucifix in the flat bed, and he continued on in less spectacular fashion.
Chimayó is also the home of Santo Niño de Atocha – the Christ Child who wanders throughout the night in search of people who need his help. Locals pray to him, and regularly leave shoes for him, which the archdiocese is not very happy about. They prefer to draw attention to the chapel’s holy dirt, which is known to have fabulous healing properties. People collect it and rub it on whatever body parts ail them.
Believe it or not, Chimayó is also famous for a completely different kind of thing: red chile. It’s considered among the best in the world, and those of us who grew up around there understand why. I have a couple of bags of it in my New York freezer at all times.
This little town now boasts several different churches, and bears little resemblance to the scene my father painted in the early 1970’s. The snow still piles up, though, and the smell of piñon smoke from the fireplaces still fills the air. I always look forward to those things at this time of year. And to the chile, of course.