RELIGION

AP PHOTOS: Death Saint draws followers in Mexico

  • 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 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 March 1, 2017 photo, images and statues of the Death Saint or "Santa Muerte" are displayed on a street altar on the outskirts 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)  (The Associated Press)

  • 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 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)  (The Associated Press)

  • 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 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)  (The Associated Press)

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 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."