McCormack on Hendrickson, 'The Healing Power of the Santuario de Chimayó: America’s Miraculous Church'

Brett Hendrickson. The Healing Power of the Santuario de Chimayó: America’s Miraculous Church. NYU Press, 2017. xi + 245 pages. $89.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4798-1550-0; $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4798-8427-8.

Reviewed by Kara McCormack (Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey)
Published on H-NewMexico (June, 2018)
Commissioned by Tomas Jaehn (Special Collections/Center for Southwest Research)

Printable Version:

New Mexico has long been imagined as a land of authentic experience, sacred space, and spiritual renewal, in part because of the cultural exchanges that have taken place there for centuries. As religious studies scholar Brett Hendrickson demonstrates in The Healing Power of the Santuario de Chimayó: America’s Miraculous Church, el Santuario de Chimayó serves as a visual and historical marker of these exchanges, residing at once in a tangled past and a complex present. The Santuario also symbolizes the many competing claims and narratives that underlie contests over what Hendrickson calls “religious ownership.” These intricacies nonetheless speak to the hundreds of thousands of “believers” and tourists who take the pilgrimage every year to play out a variety of religious and consumer fantasies and to bring home some of the church’s transcendent character, as well as its famous healing dirt.

In this wide-ranging examination of what would become the largest site of Catholic pilgrimage in the United States, Hendrickson considers the ways the site is central to New Mexico history and the different nations under whose control it has found itself. “In one sense,” he writes, “the history of the Santuario grapples with the waves of conquest and new regimes even as it navigates long eras of relative peace” (p. 3). He pays particular attention to the various stories attached to the church, the land, and the people who have made their lives there, first the Tewas who originally inhabited the land and named the place (Tsi Mayoh) and the dirt as sacred, then the Catholic Nuevomexicanos who perpetuated the common account of the discovery in the early 1800s by Bernardo Abeyta of a large crucifix buried at the spot on which the Santuario was later erected. Subscribers to Abeyta's identification of the crucifix as the Lord of Esquipulas, “a popular image of Jesus in New Spain that had first orginated centuries before in Guatemala,” built on this version of events to create a narrative that ultimately taps into transnational systems of belief (p. 2).

Three chapters stand out as strongest of the book: chapter 4, in which Hendrickson traces the transition at the church from the worship of the Cristo Negro de Esquipulas crucifix to the veneration of the Santo Niño de Atocha, a statue depicting the Christ Child dressed as a traveler/pilgrim, complete with wide-brimmed hat, walking staff, and a basket filled with bread; chapter 5, in which he specifically examines the interconnections between spiritual pilgrimage and tourism, both of which impel hundreds of thousands to visit the church annually; and chapter 6, in which Hendrickson describes his personal experiences and engagement with the people at the site. Tracing the emergence of tourism at Chimayó, he points to “a romanticized vision of Nuevomexicano village life” and the “picturesque quality” of Northern New Mexico as attracting Anglo tourists in the early years of New Mexico statehood (p. 123). Because the Santuario was outside the dominion of the Catholic Church and squarely in the control of the Penitente Brotherhood, “the rituals and healing miracles that persisted in the chapel remain[ed] distinctly connected to Hispano village life” and a ripe object for the Anglo-touristic gaze (p. 123).

Touristic consumption of the Santuario continued in earnest after the property was purchased by the Anglo-founded Spanish Colonial Arts Society and subsequently donated to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe in 1929. Today, as Hendrickson discovers through his own ethnographic study of the place, tourism and pilgrimage persist and intermingle, with visitors seeking meaning in religious ritual as well as in community, family, and the purchase of souvenirs. It is refreshing to read a work that does not denigrate the importance of tourists in the collective understanding of the Santuario de Chimayó, as Hendrickson shows that they are integral to the meaning-making that has long taken place there.

Detailed and well researched, the work is a solid and intriguing look at the history of the Santuario and the construction of the Santuario as central to the ways we imagine and understand the continuing fascination and allure of Northern New Mexico.

Citation: Kara McCormack. Review of Hendrickson, Brett, The Healing Power of the Santuario de Chimayó: America’s Miraculous Church. H-NewMexico, H-Net Reviews. June, 2018.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.