Death Saint draws followers in Mexico

To followers, she's known as the Death Saint, the White Girl, the Skinny One, or just Sister — and a life-transforming answer to their prayers. To the Vatican, though, she's an irritation seen as leading the faithful astray.

The Roman Catholic Church rejects Santa Muerte, a cloaked female skeleton who carries a scythe, dismissing her followers as drug traffickers or other criminals asking for favors while practicing Satanic rituals.

When Pope Francis visited Mexico last year he expressed concern for those who "praise illusions and embrace their macabre symbols to commercialize death in exchange for money."

But Juan Carlos Avila Mercado, who conducts services every Sunday at the Mercy Church near Mexico City's notorious Tepito neighborhood, says she is gaining ever more followers.

"She chooses them and has always been with us," said Avila, who said he is a Catholic priest, but who is not listed among the archdiocese's priests. "We are born and we die with death."


In this Feb. 19, 2017 photo, Juan Carlos Avila blesses a devotee of the Death Saint at Mercy Church on the edge of Mexico City's Tepito neighborhood. Avila, who says he is a Catholic priest but is not listed among the archdiocese's priests, is a devotee of "La Santa Muerte" and says followers continue to grow. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

 


In Tepito, a neighborhood known for its black market, some devotees arrive on their knees to visit Santa Muerte's altar.

After asking for a favor, offerings are shared among the followers. Tacos, pastries, apples, sodas and amulets are passed from hand to hand. Alcohol is sprayed and cigarette smoke blown over the Death Saint repeatedly.

The faces of her followers display faith and solidarity.

"I encountered the saint, my Girl, at a time when I was near death," said Manuel Zavala. Three years ago he was assaulted and so seriously injured that he was believed dead. Then, he said, he saw the path of life and death. "Honestly, I've been very bad. I did things I shouldn't have, but God gave me a second chance and thanks to God, I discovered Santa Muerte."

Zavala said the Death Saint isn't bad like some think, but rather does good deeds for those who need them.

"I go to a church and like the priest says: 'Life is death and death is life.'"

Zavala credits the saint for turning him around. "Thanks to a person I love a lot, my White Girl, my life has changed and now I'm not the second-rate guy I was before."


In this March 1, 2017 photo, images and statues of the Death Saint or "Santa Muerte" are displayed on a street altar on the outskirts of Mexico City in the state of Mexico. As devotion expands, shrines to the Death Saint have been appearing in more public places. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

 

In this Feb. 26, 2017 photo, devotees of the Death Saint or "Santa Muerte" pray during a service at Mercy Church on the edge of Mexico City's Tepito neighborhood. As Señora de la Noche or Lady of the Night, Santa Muerte is often invoked by those exposed to the dangers of working at night, such as taxi drivers, bar owners, police, soldiers, and prostitutes. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

 

In this March 1, 2017 photo, a devotee of the Death Saint or "Santa Muerte" blows marijuana smoke on a folk saint statuette to purify it in Mexico City. Tepito, a neighborhood known for its black market and crime, has an altar and Santa Muerte's followers visit with offerings. Some arrive on their knees. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

 

In this Feb. 19, 2017 photo, images of the Death Saint or "Santa Muerte" hang for sale at Mercy Church on the edge of Mexico City's Tepito neighborhood. When Pope Francis visited Mexico in 2016 he expressed concern for those who "praise illusions and embrace their macabre symbols to commercialize death in exchange for money." (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

 

In this Feb. 19, 2017 photo, Death Saint devotee Francisco Rodriguez shows his tattoo of the popular saint inside Mercy Church on the edge of Mexico City's Tepito neighborhood. To devotees, "Santa Muerte" is associated with healing, protection, financial well-being, and ensuring a path to the afterlife. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

 

In this Feb. 19, 2017 photo, a man holds a Death Saint statue as his wife places a crown and his son looks on, at Mercy Church on the edge of Mexico City's Tepito neighborhood. To followers, she's known as the Death Saint, the White Girl, the Skinny One, or just Sister - and a life-transforming answer to their prayers. To the Vatican, though, she's an irritation seen as leading the faithful astray. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

 

In this Feb. 19, 2017 photo, a statue of the Death Saint or "La Santa Muerte," sits on a pew at Mercy Church, located on the edge of Mexico City's Tepito neighborhood. Images of La Santa Muerte range from mass-produced articles sold in shops throughout Mexico and the U.S., to handcrafted effigies. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

 

In this Feb. 26, 2017 photo, a devotee of Saint Death or "La Santa Muerte" kisses a necklace adorned with miniature skulls during a religious service at Mercy Church on the edge of Mexico City's Tepito neighborhood. Santa Muerte devotees say she has millions of followers and various names: the Death Saint, the White Girl, the Skinny One, or just Sister. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

 

In this March 1, 2017 photo, Manuel Zavala, a devotee of Death Saint or "Santa Muerte," is reflected on a car window as he holds statues of the folk saint during a pilgrimage in Mexico City's Tepito neighborhood. Zavala credits the saint for turning him around: "Thanks to a person I love a lot, my White Girl, my life has changed and now I'm not the second-rate guy I was before." (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

