The Spanish brought Catholicism to the Southwest in the 16th century. As pilgrims in a new environment, many of them turned to retablos –or painted images of saints on wood- for comfort.
Fast-forward hundreds of years later, and these images can be seen in galleries, shops and homes throughout the New Mexico. Sean Wells, a prominent Spanish Colonial artist says that the popularity of the religion’s iconography (how many times have you seen The Madonna represented in pop-culture) is a welcome sight to the faithful. The creation of such art, as she says, grounds her and connects her to her religious roots.
We can also thank the religion for some of our most iconic traditions as well. The faithful take to the roadways of Chimayo and Tomé to participate in processions honoring Christ’s Passion. El Santuario de Chimayo greets thousands of visitors who make the pilgrimage from as far away as Albuquerque, many of them seeking the restorative properties rumored to exist in its sacred sand.
And let’s not forget Las Posadas during December. Luminarias (or farolitos, depending on where you’re from) light the ways for faithful to re-enact Joseph and Mary’s search for shelter before the birth of Christ.
Then there are the legends: most notably that of the Loretto Chapel.
The modest chapel, completed in 1878, featured a choir loft 22 feet above the ground floor. Due to its small size, a traditional staircase could not be used. The sisters of the Chapel prayed for eight days straight for a solution. On the 9th day, as the story goes, a mysterious carpenter looking for work showed up. He locked himself away in the Chapel, working in secrecy for a reported 3 months. Thereafter, a “miraculous” spiral staircase, complete with two-360 degree rotations, connected the loft to the ground floor. He disappeared without thanks –or pay. Many faithful believe it was Joseph –the patron saint of carpentry- who answered the sisters’ prayers.
With 32 percent of the New Mexican faithful identifying as Catholic, the religion is an indelible part of our state’s social fabric.