Monday, November 19, 2012

Chimayó — Father Roca, Short Legs and a Long Life

It has been called the Lourdes of America. Since 1810, when the first chapel was built on the site, stories abound of miraculous cures.

Today, thousands of photographs, a hundred or more canes and crutches and wheel chairs left behind and no longer needed attest to cures said to have taken place at El Santuario del Chimayó 28 miles North of Santa Fe.

El Santuario del Chimayó
The present chapel was built in 1816. The original six years earlier.

Stories of how the first chapel was built, and  the second was brought back from oblivion, are stories of little miracles in their own right.

The story of the original chapel dates to 1810 when Bernardo Abeyta saw a strange light coming from a hill above the Santa Cruz river. When he went to the site and dug he uncovered a buried crucifix.

Three times the crucifix was taken to the local village. And three times it disappeared only to be found again at the original site.

Señor Abeyta got the message. A chapel should be built there. And it was. Almost immediately word spread of the healing power of the little church, and  in 1813 Abeyta asked permission to build a bigger chapel. The chapel that now stands was completed in 1816.

For more than a hundred years the chapel remained in the private hands of the Abeyta family. By pilgrims continued to come and make offerings. But by 1929 the chapel had fallen into disrepair. To preserve the little chapel  it was purchased by preservationists and given to the  Archdiocese of Santa Cruz to preserve and protect it.

Father Casimiro Roca at 94.
That same year, 1929 a small, 11-year-old boy in Mura, Spain, asked his parents to let him enter the seminary. The family was poor butthe seminarians agreed to let him study with paying. The boy was Casimiro Roca. Times were hard.  His two brothers were killed during the Spanish civil war and Casimiro Roca fled to Italy where he completed his studies and took his vows in 1945.

"It was," he recalls, "the happiest day of my life to become a priest."

Meanwhile across the ocean in America, the Archdiocese of Santa Cruz in New Mexico was trying to figure out what to do with the rundown little chapel now in its charge — wellspring of so many legends and tales of healing, now fallen into disrepair.

But somewhere the wheels of divine providence were busy turning. Following a traumatic illness in 1950, Fr. Casimiro Roca decided to come to America to get a new start. In 1954, the archdiocese sent him to go to Chimayó to revive the little parish. There, he says, he fell in love with the people and the mountain. Several times he left but always come back. In 1984 he returned for keeps.

Courtyard conversation.
Over the more than 60 years that he has shepherded the small parish much has been done.

"We bought land. We planted trees. We buttressed the walls. We patched. We repaired," he recalls.

And he got a few breaks. In 1970 El Santuario del Chamiyó was designated a National Historic Landmark. Soon the trickle of pilgrims coming each year became a flood.  coming. Today,  more than a quarter million visitors come to Chamiyó each year &mash; as many as 30,000 during Holy Week alone. Some walk the 90 miles from Albuquerque.

Father Roca at 94 says he keeps busy but is slowing down. There is  pride mixed with annoyance as he recounts the years of hard work. "I did all this," he says with a sweeping gesture. "Now I am tired."

But the church, he says, will not let him retire. He talks about going back to Spain.

It is probably in the church's interest — as well as the chapel's — that he stays on. He has become a legend ass much as the sanctuary itself.

Wildflowers outside the  sanctuary at Chimayó, New Mexico.
He speaks castilian Spanish and comports himself with the dignity befitting a man of God.

He says he thinks his place was destined to be here and wonders how much longer the Church, or God, will keep him.

He has no regrets, he says. "None. And I thank God for that. I have my way of life here."

We say good-bye and head back to our bus in the chapel parking lot and pass wildflowers along the way. The short priest — all four feet, ten inches of him — seems as native to the soil as the desert flowers we see thriving around us.


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  3. Truly a man of God, a saint. Rest in peace, Father