There is a somber hush along the path to the crosses in the predawn hours of Good Friday as the shadowy figures of the day’s first pilgrims slowly ascend Tomé Hill.
The soft litany of rosaries can be heard on the cool breeze lifting off the valley, along with the morning sounds of roosters and springtime songbirds.
On the horizon to the east the silhouette of three crosses crest the sacred cerro in the ephemeral dawn as the sun begins its leisurely journey from behind the Manzano Mountains, changing the sky from a steely blue to a rosy blush to the soft yellow-white of morning.
At 6 a.m. the flames of two candles flicker at the altar beneath a cross, but already several dozen rosaries hang to the left. In the valley below, people have begun their pilgrimage, some by foot from as far away as Los Lentes, such as Gabriel Garcia and his family, who are among those who carry a crucifix upon their back to help heave Christ’s burden.
On the Garcias’ crucifix are the names of all the family’s deceased members, and Garcia says he makes the pilgrimage every year to “remember and give a little back.”
Ricardo Berry, son of Edwin Berry, who erected the crosses upon his return home from World War II, has been climbing Tomé Hill since he was knee-high.
This year, he carries up not a cross, but a rawhide drum that belonged to his father. The drum, he says, is used to accompany “very old alabados,” praise songs from the tradition of the Penitentes.
By 9 a.m., the hill is covered in the faithful, the devout, the penitent, and the altar has become filled with candles, photos, flowers, rosaries and prayers. Everywhere are the signs of love and sacrifice, many in the form of small faces.
Six-year-old Hector Burciaga and his mother, Margarita, have traveled from Albuquerque for their cousin who is battling cancer. Hector carries a small wooden rosary, which he places on the altar for his cousin.
“We wanted to come and sacrifice a little to ask for his cure,” says Margarita, her face damp with tears.
Ramon Sanchez and his daughter, Kayla, of Belen, have climbed the hill to place a crucifix on the altar for his mother, who passed away in January.
“It’s for my grandma,” says Kayla.
She and Hector are just two of the many devout young people who have made the climb.
Diego Apodaca, 9, a student at San Felipe Catholic School in Albuquerque, has been making the journey since he was 5, and this year he led his mother and aunt in reciting the Rosary on their way up the hill.
“He’s preparing to make his First Communion and is learning about Sacraments in school,” says his mother, Melissa Apodaca.
Diego, a humble spirit, simply says that it was something he wanted to try, but his family says that it is his way of doing penance and that they are very proud of him for choosing to do it at such a young age.
Maxine Bates and her daughter, Jayden, of Albuquerque, and Alicia Sanchez and daughter, Mckenzie, stand together, their voices coming together in unison as they pray, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”
The women say they come on Good Friday to pray for their father who passed away three years ago, to pray for peace and to teach their daughters to carry on and treasure the tradition.
A 12-year-old Gustavo Sanchez carried a large crucifix up the steep path.
“I do it to walk for our Jesus and pray for our family,” said Gustavo.
But these pious youngsters are merely taking up where their ancestors have left off, or, in many cases, are still going, such as the case of Francisco Rael, 78, and his wife, Lucy.
They are Valencia County natives that return every year from their home in East Las Angeles to partake in the pilgrimage.
They, along with their children and grandchildren, begin every year at Our Lady of Belen Catholic Church and carry a crucifix to the hilltop to give thanks for the safety of the family and for all their blessings.
The Raels’ daughter, Josie, remembers taking her daughter on the pilgrimage in a stroller when she was a baby and having one of the wheels fall off about 20 years ago. She calculates the family has been making the trek for at least 30 years.
Dolores Eberle, 82, has made the pilgrimage almost every year since the crosses were erected in 1948.
“It’s to thank our dear Lord for all that we have and all that he does and the beautiful country that we have,” said Eberle.
She and her sister-in-law, Lourdes Sanchez, both born and raised in Tomé, take a moment to gaze out in awe at the landscape, which is breathtaking from atop Tomé Hill.
All around the hilltop, people rest on rocks, gazing out upon the valley and the mountain range with similar looks of peaceful contemplation on their faces.
“You just look around and dear Lord have mercy, it’s beautiful,” she finishes.
Lourdes says the tradition of pilgrimages is dear to their family and recalled her aunt, Irene Ulibarri, who crawled on her knees to the Santuario de Chimayo to ask for the safe return of her son from Vietnam. Her son came home alive.
John Chavez, of Los Nutrias, a Vietnam veteran, says this Good Friday is a little extra special because it coincides with Vietnam Veterans Appreciation Day.
Chavez comes every year to reflect on his friends who were killed in the war, and for his son, whom he lost in 2003.
He said he was injured in the war in 1968, and when he got out of the hospital in 1970, his mother, aunt and grandmother had made a promise to make a pilgrimage to the Santuario de Chimayo if he lived, and so they all went together.
Chavez has injuries that make the climb a challenge, but he says it’s worth it because of the reasons that he does it.
Virginia Sigala, of Albuquerque, says she’s the same as everybody — she makes it a point to come out on Good Friday every year to “reflect on our past year, our future, pray for everyone and take some of the pressure off Jesus when he carried his cross.”
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