Chimayo: The past is a little glossy these days

Ok, I like churches, particularly very old churches… I’ve seen many of the big ones in Europe and countless tiny ones too. I lean towards the smaller ones, where it is evident a congregation is strongly connected to the spirit and soul of the structure. I like the vernacular expressions of faith — symbols that reaffirm our existence and struggle on this planet. Sometimes these include personal items left as a offering or personal prayer, symbols of harvest(s), objects of superstition, or of a miracle (headings in particular). That is what compels me to visit (and often photograph churches) although I’m not a religious person per se. I like the tradition and rituals of social groups, and for me, churches often provide me that experience.

My re-visit to Chimayo, NM was NOT that experience. As I drove into the sanctuary’s compound, I was struck by a level of graphic sophistication that is usually reserved for  upscale, well managed tourist venues… certainly not a church that dates back to 1816.

Since my last visit, the church has become a well designed, slick, and “protected” tourist-mecca. There are designated parking lots, signage, a new logotype, paved walkways, an outdoor amphitheater, a conference center, a museum, and several supporting structures all connected by pathways and a similar architecture aesthetic. As a former professional architectural photographer, I understand the nature of these improvements and how they function to “brand” a company or organization. But, I haven’t seen it applied to a historically significant site to this degree before. I’m no virgin to the nature of tourism and it’s connections to history having spent years of my academic life researching, visiting, and documenting the original site of ‘visual tourism,’ — the Wye River Valley in Wales.

I’m not here to disrespect the Santuario, instead I’m commenting on the nature of change in the New Mexican landscape and those changes which seem to defy logic or understanding. I’m looking with the same eyes I had before, but seeing a very different picture today. I did find a brief article about expansion and it might appear the Catholic Diocese of Santa Fe (who was given the church in 1929) is behind the improvements.

Some visual comparisons might explain my shock upon re-visiting Chimayo in this time.

Up first is a small church in Skenfrith, Wales that has weathered time (800 years!) and holds an important place in the lives of the local people.

St. Bridgets celebrated 800 years in 2007 and has remained largely unchanged in that time.



Another New Mexican church that  I love is the small and wonderfully parishioner-maintained Santo Nino near Three Rivers Petroglyph site (near Alamagordo). I’ve visited this small chapel many times in the last ten years, and I have seen a few improvements, but the essence of the place has not changed. The interior is a hodge-podge of Milagros, pictures, sculptures, rosaries, and other artifacts of worship… all donated and cared for by the visiting priest and parishioners themselves. It isn’t a major tourist destination and I wonder if it were discovered, it would also undergo a “make-over?”

Each artifact in the church represents a human touch, left as a connection between a deity and the wishes of an individual for a blessing, help, miracle, or just worship. It isn’t well designed, yet it offers an authenticity that would be hard to replicate by a design team.

 The current Santo Nino figure was donated by a parishioner and the upkeep is similarly provided by locals. The altar is loaded with these personal touches, and I continue attempting photographs that might do justice to the church.

Here’s a portfolio I executed a few years back. I’ve been attracted to the idea and history of Milagros since I first saw them in Puebla, Mexico in 1972. They still resonate that belief in something larger than the individual and a hope in miracles.








I was recently in Italy and photographed large and small churches, each of them were overrun with tourists and were happily conducting their mission in the same structures as many, many earlier generations. They haven’t been updated to satisfy tourist demands or any attempts to appear modern.

Sienna and Arezzo both have spectacular churches, with huge throngs of tourists visiting annually and Sienna has a separate museum (fee based) that holds their important works of art and manuscripts. The rule here is no FLASH photography, since the UV from the light will deteriorate pigments in the art or hand-lettered illuminated manuscripts.






Here is Chimayo today. (exteriors only since there are signs everywhere stating “No Photos!, in order to protect this shrine” … protect from what? Once inside, the beauty of the church/shrine is intact, little has changed and the experience returned for me. Although I chose to respect the signs, others have not.

<rant mode ON>…. I’ve encountered this idea of protection, whether as a ‘copyright’ issue, or as a means to protect sales at the gift shop, but it doesn’t really protect anything to do with the structure. <rant mode OFF>










I don’t currently have access to my original photographs of Chimayo, save one, but it’s conversion is a far cry from that time back in 1995.


One last image, from a similar church in Las Trampas (1760, but without an annual pilgrimage), just a few miles away… unchanged and still functioning.





A local native I’ve befriended surmised the changes were prompted by the demands  of tourism and the poor state of the economy, and I am mildly persuaded this makes some sense after viewing other areas of New Mexico. It’s a shame that a site with this much character and history needs such an extravagant change to remain viable. It will continue to attract believers and non-believers for decades to come, but it’s a pity they won’t have the same experience once possible. It would seem I am not alone in my concern of these changes, a local preservation group is discussing what might happen to the church’s historic status.

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