The annual 100-mile pilgrimage to the Santuario de Chimayo is a unique New Mexico tradition dating back to 1973 when Fr. Michael O’Brien started coordinating a weeklong pilgrimage for vocations. Since that time, hundreds of peregrinos (male pilgrimage walkers) and guadalupanas (female pilgrimage walkers) from central and northern New Mexico have participated in the weeklong journey carrying petitions, prayers, rosaries, scapulars, and prayers as they complete their 100-mile journey.
In 2020, the annual pilgrimage was put to a halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That year, the theme was Hope and Healing. As the tradition restarted this year, the peregrinos and guadalupanas maintained the ‘Hope and Healing’ theme intended for the 2020 walk, timely as it represents the overall hope and healing we are all seeking post pandemic.
Husband and wife couple Kristen and Brian Torres both completed the 100-mile pilgrimage, along with their nephew Joshua Jason Martinez, who completed his first pilgrimage this year. This was the overall 4th pilgrimage for Kristen and 2nd pilgrimage for Brian. “I started doing these pilgrimages in 2016, when my mom’s breast cancer had metastasized for the 3rd time. Initially, I wanted to complete the pilgrimage for her, but she passed away two weeks before my first walk, so I changed my intentions to pray for her and connect with her in a different way,” Kristen says.
Brian’s first pilgrimage was a three-generation pilgrimage in 2017, when he, along with his grandfather Bernie Torres and dad Brian Torres walked the 100 miles together. “My grandpa has done over 1800 miles through pilgrimages over the years, he has been very dedicated to it,” Brian says.
The peregrinos and guadalupanas have different routes to the Santuario. Each day, the groups walk about 20 miles, sometimes more and sometimes less, stopping in local communities where they will sleep in churches, gyms, and parish halls. Locals greet them with open arms, often feeding them and helping them rejuvenate before their next day’s walk. “In northern New Mexico, we visit moradas, capillas, and churches and learn about the history of local churches. We then gather soil and petitions from each stop, and carry them with us along the way. It’s very traditional and spiritual,” Kristen says.
This year, Kristen and Brian’s daughters set up a large Lady of Gudalupe mural to start off the pilgrimage from Costilla to Chimayo. Kristen says it was one of the more special moments of the week, not only for her and her daughters, but for other guadalupanas as well.
Over the weeklong span, the groups are not able to use technology during their journey. The only way they are able to communicate is by using palancas, which are handwritten letters and prayers from their loved ones making the journey from different routes. “You get emotional when you read them, just because you don’t know what they’re going to say, but then you realize your loved one is okay, and you’re both just praying for each other to make it safely, it gives you energy to keep going,” Brian recalls.
When asked what the most difficult part of the journey is, both Kristen and Brian say there are many mental and physical challenges. “It humbles you, and no one challenge someone experiences is the same as the next. You just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep going, at times it feels impossible but that’s when you have your spiritual experience of God carrying you through,” they say.
Both Kristen and Brian’s long family history with the pilgrimage is a big part of what inspires them to want to keep walking year after year. Kristen notes, “Brian’s grandpa and dad’s long history and dedication has inspired us, and so have my uncles Lonnie Cardenas and Sammy Gomez. My uncle Sammy Gomez was the first peregrino to pass away from the north when he was 15. Just hearing their stories made me feel like I was called to go on these pilgrimages.”
While growing up and hearing the stories of their family who would do pilgrimages, Kristen says you have to experience it to understand. “Until we were able to do the pilgrimages ourselves, we couldn’t really understand it. It’s a deep connection with your loved ones both living and deceased, all connected back to the faith. There is so much you go through during the week, but when you finally walk into the Santuario de Chimayo, it’s the most indescribable feeling ever.”
The couple says they plan to walk with their girls in the future and they’re hopeful to do a four-generation walk with Brian’s family. Their advice to anyone who may be considering the walk next year, “we encourage people to pray on it. Just know you can do anything you can set your mind to. The sisterhood and brotherhood built is so uplifting. They will pray with you, sing with you, and help you not give up. You gain a family through this experience, it’s truly a beautiful experience.”