 

In this March 1, 2017 photo, a statue of Death Saint, or "Santa Muerte" holds a statue of Jesus on an alter inside a temple dedicated to the Santa Muerte, on the outskirts of Mexico City in the state of Mexico. The Roman Catholic Church rejects the Death Saint but her following continues to grow. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

 

In this Feb. 19, 2017 photo, a child arranges statues of the Death Saint at Mercy Church on the edge of Mexico City's Tepito neighborhood. Saint Death, or "Santa Muerte," devotees say she has millions of followers and various names: the Death Saint, the White Girl, the Skinny One or just Sister. But she doesn't have her own religion, and her followers are Catholics. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

 

In this March 1, 2017 photo, a Death Saint or "Santa Muerte" statuette stands in the middle of the road, placed there by its owner who waits for people to offer it things like food, tobacco and alcohol, in Mexico City's Tepito neighborhood. According to popular belief, "Santa Muerte" is very powerful and is reputed to grant many favors. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

 

In this Feb. 19, 2017 photo, a statue of the Death Saint stands inside Mercy Church as Juan Carlos Avila Mercado gives a service, on the edge of Mexico City's Tepito neighborhood. "She chooses them and has always been with us," said Avila, who says he is a Catholic priest, but who is not listed among the archdiocese's priests. "We are born and we die with death." (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

 

In this Feb. 26, 2017 photo, a devotee of the Death Saint or "Santa Muerte" cries as she is blessed by Juan Carlos Avila Mercado, who says he's a Catholic priest but isn't listed among the archdiocese's priests, inside Mercy Church on the edge of Mexico City's Tepito neighborhood. The Roman Catholic Church rejects the Death Saint, a female figure cloaked in black who carries a scythe. It says her followers are drug traffickers or other criminals asking for favors while practicing Satanic rituals. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

 

In this March 1, 2017 photo, a devotee of the Death Saint or "Santa Muerte" holds his statue of the folk saint inside Mercy Church on the edge of Mexico City's Tepito neighborhood. After asking for a favor, offerings are shared among the followers; tacos, pastries, apples, sodas and amulets are passed from hand to hand. Alcohol is sprayed and cigarette smoke blown over the Death Saint repeatedly. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)  

In this March 1, 2017 photo, a devotee of the Death Saint or "Santa Muerte" holds his statue of the folk saint inside Mercy Church on the edge of Mexico City's Tepito neighborhood. After asking for a favor, offerings are shared among the followers; tacos, pastries, apples, sodas and amulets are passed from hand to hand. Alcohol is sprayed and cigarette smoke blown over the Death Saint repeatedly. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

 

In this March 1, 2017 photo, a devotee of the Death Saint or "Santa Muerte," who has a tattoo of the folk saint, holds his statuette during a pilgrimage in Mexico City's Tepito neighborhood. When Pope Francis visited Mexico last year he expressed concern for those who "praise illusions and embrace their macabre symbols to commercialize death in exchange for money." (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

 

In this Feb. 26, 2017 photo, devotees of the Death Saint or "Santa Muerte" embrace during a service at Mercy Church in Mexico City's Tepito neighborhood. Devotees believe the folk saint can protect against assaults, accidents, gun violence, and all types of violent death. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

 

In this Feb. 26, 2017 photo, a statue of the Death Saint or "Santa Muerte" wears a cloak of U.S. dollar bills inside Mercy Church on the edge of Mexico City's Tepito neighborhood. Usually the vestments of the folk saint are differently colored robes, but it is also common for her to be dressed as a bride or in nun's garments. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

 

In this Feb. 19, 2017 photo, a family of devotees to the Death Saint or "Santa Muerte" hold a statue of the folk saint in a white dress at Mercy Church on the edge of Mexico City's Tepito neighborhood. The colors of the saint's vestments are associated with the type of petitions made. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

 

In this March 5, 2017 photo, a statue of Saint Judas Thaddeus, left, sands next to the Death Saint, or "Santa Muerte," inside niches at Mercy Church on the edge of Mexico City's Tepito neighborhood. As veneration of Santa Muerte becomes more accepted, shrines can also be found in the back of all kinds of stores and gas stations. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

 

In this Feb. 19, 2017 photo, Juan Carlos Avila Mercado leads a religious service, surrounded by images of local saints, Saint Death, Immaculate Conception, Saint Judas Thaddeus and the Virgin of Guadalupe, at Mercy Church in Mexico City. The Church located on the edge of the Tepito neighborhood is home to the cult of the Death Saint, or "La Santa Muerte" in Spanish, a female figure cloaked in black who carries a scythe, which the Roman Catholic Church rejects. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

 


Text from the AP news story, AP PHOTOS: Death Saint draws followers in Mexico, by Marco Ugarte. 

Photos by Marco Ugarte

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