Steven Bragg feared returning to New Orleans. He'd been living outside Boston for nearly five years, ever since floodwaters wrecked his home following Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods in 2005. But his main concern wasn't how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers addressed the levee system or the forecast of weather calamities down South.
What Bragg dreaded most were spirits he says were awakened by the storm.
"Preparing to move back, I knew I was going to have an issue because of all the dead who were roaming around confused and lost," says Bragg, 38, a practicing high priest of Haitian voodoo. "Things got stirred up that had been asleep. ... I was worried about keeping the dead out of my house. The dead are infinitely more active here."
For Bragg, who also studied strands of witchcraft and world religions for years, the long trek back to the Crescent City meant finding a way to ward off the souls dredged up by the floods' destruction.
His answer came in the form of Santa Muerte, better known as the Death Saint.
It began with an image of a cloaked skeleton holding a scythe — a Grim Reaperess — who spoke to Bragg in a dream. He didn't recognize the robed figure, but she told him what he'd been waiting to hear: She'd protect his home from the deceased if he built her a shrine.
Bragg spent a few hundred dollars to erect and paint a wooden shed behind his Mid-City shotgun house. In the shed, he composed a white-robed skeleton to represent the Death Saint. The shrine soon attracted Latinos from Kenner and Lakeview, who came to place offerings — tequila, roses, cigarettes — and pray for protection.
The Death Saint once was a clandestine deity to whom some Central American and Mexican Catholics prayed in private. That's changed. When Enriqueta Romero, a Mexico City woman, erected the first public Death Saint shrine in 2001, open devotion spread around the world.
"Saints are our heroes who show us how to live," says New Orleans Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond, who declined specific comment on the local Death Saint chapel. "To study the lives of the saints is important and inspirational for us as Catholics. A saint is someone who has lived a good and moral life. There are many saints in the Catholic Church, both named and unnamed, canonized and not canonized. A saint is a model to follow in loving God and loving one another. A saint always leads us to good, not to evil or to superstition. A saint prays for us and with us so that we can grow closer to God."
Andrew Chesnut teaches religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and wrote Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint, the first English-language book about Santa Muerte. He says between 10 million and 12 million people worldwide now pray to her, and an increasing number of Americans, like Bragg, are becoming immersed in the religion.
"We don't have any hard data yet, so that number is the best I can come up with based on my six years of research," Bragg tells Gambit. "No doubt, however, that no other new religious movement can rival its growth in the Americas."
As the small shrine outside Bragg's house gained offerings, the saint returned to him in another dream. She told him she was pleased with the outpouring but wanted more. "I said, 'That's great. But I don't know how to work with you,'" Bragg recalls. "But if you send somebody to teach me, we'll see how things go."
Bragg went back to his job at the New Orleans Passport Agency and did his usual spiritual practices at home.
A month later, an email arrived from Nick Arnoldi, a New Jersey friend looking to reconnect. Letters, text messages and suggestions of romance followed in the next few months. During the relationship, Bragg snapped a photo of his Santa Muerte shrine, sent it to Arnoldi and told him the story of his dreams and his shrine.
Arnoldi was knowledgeable about Santa Muerte. He'd once lived south of Tijuana, Mexico, where he learned how to practice the religion from a man named Don Gilberto.
Bragg saw it as a sign: Gilberto had taught Arnoldi, and Arnoldi would teach him.
First Arnoldi explained the three robes of Santa Muerte, which most devotees use as a guideline. Each cloak represents a different tenet. White represents purity as represented by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, where death did not exist. Prayers to this saint mostly revolve around spiritual and mental health.
The red-robed figure typically signifies love and passion. It also comes from the story of Adam and Eve, specifically the taking of Eve's virginity, with red representing blood. Prayers to this saint include worldly problems: money, sex, business, family and the judicial system, among others.
"She's known for getting straying husbands back home to take care of their families," Bragg says. "She's good at working with love."
The black cloak symbolizes the underworld and comes from the biblical story of Cain slaying Abel, with black connoting blood that spilled and dried. This saint deals in darkness and can "whip up the creatures of hell" to bring hexes, curses and mayhem to enemies. She also can protect from these things.
Bragg was fascinated. He had earned a degree in philosophy with a minor in world religious studies from Mississippi State University and had done some religion-related graduate work at Loyola University in New Orleans. Although he had studied humans' belief systems for nearly two decades, this felt like an awakening, he says.
