Legend has it that the Santuario de Chimayo, also called the Santuario de Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas, was built after a local friar performing penances saw a strange light burst from a hillside near the Santa Cruz River.
Curious, the friar sought the source of the light, which was coming from the ground. Dropping to his knees and digging in the sandy soil with his bare hands, he uncovered a crucifix, later christened Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas.
Three times this crucifix was taken in procession to the neighboring village and three times it disappeared, only to be found again back in its hole in the hillside. Deciding that Our Lord of Esquipulas wanted to stay in Chimayo, the people built a small chapel on the site of the discovery.
Soon the miraculous healings began, and by 1816 the original chapel had been replaced by the current Santuario.
In what is, to many, the "official" version of this story, Bernardo Abeyta, an early Chimayo settler and member of the Penitentes (a Roman Catholic brotherhood that observes certain rites related to the passion of Christ), actually discovered the crucifix, also while performing penances.
Stephen F. de Borhegyi, in his work "El Santuario de Chimayo," theorizes that Abeyta was familiar with the Guatemalan veneration of a crucifix called Nuestro Senor de Esquipulas or El Cristo Negro (the Black Christ) and subsequently introduced a similar religious tradition,with a corresponding emphasis on Christ’s miraculous and healing powers, to Chimayo. Indeed, it was Abeyta who, in 1813, requested permission from church authorities to build a chapel to Our Lord of Esquipulas. That chapel, the current Santuario, remained in Abeyta’s family until 1929, when it was purchased by private citizens and turned over to the Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe.
Exactly how Abeyta learned of the veneration of the Guatemalan crucifix remains unknown. What is known, however, is that over the years, the healings in Chimayo began to be attributed not to the crucifix (which is still in the Santuario), but rather to the sand in which it was found. This "tierra bendita" or "blessed earth," says Borhegyi, was eaten, dissolved in water and drunk or made into a paste and smeared on the afflicted part of the body.
Interestingly, the Guatemalan worship of Nuestro Senor de Esquipulas is also associated with the consumption of a fine, white kaolin clay. And it is possible that the tradition of healing soil springs from yet another legend, which claims that the Santuario was once an American Indian shrine.
In this tale, the sand pit is the dried remains of what was originally a pool of hot-springs-fed mud with alleged curative powers.