Santa Fe, New Mexico: Spiritual Sidewinding

St. Francis overlooks downtown Santa Fe
More than anything Santa Fe is known for art galleries, about 250 of them actually. So when most people come here they peruse local art; Hispanic, Spanish motifs, retablos, religious iconography and contemporary art. But in the ether there is something for those with a decidedly spiritual propensity. This place whispers sacred history; an odd and rambling collection of things religious, things visceral and things of another world.

Loretto Chapel & staircase

Beginning in downtown Santa Fe there is Loretto Chapel with its “mysterious” staircase (www.lorettochapel.com). The chapel is a very pretty little thing and the church was completed in 1876. There was an upper part of the interior church, and the old ladders used to access it were becoming difficult and unstable for the Sisters so the church prayed for someone who could build them a staircase. Rather mysteriously, a carpenter shows up, no name, just a few tools, and he set about building a freestanding, non-supporting staircase without nails, that ascends two full 360 degree rotations up some 20 feet (the railings were added later). As the story goes, the man then vanishes, no name, no invoice, no nothing. Is this the work of a spiritual builder? Sure it’s not an impossible task, but given the time when it was built (sometime between 1877 and 1881) it would have been a difficult job at best.

El Satuario de Chimayo

In the village of Chimayo (a 30 minute drive from Santa Fe) is perhaps the most intriguing church in part because it is not gentrified, nor sanitized, but it’s a slightly lopsided building known as El Santuario (www.elsantuariodechimayo.us). The story begins in 1810 when a local guy sees light emanating from the ground. He gets to the source, starts digging and pulls up a crucifix, and not a necklace-size either, this is about 4 feet tall and is currently at the alter of the church (I wasn’t allowed to take interior photos). The crucifix was taken to the mother church in Santa Fe, but it mysteriously returned back here on three separate occasions. Rightly so, the church authorities realized that this was the spot to build a new church. The 1817 structure still stands and has become a place for healing as people will scoop up dirt from the spot the crucifix was dug up. Located next to the chapel is a low room (you’ll need to bend down to get in) and dead center is a hole with dirt in it, the faithful placing said dirt into baggies and hauling it away. Just outside of that is another small room with dozens of crutches, said to be the cast-offs of those healed by the holy dirt of El Santuario. Some 30,000 pilgrims walk from as far as Albuquerque on Good Friday to get here. 
Father Roca and yours truly
After my visit I chatted with Father Roca who has served this parish since 1954. Amiable, funny with a still noticeable Spanish accent, he could not fit any better into this unique and fascinating part of New Mexico. It’s a cool visit regardless of your religious leanings due to the history of this small village church and its physical survival over the years.

At the southern end of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains is Pecos National Historical Park (www.nps.gov/peco). Archaeologists determined that Native American peoples gathered here as early as 800 AD. There were originally a dozen small independent Pueblos until they realized the strength in numbers idea and built a massively large Pueblo, four stories high, strategically set on a vast plain. The U.S. Parks Service has reconstructed a kiva, an underground round room used mainly for spiritual ceremonies and social gatherings which you can descend into. 
Into the kiva at Pecos
There were between 16 and 24 such kivas at Pecos, all gone, but the replica, on the exact spot of a former one, will give you the idea. Pecos is, geographically, a stunningly beautiful place, and it was a major trading hub and the Indians were probably pretty damn happy…until the Spanish found their way here in the 1580s. As new self-appointed spiritual leaders they constructed a six story adobe church; a counterpoint to the multi level Pueblo and the remains of the original adobe church (completed in 1717) still stand. Spiritual and physical clashes are part of human nature and history and ultimately the Pueblo Indians didn’t stand a long-term chance and the Pueblo was abandoned by 1838. The outlines of the great Pueblo are still here, within sightlines of the Spanish church. Of course history is the great equalizer and though both cultures are well represented by local art, lore, foods, and history, New Mexico is now America, an even greater hodgepodge of cultures, though still unfortunately as odds with each other.

The ruins of the adobe Spinish Church from 1717

When you visit Santa Fe, take some time to honor the spirits that were here before you and visit these places. Stay at the Hotel St. Francis as it is right downtown with easy access to restaurants, art galleries and Loretto Chapel (http://www.hotelstfrancis.com/). The hotel, originally built in 1924, is an homage to the Franciscans who ruled here and has a monastery-like lobby and historic rooms, all in keeping with a spiritual theme. Whatever your beliefs, Santa Fe holds a tangible blend of history and spirituality, a place where you can come to connect. With what exactly is up to you. Watch my 2 Minute Travel video shot at Pecos here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f9qZZVcLj18&feature=plcp

The lobby of the Hotel St. Francis

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