Vickroy: A pilgrimage to inner peace
DONNA VICKROY email@example.com | (708) 633-5982 August 15, 2012 8:40PM
Harry King, who grew up in Oak Lawn, recently made a pilgrimage from Denver to el Sanctuario de Chimayo, New Mexico.
Read more about the camino to Chimayo at
For more information on Ann Sieben’s journeys, visit winterpilgrim.blogspotcom
For more information on el Santuario de Chimayo, visit elsantuariodechimayo.us/
Updated: September 17, 2012 6:01AM
I went to New Mexico seeking something I couldn’t put a word to: escapism, distraction, spiritualism?
Since my mom passed away in June, my husband and I had talked about taking a trip during our time off in August. Maybe Boston or San Diego, places we’d never been. Then one day over dinner, my dad said very casually, “Your mother always wanted to go to New Mexico. She’d heard it was beautiful.”
We had been in Santa Fe only a day when a woman at the visitor center suggested we take the little-traveled “High Road to Taos.” It was a winding, almost desolate road that followed the peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains through Carson National Forest. Near its end was an adobe mission famous for its healing powers.
Never before had we experienced such quietness. We stopped at several observation points to take photos, and you could almost hear the trees grow. Then, toward the end of the road, seemingly out of nowhere, we spied a woman walking. A little farther, we saw another, and then a man and a woman. I figured them to be charity jocks; you know, people who walk, run or ride long distances to raise money for a cause?
We stopped a bit beyond the walkers to take photos of some unusual outcroppings. The walkers caught up to us, and I began asking questions. Who? What? Why?
“I’m a reporter, from the Chicago area,” I said, apologetically.
“I’m from the Chicago area,” the male walker said. “Actually, I grew up in Oak Lawn.”
So here, in the middle of nowhere, I meet Harry King, a graduate of Eisenhower High School in Blue Island, the University of Illinois and the University of Denver, on his first pilgrimage. The 66-year-old retired lawyer now lives in Denver with his wife, Debbie. The couple have five grown children.
King has a sister, Linda Kobylar, who lives in Bolingbrook, and many cousins living in Chicago and Oak Lawn, including Carol Cullinan.
Under the guidance of Ann Sieben, known as “the winter pilgrim,” the group had walked from Denver, a good 350 miles away. They were bound for the same mission we were heading to for a 6:30 p.m. Mass, Sieben said. The service was to celebrate the end of their spiritual journey.
Sieben, a nuclear engineer from New Jersey who left her job five years ago to pursue spiritual endeavors, has made several pilgrimages. She’s walked across Europe, from Denver to Mexico, even across parts of North Africa. This was her first group venture.
She walks without money, relying on the kindness of strangers for food and shelter.
“It is an ancient tradition to walk from village to village, very in tune with nature and harmony,” Sieben said. “It’s difficult, with both mental and physical challenges. Every pilgrim has his own purpose.”
King collected prayers from family back home and people along the route. When he reached his destination, he laid a collage of the prayer seekers’ photos on the altar of the chapel.
The walk, he said, was physically grueling, about 20 miles a day over mountain ranges, along abandoned mining trails and dirt roads.
“The generosity of people along the way has been very humbling,” he said.
Located in the hills surrounding the tiny village of Chimayo, the legendary shrine el Santuario de Chimayo is known as the Lourdes of America. It is believed to have been built on sacred earth that has miraculous healing powers.
The story goes that a villager named Bernardo de Abeyta was performing the rituals of penance when he saw a flash of light on a nearby hill. He dug at the source and found a large crucifix, which he had moved to the village of Santa Cruz. Next day, the cross was back at the site where Abeyta found it. After repeating this exercise a few more times, Abeyta finally decided that the crucifix should stay and that a church should come to it.
The shrine was finished in 1816. Soon after, miraculous healings started to occur.
Today, Father James Suntum, of the Sons of the Sagrada Familia order, said an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 people visit the mission each year, with 20,000 coming on Good Friday alone.
“We do not keep a count,” he said. “We made a decision a long time ago that what happens here is between the pilgrims and God.”
Even the healings are not documented, although a small room off the side of the chapel bears witness to the hundreds, if not thousands, who claim to have been healed by the holy dirt on which the structure was built. There are photos, crutches, walkers, baby shoes, all left by the healed.
King said it was a huge relief to complete the journey. He had wanted to push himself, to experience physical discomfort so that he might better appreciate the life he has.
By all accounts, it worked.
Along the way, he said, he found the most generous people to be the ones who had seemingly little to give.
As we drove off toward Santa Fe, my husband and I tried to explain the coincidences of location and timing, of finding a man who hailed from the town where my mother lived before she died.
I found a kind of peace there at the tiny sanctuary in Chimayo. I took a handful of the dirt as a remembrance. I can’t really claim it cured the broken heart caused by my mother’s death, but it certainly brought perspective to the pain.
Time and again, travel gives me what I need, when I need it.