Sunday, February 21, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week Eight ~ Santo Niño de Atocha

I grew up in the Presbyterian Church and all I knew about Catholics was that they did not eat meat on Fridays. One of my best friends is Catholic; he would occasionally come to my church with me and my family (and hear a good sermon), and I would occasionally attend mass with him. Of course I remember wondering about all of the statuary and images of Jesus and the saints, but when I was a teen-ager interest in religion was just not a priority for me. I did not ask any questions, and simply took it all in stride.

Many years later I ended up working at an Augustinian university as my first real employment out of college. I was there for about seven years and was so impressed with the religious and lay faculty that I briefly entertained the thought of converting. I had fallen pretty far away from the Presbyterian Church by then, but I probably still attended with my parents now and again. In my 20s I still did not give religion too much thought.

I went out and worked in the secular world for several years and lived in various places around the United States and at age 36 found myself at a Jesuit Catholic college. By this time in my life I was truly seeking. When I look back, even before coming to Spring Hill I was seeking; some of my best friends in these other cities I lived in have ended up being people of faith. Not always Catholic, but always the kinds of people who express their faith through the ways they live and interact with others. I have always wanted to be that kind of religious person.

About ten years ago I was received into the Catholic Church, and I see this as one of the great events of my life. My wife and I were able to be married in the Church too, and that is where this preamble starts to make sense because we were married in the Santo Niño de Atocha chapel on the grounds of El Santuario de Chimayo in Chimayo, New Mexico. My wife grew up not far from there in Los Alamos, and I had lived in Silver City, New Mexico prior to coming to Mobile.

Even though I wanted to write about the Infant of Atocha, I can’t say that I completely understand the concept. Saints who were historical people: St. Augustine, St. Francis, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, and many more, I understand completely. These people are venerated for their lives, for what they did in the name of God, for what they did for the Church and its people. The Infant of Atocha, the Infant of Prague, the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Virgin of Socorro, are all a little confusing to me. I do understand that these are seen as invocations of Our Lord and Our Lady and that there are stories behind each, but maybe I’m still missing something?

You may or may not be familiar with the Infant of Atocha’s story, which is of course available online in several places. It goes something like this: In the seventh century in central Spain a statue of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus appears out of nowhere, and a chapel is built for it. People would come and take the infant part of the statue when needed for prayer, and especially during the births of children. In the thirteenth century the Moors have invaded Spain (as they were wont to do) and imprisoned many Spanish men. Their children were allowed to bring them food and water, but some of the men did not have children. An unknown boy was seen dressed in the way the Infant is portrayed (see attached picture) who would either sneak past guards, or simply smile and be allowed to pass. People would notice upon returning to the chapel that the shoes of the infant Jesus statue were worn from walking.

The reverence for the Infant of Atocha went with the Spaniards to the new world, and a statue of he and his mother was placed in a church in the state of Zacatecas at some time during the fifteenth century. There was a mining disaster, people noticed that the infant was missing, and later rescued miners told the story of a young boy bringing them food and leading them to safety. The infant ended up in northern New Mexico hundreds of years later when a dying man prayed to him and was cured. He was unable to complete a pilgrimage to Zacatecas, so made his own Infant statue which led to the chapel being built on the grounds of El Santuario de Chimayo. This is where Margo and I were married.

I quickly re-read the story from the El Santuario de Chimayo website, and this is a very abridged version. Please go find it on the internet for there is lots more therein for visitors to their page. Pilgrims walk from Santa Fe to Chimayo during Holy Week (Good Friday) each year. The compound is small but beautiful. The larger chapel of El Santuario is the main draw, with blessed dirt that pilgrims dig themselves from a small room adjoining the church.

The first time I went there with Margo we didn’t even realize the Santo Niño de Atocha chapel was on the grounds. It is lovely. Full of so much Latin American Catholic imagery that it is almost overwhelming. There are several Santo Niños in the main part of the chapel, along with the Infant of Prague, and many more images of Christ as a child, birds, trees and shoes. There is a small room with a very large Infant of Atocha where people evidently come to pray and bring hundreds of pairs of children’s shoes, so the Infant will always have a new pair, wearing his out as he does each evening.

In writing all of this I suppose that I have answered my own question about how these images (invocations) of Jesus and Mary end up in the same category as other saints. It is because they are truly living! Although especially for those of us praying to them, but maybe even more for those who are not; for the forgotten, the dispossessed, the imprisoned, the poor and hungry. It is with these people the most that Our Lord and Our Lady stand for and expect us to love.

Stuart Moore is a friend from Light on Dark Water, where he participated in the 52 Authors series and wrote about Salman Rushdie, and Dickens, among others.

That top picture, by the way, is a phone card--29 minutes for $5.

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.


  1. Such a beautiful story. And another New World devotion that was unknown to me.

  2. Yes, it is beautiful. And the devotion was unknown to me, too (unless Stu had told me about it before and I've forgotten, which is certainly possible).

  3. I knew about the devotion because we had this book. I don't know how I happened to buy it, whether someone recommended it or I just saw it in the bookstore.


    1. What a fun book, Janet! As you might imagine, Margo and I are into Infant of Atocha stuff. :)

  4. So, I knew about Santo Nino and I knew about the dirt, but I had no idea that they were in the same place.