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SANTA FE, New Mexico (Reuters) - Thousands of pilgrims made their way to El Santuario de Chimayo this Easter weekend, believing that a miraculous soil associated with the church will heal their pains and cleanse their sins.
Pilgrims came by plane, car and foot, some traveling hundreds of miles to reach the small adobe church in northern New Mexico, most of them arriving by Good Friday.
Some carried huge wooden crosses, others traveled with walking sticks or in wheelchairs, with many entering the church often called the Lourdes of America on their knees before making their way to the holy dirt said to have healing powers.
According to legend, the site for the church at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains was the result of a miracle.
In 1810, Bernardo Abeyta, a local man, found a glowing crucifix in the dirt. He later took the icon and placed it in a church in nearby Santa Cruz, New Mexico. But the crucifix reappeared soon after in its original spot.
After several more failed attempts to place the crucifix elsewhere, the residents of the area decided to build a chapel on the spot where the icon appeared. It was built around 1816.
A room in the church now holds the "holy" dirt gathered from the site, which devotees put into small plastic bags. The dirt is free, although pilgrims often make donations.
In a nearby room the walls are covered with crutches, walking sticks, and letters testifying to the healing power of the soil take from the church.
"It's not the dirt that makes the miracles!" Father Casimiro Roca, the priest at the church, once told the New York Times. The miracles are "the work of the Good Lord," he said.
Belinda Martinez of Albuquerque said she walked 15 miles carrying a photo of her ailing mother. She arrived at the church and gathered two small plastic bags of the reddish dirt, one for her mother and one for herself.
"My mom couldn't come today so I'll take this dirt to her and rub it on her body, and then we'll all sit together and pray," she said.
Andrew Valdez came to honor his 3-year-old son, Leland, who died earlier this year in a child abuse case. The boy's mother and her boyfriend were found guilty of child abuse charges.
After placing blue balloons on his son's grave, Valdez, 25, and his 4-year-old daughter, Alyssa, left the nearby town of Nambe and walked five hours to reach the church on Friday.
"I've done this walk since I was 4 or 5 years old, but this year it really helped me cope with the loss of my son," Valdez said. He collected a bag of dirt he said he would spread across his son's grave, and he left a photo of his son in the church.
Angelina Velarde left Santa Fe Thursday night at 10:30 p.m., arriving at the church doors by 9 the next morning. She called the nearly 30-mile walk "treacherous" but inspiring.
"I've always wanted to do this walk, and now that I've done it, I know that I can do anything," she said. "This was a once in a lifetime thing."
Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Peter Bohan