MEXICO CITY – Deep in the heart of Mexico City’s toughest neighborhood, in streets plagued by drugs and prostitution, faithful Catholics are praying to a new and fearsome saint: death itself.
They come by the dozens to the Mercy Church, a former house in the Tepito neighborhood stuffed with statues and posters of the Grim Reaper, known among the devotees as St. Death.
They ask La Santa Muerte for miracles, light candles and give offerings of food, liquor and cigarettes. Some bring their children, who look up with awe at the grinning skeletons and their scythes.
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The Roman Catholic Church says the veneration of St. Death is growing in Mexico despite attempts by priests to stop it. There are 40 shrines to Death in Mexico City and about 400 nationwide, said David Romo Guillen, bishop of the Traditional Catholic Church Mex-USA, which runs the Mercy Church and has become the most visible promoter of St. Death. There are five prayer groups in California, Oregon and Washington, D.C., Romo said, but none in Arizona.
“It has become a fad, and it’s growing very quickly,” said Sergio Roman, a Roman Catholic official who oversees the priesthood in Mexico City. “People have taken death and personified it. They’ve made it almost like a god.”
Devotees say death worship stretches back to pre-Columbian times in Mexico, and the veneration of saints is popular among Catholics worldwide. But Roman said the St. Death phenomenon began about 10 years ago in Mexico’s slums and prisons and has accelerated in the past two years.
The Mercy Church was founded in 2000, and the Traditional Catholic Church Mex-USA was officially recognized as a religion by the Mexican government in 2003. The church’s priests now perform marriages, including the much-publicized wedding of actress Niurka Marcos.
Followers deny they practice witchcraft or Satanism, and the church has sued the Roman Catholic bishop of Leon for suggesting a link. Devotees regard Death as a kind of angel who kills people on God’s orders, akin to Archangels Gabriel and Michael. They have even picked a festival day for her, Aug. 15. Vendors now sell Grim Reaper T-shirts, complete with the “Prayer to Saint Death,” outside the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico’s holiest shrine.
“The people who live here are people who have problems, and death is a very real and close thing to them,” said Arturo Garcia, one of Mercy Church’s priests. “For us, Saint Death is an angel of God, a messenger.”
The movement is unrelated to the Day of the Dead, or All Souls Day, when Mexicans honor family members who have died.
Altars to St. Death have popped up in unlikely places, like the Pardo Jewelry Shop frequented by tourists on Mexico City’s main plaza, the Zocalo. Construction worker Ricardo Lopez Perez recently stopped by the store to ask for Death’s protection as he headed to Tijuana to cross illegally into the United States.
He said he became a believer three years ago, when St. Death appeared to him in a dream during a winter trip across the California desert.
“I was wet from the rain, and tired, and it was so cold I couldn’t stop shivering,” he said. “She said to me, ‘Show me your hands,’ and it was like she pulled me up. She told me to keep walking, and not to fall asleep again. She saved my life.”
For protection Lopez now wears a Grim Reaper necklace and cloth amulet. There are Grim Reaper tattoos on his chest and back.
The practice has spread to the countryside as well. In the town of Pedro Escobedo, 90 miles northwest of Mexico City, a sign on Highway 45 invites motorists to worship at the Chapel of the Most Holy Death.
“I started coming here because people told me about the miracles St. Death has worked for them,” said Oscar Treja Arellano, a 26-year-old hair stylist. “They say she is very powerful.”
The Chapel of the Most Holy Death is filled with pictures and statues of the Grim Reaper, and the altar overflows with offerings of fresh fruit, bread, cigars and tequila.
The skeletons are dressed in hooded robes, some of them covered with white lace like wedding gowns. Some wear crowns or carry a globe. All of them carry long scythes.
A sign warns, “The lighting of black candles is strictly prohibited,” an effort to discourage witchcraft, Treja said.
Worried by the trend, Catholic priests in central Mexico City are giving sermons about Rome’s take on the issue: that death is a phenomenon, not a saint or an angel. Last month, 500 Catholics from three parishes held an outdoor Mass near one of the St. Death shrines to show they reject the movement, Roman said.
“We celebrate life and not death,” Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera said last month, responding to questions about the sect.
But the condemnation seems to be falling on deaf ears. During one recent afternoon, Mercy Church was buzzing with activity while the San Antonio Tomatlan Catholic Church down the street was deserted.
About 20 people moved past the robed skeletons, bowing their heads and touching the glass cases around some of the more elaborate statues. The gift shop did a brisk business, selling Grim Reaper amulets for 90 cents and shiny metal figurines for $3.
Outside the church, a vendor sold statues of Michelangelo’s Pieta, but with Death cradling the body of Jesus instead of Mary.
Two police officers stopped and crossed themselves in front of a life-size, scythe-carrying skeleton in a satin robe mounted in a glass case in front of the church. A few minutes later, a man with a face covered with tattoos and cuts did the same. Another passer-by kissed the glass, then knelt on the sidewalk and prayed.
“To the people here, Death offers friendship, hope, and miracles,” Romo said. “We’re the church of the people, down here among the people . . . and that’s why the Roman Catholic church sees us as a threat.”