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Originally published Thursday, March 28, 2013 at 9:22 AM

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Holy Week pilgrims visit NM shrine under new pope

Tens of thousands of pilgrims are expected during Easter weekend to visit El Santuario de Chimayo, one of the most popular Catholic shrines in the Americas.

Associated Press

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CHIMAYO, N.M. —

Tens of thousands of pilgrims are expected during Easter weekend to visit El Santuario de Chimayo, one of the most popular Catholic shrines in the Americas.

And this year, pilgrims are coming to this adobe chapel in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains under historic circumstances - the "Lourdes of America" is now under the first pope from the Western Hemisphere.

Just two weeks after Pope Francis was elected, around 50,000 are expected to visit the popular northern New Mexico Catholic shrine, and officials say even more may come because of Argentine-born pontiff.

"We believe the new pope might contribute to even more people visiting," said Joanne Dupont Sandoval, secretary at the Chimayo parish. "We're already seeing people make trip in the early part of the week."

The former Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, who had spent nearly his entire career at home in Argentina, was elected pope earlier his month. As the first Jesuit pope, he was been credited with focusing on helping the poor and teaching and leading priests in Latin America.

Some pilgrims will make the 90-mile, three-day walk from Albuquerque to the shrine that houses "el pocito," a small pit of holy adobe-colored soil that some believe possesses curing powers.

Chimayo also is a National Historic Landmark, and some 200,000 people are estimated to visit each year, with the bulk occurring during Holy Week.

Santa Fe County Sheriff Robert Garcia announced this week that traffic patrols will increase Thursday to Sunday for safety as thousands of pilgrims walk along heavily used roads, such as NM 502 and 503 and U.S. 84-285.

Sheriff's deputies also will be assisted by New Mexico State Police, Santa Fe Police Department, Pojoaque Tribal Police Department, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to watch for drunken drivers.

Garcia said deputies will hand out 2,000 glow-in-the-dark sticks to walkers to make them more visible to motorists.

For two centuries, Hispanic and Native American pilgrims have made spiritual journeys to El Santuario de Chimayo and often carry along photos of sick relatives and requests for miracles.

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Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras

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