Voodoo chief Max Beauvoir has died in his homeland of Haiti, where the mixture of beliefs from West Africa and Catholicism is recognized as an official religion. He was 79.

A government statement says Beauvoir died Saturday in Haiti's capital of Port-au-Prince after an illness. The cause of death was not immediately known.

Born in 1936, Beauvoir was a biochemical engineer who earned degrees abroad and became a Voodoo priest when he returned to Haiti in the 1970s.

He became Voodoo's supreme chief in 2008 and led Haiti's main priests' organization.

Voodoo evolved in the 17th century. Slaves forced to practice Catholicism adopted saints to coincide with African spirits. Followers believe in reincarnation, one God and a pantheon of spirits.