The dim alcove sits to the side of the altar, kept cool by its old adobe walls.
A young woman stoops through the low doorway, followed by her three children and her mother.
She bends and scoops some of the soft, fine dirt from the small hole in the center of the floor with her fingers. She rubs her hands together, then caresses her mother's hair with the dusty mist and kisses her forehead.
“So you get better,” she says.
They step into a narrow anteroom, flanked on one side by a wall quilted with photographs of men, women and children who have come searching for healing and on the other by countless canes and walkers left behind by those who believe they found it.
In the bright sunlight just outside the church, Yvonne Roberto, 39, stands with her children, her mother, Rosa María Hernandez, 69, and her father, Joe Hernandez, 75. It has been 22 years since Yvonne last visited the Holy Dirt Room at El Santuario de Chimayó — the Sanctuary of Chimayó — in this small New Mexico town.
Her mother's illness — and her belief — have brought her back.
“I'm not really looking for a miracle,” she says. “I'm just hoping it helps my mother better deal with her illness. I'd like her to be happy, instead of sad all the time. She knows she's sick.” Yvonne pauses, glances at her mother. “She cries all the time.”
Rosa María has Alzheimer's. She believes the dirt can heal. And so, fueled by faith, the family drove six hours from El Paso, Texas.
“I am a very religious person,” Rosa María says, nodding, the eyes beneath her sun hat solemn. “I pray.”
As the family strolls away, Yvonne reaches for her mother's hand.
The two-lane road that leads to the simple adobe and wooden church runs north, about 30 minutes from Santa Fe, through a vast, desolate horizon in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Pinyon pines and Russian olive trees splotch the dry, austere landscape with dark green and silver gray.
The tiny, historic community of Chimayó, founded in the 17th century by Spanish settlers, is known for its Hispanic and Tewa Indian arts, weaving, red chile and sheep-raising, among other longtime traditions. About 200 years ago, it also became known for the miraculous physical and spiritual healings said to have occurred at the site where a wooden crucifix was discovered in the ground.
Some 300,000 people from throughout the world and representing myriad religions visit each year, seeking to sate curiosity or petition for the blessings of la tierra bendita, the sacred earth, that encased the cross.
Because in this place — where history, culture and spirituality entwine so thickly they cloak you like a blanket — many believe in miracles.
A sign just beyond the church points up a bumpy, rock-pocked road. Fifth-generation woodcarver, it says.
That's Patricio Chavez, 39, a woodcarver of santos — saints. He is a direct descendant of local friar Bernardo Abeyta, who discovered the cross that led to the building of the Catholic santuario in 1816 on land considered hallowed by Native Americans. He shares an art studio with his wife, also an artist, who traces her roots in this village back eight generations. They live in the modest house next door, which has been handed down by Chavez's family through the ages.
He's not sure if the dirt has healing powers. “I think it's what you bring to the church, not what you take,” he says. But Patricio, an affable father of three with an easy smile, believes in faith and, therefore, in the possibility of miracles.
There was the gentleman about to have his hand amputated because of illness, he says, who after rubbing dirt on it, still had his hand a year later. Some, the santuario's website says, believe the dirt will alleviate arthritis, paralysis, sadness and other physical and emotional afflictions. Some say it will cure cancer.
“I hear the stories,” Patricio says. “There's something going on.”
But a less extraordinary miracle, perhaps, can be found in the way faith inspires perseverance in those who, as Patricio says, carry heavy burdens: The mother on a quest to visit all the chapels and churches in New Mexico to help her son in prison. The father, who has walked the 88 miles from Albuquerque to the santuario every year since his son died in the Vietnam War.
In 2004, Patricio was one of six artists who renovated the historic wooden altar screens, or reredos, in the santuario. Pushed into the cracks and crevices, they discovered letters, locks of hair, notes, necklaces, dollar bills — the offerings left behind in supplication.
You may not believe in miracles.
But, Patricio says, “You have to believe in faith — it'll ultimately save you.”
The church is quiet and cool. Behind the altar is a tall wooden screen, painted in greens, reds and blacks and gilded with gold, that surrounds the crucifix Abeyta is said to have found. More reredos with images of saints adorn the walls. Light filters through a stained glass window, and several women and an elderly priest sit in the wooden pews reciting the rosary.
The Holy Dirt Room — also known as the Pocito, the little well room — can be reached through a door off the altar. Although some believe the well replenishes itself, it is commonly known that the dirt is brought in from nearby hills and blessed by a priest.
Still, an intense reverence fills this space.
A frail, elderly woman, helped by her daughter, bends slowly, with difficulty, her hand trembling slightly and reaching for the silken dirt in the hole.
She clutches a small fistful and wrings the dirt through her hands. “Gracias a Dios,” she whispers. Thanks be to God.
They slowly walk out, the daughter gently supporting her mother.
Ross Milliken, 58, and his girlfriend, Julie Rom, 53, enter and glance quietly around the room. At the poem on the wall: “If you are a stranger, if you are weary from the struggles in life, whether you have a handicap, whether you have a broken heart, follow the long mountain road, find a home in Chimayó ….”
At the hole in the floor: As they leave, Ross bends and lets his fingers briefly brush the dirt.
The couple has stopped here on their way home to Fort Collins from a wedding in Santa Fe. They are Christians, they say, not Catholic, but they like the spirituality of Catholic tradition.
As for the dirt, “I think that people have faith, and it's faith that heals,” Julie says. “Whether it's the dirt or not, it's the faith that heals them.”
Ross agrees. But he acknowledges he felt moved to touch the blessed dirt. “There might,” he says, “be something to it.”
There just might.
Ann Macari Healey's column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-566-4110.