When he was younger, Bragg attended a Pentecostal church in Magee, Mississippi, that eventually became a source of anxiety. He came from a poor but religious family in an area with a population of about 5,000 people, and the church was a place to pray for better days. When he realized he was gay at age 16, however, Bragg felt an internal battle playing out and wondered how he could grow spiritually within the religious confines of that church.
"I was worried about keeping the dead out of my house. The dead are infinitely more active here."
— Steven Bragg, who constructed a shrine to Santa Muerte in his Mid-City home
"Hearing them say homosexuality is a sin and that it's a demon you can have cast out of you if you truly believe in Jesus," he says. "I liked going to church until the point where I realized I liked boys and not girls."
Years after leaving the church, Bragg discovered the Death Saint and seized the chance to practice religion without being judged for his sexual orientation.
Experts believe such open-mindedness ushered in the cult religion's massive following. "She's the saint who doesn't discriminate, so she accepts all comers: LGBT, prostitutes, narcos," Chesnut says. Specifically, Santa Muerte has been described as a "narco-saint," meaning one who can help drug smugglers from Mexican cartels (an episode of Breaking Bad briefly featured the image of the saint). This reputation — and the Catholic Church's rejection of the movement — has drawn indignation from the religious establishment. In 2013, the Vatican's culture minister condemned the saint as a blasphemous symbol because of its link to violent Mexican drug cartels. But Santa Muerte also has become the figure to which victims of drug violence pray.
"She's a fierce badass who can potentially scare others more than the other saints, and since she's a folk saint and not a Catholic saint, she's open to petitions that are not supposed to be brought to canonized holy men and women," Chesnut says. "However, most of her devotees on both sides of the border are not narcos or criminals."
That rang true for Bragg, and he soon set aside a complete room of his home for the white-, red- and black-robed skeletons. He has set up three altars, and each has a large skeletal figure with a scythe and a smaller figure below it. Each altar is decorated with tequila, tiny skulls, candles, ashtrays, flowers, water and necklaces.
Word of Bragg's chapel spread on social media via a blog and Facebook page, which has garnered nearly 2,000 likes. Devoted followers from New Orleans began attending ceremonies at Bragg's home each month. Arnoldi told Bragg he had taught him everything he could about Santa Muerte, and Bragg says the training changed his life. They decided the long-distance relationship wouldn't work but remained friends. Arnoldi committed suicide a month later. He was 28.
Bragg says the tragedy bolstered his faith and allowed him to find a greater meaning. He set up a shrine dedicated to Arnoldi and placed it in the indoor chapel as a constant remembrance of the person who showed him the ways of Santa Muerte.
"She [the Death Saint] wanted that system passed onto somebody," Bragg says. "It strengthened my belief because I saw the pattern: [Arnoldi] getting in touch with me after her saying, 'I want to work with you,' the teachings and all the stuff that happened, and him saying, 'I don't have any more to teach you' — I felt like she knew exactly what she was doing."
The Death Saint chapel draws eight or nine worshipers for each monthly service. To prepare, Bragg lights candles and incense in the front room of his house, where worshippers gather. He makes sure the three altars have fresh water and flowers and that offerings left by devotees are in place. Worshippers wearing wooden rosary beads sit in metal chairs before the three-robed skeletons and recite prayers in unison: one Our Father, three Hail Marys, a Glory Be, a prayer to Saint Michael and an invocational prayer to La Santisima Muerte asking for protection. When the hourlong service ends, followers usually talk about their beliefs and ask Bragg questions. Some go to individual altars to to ask for a favor or miracle.
Alexandra Green, who has visited the chapel for more than three years, said at a Wednesday night service in late November that the ritual and the saint can stop people from living in continual distress. "When you're able to embrace death and that veil, the fearfulness leaves and you have the wisdom in her shroud that she is with us," Green says. "Once you face death then nothing else seems scary."
One preacher from a New Orleans church, however, told Gambit he was against the practices.
"We are a Jesus-based church so it's not something we would agree with theologically," said Monte Young, 42, pastor of the nondenominational NOLA Church. "It doesn't surprise me though. This is New Orleans; nothing really surprises you. I don't have anything against [Santa Muerte followers]. I would really hope that they could focus on life instead of death."
Since constructing the chapel four years ago, Bragg says he's received hundreds of emails from people around the world. He welcomes new followers and says nobody would get turned away for being "on the fringe" of society.
"She's not evil," he says of Santa Muerte. "She's not the devil, and praying to her is not devil worship. Everybody is going to die. Death is waiting for everyone — so if you're going to die, you can have a connection to the saint."