Good Friday is the holiest day of the year for New Mexico Catholics. Thousands of pilgrims walk long distances, from as far away as Albuquerque, to the Sanctuary of Chimayó (about 25 miles north of Santa Fe) to fulfill vows, profess their faith, offer prayers or perhaps support friends who make the trek.

You can see them, walking along the shoulder of the roads and highways, some pilgrims carrying full-sized crosses, others wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the images of deceased relatives they want to honor.

This year, the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s office handed out glow-in-the-dark sticks to people making the pilgrimage. After dark, it was like a slow, green river of sticks working its way north.

Some 25 miles northeast of Chimayó, in Penasco, there is another, more intimate observance that takes place the night of Good Friday in the morada, or chapel, of the mysterious and private Penitente Brotherhood (or, in full, the Brothers of the Pious Fraternity of Our Father, Jesus the Nazarene).  If you are very fortunate, the hermano mayor, an official of the Brotherhood, will invite you to attend.

The Brotherhood is a lay religious order that was formed when there were too few Roman Catholic priests in New Mexico and Southern Colorado. The brothers are admired for their ascetic practices, their devotion, their alabados — or prayers — and their charity and community service. Initiates who desire to join the Brotherhood are screened very carefully and undergo intense education and initiation.   

By 7:30 p.m. on Good Friday, the tiny morada is packed. The hermano mayor stands in the doorway that connects the chapel to an adjacent room, where the other brothers are gathered.

He explains in Spanish, with a little Spanglish thrown in, to the assembled that the roots of their order date back to St. Francis in the 12th century, and their religious practice centers on the three hours when Jesus was on the cross. The alabados, he says, are often described as very sad, because they are about the Passion—the days that Jesus spent in Jerusalem leading up to his crucifixion.

According to the hermano mayor, for three days before Good Friday the brothers stay in the morada. All they do is pray, sleep a little and eat.

He explains a ritual that involves a huge candelabra made up of 14 small candles and one large one. The small candles represent brothers who have died—going back to the late 1800s—and the big candle represents Jesus.

After that, the service begins. Between rounds of lugubrious alabados, the candles are snuffed out one by one. The hermano mayor lifts the candle representing Jesus, carries it into the room where the brothers are gathered, and the morada descends into total darkness.

The blackness can be anxiety-producing, and that feeling increases when there is a sudden, loud knocking on the door and a rattle that echoes through the chapel. The aural disturbance is meant to represent the trembling of the world when Jesus died.

The hermano mayor asks the attendees to call out dedications for the deceased in their lives — family, friends, veterans who died in foreign wars –– and for those who need healing and release from suffering.

Then a full rosary is prayed. The brothers file into the morada and drop to their knees for long prayers.

It is hard not to be moved by their piety. “In a cold, often uncaring world, the warmth of companionship and shared faith is very appealing,” one of the brothers explains.

Before leaving, visitors are invited to have a snack, and enjoy the company of the brothers—who distribute silver medals and rosary beads.