This is truly one of those ‘only in New Mexico’ experiences. What we have here is a shrine tucked into the end of a large cave—almost like an outdoor amphitheater— just north of the Laguna Pueblo, 61 miles wast of Albuquerque’s Old Town. Known as the “Shrine of our Lady of Bernadette of Lourdes” or the “Lourdes of America,” and built in the 1830s, it is simple, yet powerful. The location is very remote, as it is in high desert wilderness. As such, it is very hot in the summer and quite cold during the winter months in this part of the state.
The shrine’s namesake, Saint Bernadette, is the Patroness of people ridiculed for their piety, those in poverty, shepherds, and sick people. Bernadette was a poor, sick girl in France, where she experienced 18 visitations by the Blessed Virgin Mary. On one of these visits, the Blessed Lady told Bernadette to dig in the mud. As she did, a spring began to flow and she was instructed to bathe in it. From that time, the waters of Lourdes, France have been considered healing waters. The same holds true, here in New Mexico, as people come to this shrine to touch the water from the natural spring.
This shrine is located in the small village of Seboyeta (also referred to as Cebolleta, which means ‘little onion’ in Spanish), northeast of Albuquerque, several miles off Intestate 40, before you come to Gallup. Seboyeta is one of the oldest Hispanic settlements in this region of New Mexico, part of the Cebolleta Land Grant.
According to Robert Julyan, author of The Place Names of New Mexico, the town of Seboyeta was named after the Cebolleta Mountains to the north. When the settlement applied for a
post office under this name, however, it was rejected because several Cebolleta settlements already existed. The variant Seboyeta was chosen instead.
As Julyan notes, Seboyeta was settled in 1749 after
a large contingent of Navajos journeyed to Santa Fe and agreed to the establishment of a mission on their lands. Though the Indians soon lost interest in the mission, they raided the resulting
settlement frequently, and in 1804-08, a military outpost was here.
At one time, the settlement was surrounded by a
10-foot wall (the ruins of which can still be seen).
In 1849, Lt. James H. Simpson mentioned Cebolleta
and Cubero as notorious hangouts for Mexican traders dealing in slaves, whiskey, and guns, and from 1849 to 1852, the military post that became Fort Wingate was
Prior to 1720, the Navajo and the Spanish experienced many years of peaceful co-existence in this region. The Franciscans even established a Mission here for the Indians in 1746, but they eventually chose to return to a nomadic life. The mission was abandoned in 1750, however, when tensions increased between the Spanish and Navajo.
Seboyeta was the first village settled by the Spanish west of the Rio Grande in 1800. There were 30 adult settlers and their families who trekked from Atrisco/Albuquerque to the Cebolleta Land Grant. El Canyon de Seboyeta had good, fertile soil and it offered good protection from the elements and Navajo raids.
The trip took these settlers five days, a journey made quite difficult because of the number of long, deep arroyos. They talked of building a church when they got there, which is called ‘Nuestra Senora de Los Dolores’ (Our Lady of Sorrows). You can still visit the small church, which you come upon before entering the canyon which holds the Los Portales Shrine. The church was originally completed in 1820, but had to be rebuilt and repaired many times.
As you approach the shrine, you will see that it rests next to a natural spring. This makes for a lush area in the midst of land that otherwise appears hard and barren. In fact, we visited the shrine on Christmas Day 2013, and though the outside temperature was close to 30, a leafy rose grew adjacent to the shrine.
There are a variety of legends to account for the presence of this shrine in such a remote location.
One legend claims that, in the early days of the settlement, the Navajo reduced Seboyeta’s Spanish male population to 15. The surviving colonists walked over 1,000 miles to Chihuahua, Mexico, asking to be sent back to Spain. The viceroy’s response was to order them back to Seboyeta to carry out their agreement to colonize the area. The legend holds that they walked back, at which point they erected the shrine to Our Lady of Mercy.
Another legend holds that Navajo women and children hid in the cave, promising to build a shrine if their husbands and sons returned safely from conflict.
The drive from Albuquerque to the Los Portales Shrine takes a little more than an hour. With the exception of the last half mile, the roads are paved and in good condition. Even so, you should not have any trouble getting a car through the dirt portion of the road, unless it has been raining or snowing.
From where you park the vehicle, you will need to walk to the shrine. The path is traversable, but somewhat rugged. There are no facilities or major services between the freeway and the Shrine.
If it’s a hot day, bring water with you. There is no cellphone reception in Seboyeta.
From Albuquerque, take I-40 west. At the Laguna Pueblo, take exit 124. Follow NM 124 west until you come to NM 279. Make a right and follow this for 13 miles, where it ends in Seboyeta. The paved portion of the road ends at the Our Lady of Sorrows church. Drive past the church and the road goes down a little hill to your right. At the bottom of the hill, turn left. Continue until you see the sign for Los Portales. There are no formal spaces or entry fee, but park to your left. You will pass through the metal turnstile and the Shrine is up ahead, about 75 yards.