Rising 400 feet above the valley floor and topped with three 18-foot crosses, Tomé Hill is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Valencia County and the state.

“Father would say (the hill) is the perfect church. It’s always open, no collection plate and everyone was welcome. It’s not always terribly reverent though. One year, there was a person with an iguana,” said Dante Berry with a laugh.

The father he refers to is his own, Edwin Berry, who, with the help of many people in the Tomé community, built the monument of three crosses at the top of El Cerro de Tomé.

Felina Martinez | News-Bulletin photo

The three crosses atop Tomé Hill were dedicated 75 years ago in 1948. Since then, thousands of people make the trek up El Cerro de Tomé every Good Friday.

Begun in 1947 and completed in 1948, the monument was built to fulfill a promise Edwin made after surviving World War II. Edwin and three of this four brothers — Ramon, Doroteo and Gladio (“Lalo”) — joined the military and were sent to fight overseas.

After returning from the horrors and losses of war, including his brother, Ramon, Edwin was determined to honor those who didn’t come home.

The history of the monument and the hill was the subject of a recent catechism lesson at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in the heart of Tomé, with Dante and his brother, Ricardo, talking about the significance of the hill and the legacy of their father’s monument, which marked its 75th anniversary this year.

Edwin was one of many young men drafted from the small community of only a few hundred people, Dante told those gathered in Juan Diego Parish Hall.

“Sixteen of them were killed, which is a lot for a small community. Their names are listed on the monument in front of the church,” Dante said. “My father was very grateful he came back and made a promesa — a promise to God to do something.”

Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo

Ricardo Berry, left, holds the penitente cross traditionally carried at the head of the family’s Good Friday pilgrimage up Tomé Hill. His brother, Dante Berry, right, holds a set of matracas, wooden instruments that are twirled, letting out a throaty clattering to call people to prayer at each station of the cross prayed on the walk up the hill.

That something was the monument on top of El Cerro de Tomé to honor all those who served, especially those who lost their lives in war.

“He envisioned making a monument, a place for all people to go,” Dante said.

His hand-written, well-illustrated plan for the monument included a statement of his three main purposes: to “build a true Christian monument atop this mount;” to “bring happiness, faith, hope and peace to all people of Good Will;” and to “commemorate our fallen heroes, the boys who gave their lives in the war.”

He later added a fourth goal: It would be a monument to religious freedom and tolerance, according to a Sept. 17, 1948, article in the Valencia County News-Bulletin.

The monument cost about $400 in 1947, which would be about $4,000 in today’s dollars.

Dante and Ricardo pondered whether the monument would even be built today, considering the cost of materials, permits and studies.

While the idea and promise were Edwin’s, the effort to build the monument was community wide. Materials had to be carried to the top of the hill, some by mules and others by people. Buckets of sand, water and cement were ferried up by local children like Doroteo “Joty” Baca, Clemente Romero, Ladis Romero and Jesus Sanchez, and women and mothers fed the young workers.

The monument was dedicated on Good Friday of 1948, the three crosses placed with precision and significance.

The middle cross, clad in silver sheet metal, faces the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church tabernacle in the valley. The cross that would have been to Jesus’ right, the place of the “good” thief, Dimas, is turned toward the center cross, signifying his acceptance of Christ.

The cross to His right, where Gestas hung, faces away, indicating he turned away from the Savior.

Photo courtesy of Baldwin G. Burr collection

Edwin Berry would beat a drum during his annual pilgrimage up Tomé Hill on Good Friday.

Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo

Brothers Dante Berry, left, and Ricardo Berry, right, kneel and demonstrate how they pray the 11th station of the cross during their annual pilgrimage up Tomé Hill. Alejandro Castillo, 9, carries the three-cross penitente cross that is traditionally at the head of the processional up the hill.

Photo courtesy of the Thome Domingez de Mendoza Community Center and Museum

Edwin Baca Berry serving in the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II.

According to a La Historia del Rio Abajo column in the News-Bulletin written by Richard Melzer about the history of the hill, after the construction of the monument Edwin told Ricardo it was as if the crosses were meant to be positioned as they were since the natural cracks in the rocks favored their placement and directions.

