As an historian I am especially interested in the oldest shrines and images of Santa Muerte so I headed to the mining ghost town of La Noria de San Pantaleon in the northern state of Zacatecas to see one of the oldest images of the White Girl and hopefully interview the Santa Muertero patriarch, Raul Arellano.
I arrived in town late morning a couple weeks ago without any idea if the chapel would be open and if Don Arellano would be in town. I got lucky for as I parked next to the village church I was approached by Andres, Don Arellano’s grandson who is a local tour guide and graciously opened both San Pantaleon church and the little Santa Muerte chapel for me.
At the picturesque church I was most impressed by the statue of Saint Pantaleon whose blood I had seen liquefy during his feast day on July 27, 2021, in Madrid. The Greek saint who was martyred by decapitation in the third century was a physician known for healing both body and soul and is rarely seen in Mexico. In fact, I can’t recall ever seeing him in the hundreds of churches I’ve visited since the early 1980s.
Up the hill at the diminutive Santa Muerte chapel what most caught my eye was the unusual depiction of the Skeleton Saint. Its fleshy, mummy-like face is very similar to two other of the oldest images of the Mexican saint of death, the effigy of Tepatepec, Hidalgo, which was created as a likeness of Saint Bernard Clarivaux, and Doña Sebastiana of New Mexico and Colorado.
According to Don Arellano, it was in the 1790s when an effigy of Santa Muerte initially appeared as a skeleton holding with a scythe, dressed in white and placed at the entrance of a local mine.
At this point I’m not aware of any written record corroborating the Skeleton Saint’s local appearance in the 1790s, but the date does jibe with the first written documentation of Santa Muerte in the Mexican historical record in the same decade in which Catholic Inquisitors from Mexico City discovered Chichimec Indigenous people worshiping a skeletal idol in the present-day states of Queretaro and Guanajuato.
The perilous labor of extracting precious metal from the bowels of the earth meant translated into short lives and very low standard of living.
The fear of being buried alive in landslide led local miners to look to Holy Death to spare them from such a bad death, asking he for protection with the following simple prayer: “Santa Muerte, let me descend (into the mine) and come return alive. I will thank you.” This local mining tradition was preserved for many decades.
The loquacious shrine owner told me that a local man with the surname Alvarado and originally from nearby Sombrerete made the first modern effigy of Santa Muerte in the 1950s, which was stolen from the local church just a few years later.
Shortly after another craftsman and painter from the region, with the surname Villasana, fashioned another statue in the same style.
For many decades the effigy of Santa Muerte, remained in the local church where it was worshiped by some parishioners and took part in Good Friday processions representing Christ’s victory over death for some and vice versa for others.
Doña Natalia Zamora was in charge of caring for the effigy of Santa Muerte when it was still inside the church, but when she died in 2011 a group of priests urged the local people to burn and destroy the image of the “White Girl,” which they did.
Even though some local priests, according to Don Arellano, were themselves devotees of Saint Death by 2011 the Catholic Church in Mexico was making frequent denunciations of the Skeleton Saint as heretical, if not satanic, so it was no longer tenable for the unique effigy of Saint Death to remain in Saint Pantaleon church.
The charred remains of the skull are now prominently displayed at the altar of the Saint Death chapel where they serve as graphic reminder of the Church’s holy war against the White Girl.