“Besides being a representation of Calvary, where Jesus suffered and died, it is a memorial to soldiers who served and especially those who gave their life,” Dante said.

As the family climbs the hill every Good Friday, as Edwin did for decades, they say the Penitente version of the stations of the cross as they ascend. At the end, they sing “God Bless America” to honor the men and women of the military.

For almost 50 years, Edwin Berry climbed the hill every Good Friday, until the age of 96 when he suffered a stroke three years before his death in 2000.

Before Edwin even set foot on the top of the hill, it was a place of significance. One of many volcanic hills in the area, the large black boulders scattered across it bear ancient petroglyphs.

“That shows how long people have been going to El Cerro — thousands of years,” said Ricardo. “One of the things that makes it important is its height. It’s a good place for a lookout.”

This was especially true in the 1700s, he said, when Comanche tribal members would come from the east over the mountains and attack the area of Belen.

 

Like many places, Tomé is named for a person, but unlike other areas its moniker comes from a first name, not a family name.

Ricardo said Thome Dominguez Mendoza was given a large ranch around 1640 in the area of Tavalopa Road, just northwest of the church and plaza.

“The area became known as Tomé, which is unusual because typically places were named for the family names, like Los Chavez and Los Lunas,” he said.

The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 “chased out the Spanish and sent them packing down to the El Paso area,” Ricardo said. About 12 years later, they returned, resettling the area with direction from the crown to treat the Natives better.

In 1739, the town of Tomé was established through a land grant from the king of Spain.

Ricardo and Dante are keeping their father’s legacy alive, but the tradition of traversing the hill is even older.

“The penitentes, they really started what we know as this pilgrimage,” he said. “They would have services on El Cerro, then go into their morada, where they met and prayed.”

Part of Edwin’s efforts were to keeping that tradition alive through the performance of a Passion Play in the days leading up to Easter.

“In the 1940s, in Tomé and the surrounding community they would do a Passion Play. It was three days and several hours, everyone in costumes,” Ricardo said. “He tried to keep it going but up on the hill. This was towards the end of the ’40s, and people had televisions. They don’t want to watch a play in the middle of the plaza when they could watch the ‘Ed Sullivan Show.’ It was hard to get people involved.”

There is a link to a video of the 1946 Good Friday celebration on the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church’s website, immaculateconceptiontome.org.

The 1976 bicentennial seemed to spark an interest in historical events, which gave the pilgrimage a bit of a boost. That same year, the former archbishop of Santa Fe, Robert Sanchez, who was born in Socorro, came to Tomé to celebrate Ash Wednesday Mass on the hill.

As the years went by, more and more people came to make the walk up El Cerro de Tomé, with about 10,000 coming and going on this past Good Friday, Ricardo said by his estimate.

This is the second biggest pilgrimage in New Mexico, outdone only by the walk to Santuario de Chimayo.

Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo

Dante and Ricardo Berry walk a circuit around the room during a catechism class at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Tomé as they sing “Venid o Cristianos.” The drum played by Ricardo is the one their father, Edwin Berry, used during his Good Friday walks up Tomé Hill.

Whether there were thousands or only dozens Edwin, Dante, Ricardo and their families have faithfully made the climb, beginning each trek by singing “Acompaños hasta el Calvario.” The mournful song is accompanied by the steady beat of a drum.

The drum Edwin used in many of his early pilgrimages up the hill was loaned to him by the Pueblo of Isleta. He eventually returned the drum and made his own out of cottonwood and sheep skin, using traditional Pueblo methods.

“That’s one of our connections to Isleta. If you come from Tomé and do 23 and Me, you’ll find we all have Native blood,” Dante said. “We might not look it, but we do.”

Edwin Berry’s family has donated many of his most valuable photos, artifacts and notebooks to the Thomé Dominguez de Mendoza Community Center and Museum, 2933 N.M. 47, Tomé.

The Edwin Berry Historical Records and Oral History Collection, with many recordings of his interviews and songs, is located in the University of New Mexico-Valencia campus’s library in Tomé.

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.