Mexican town cradle of expanding faith-healing sect

ESPINAZO, Durango - This dusty northern Mexican town is the cradle of a growing sect revering an early 20th-century boy healer who the faithful believe used dirty water and glass-shard "scalpels" to miraculously cure the gravely afflicted.

The sect known as "Fidencismo" currently has hundreds of thousands of followers in Mexico and U.S. border states and, through its reputation for miracles, continues to gain converts, especially among the impoverished.

"People's deprivations fuel the growing appeal of Fidencismo," one of the group's healers, Jose Luis Diaz, told EFE.

The sect developed around the figure of Fidencio Constantino Transito, better known as Niño Fidencio, who became the country's most renowned faith healer in the period following the start of the Mexican Revolution in 1910.

Each year in March and October, followers of the sect meet for several days in the town of Espinazo - where Niño Fidencio spent most of his life - to commemorate his birth and death.

Members of the sect told EFE that more than 100,000 people came to the October gathering - which ended this weekend - seeking cures for their illnesses and afflictions.

These were record numbers for Espinazo, a town 200 kilometers (124 miles) from the U.S. border that is home to just 500 people.

Fidencismo healers use unconventional methods such as placing sick people in a muddy pond, using a swing to lift them in the air or making them circle a particular pine tree, depending on their particular malady.

Jose Fidencio Constantino was born in the city of Guanajuato in 1898 and died 40 years later in Espinazo.

He used glass shards to "operate" on patients and is said to have healed people with dirty well water and pine bark.

Niño Fidencio's reputation as a healer spread beyond Mexico's borders and he was even visited by President Plutarco Elias Calles, who sought treatment for a rare illness.

This October, Espinazo's dusty main road was clogged with thousands of pilgrims, who crawled on their hands and knees while carrying a cross, squirmed forward on their backs or rolled themselves uphill to arrive at the Fidencista Church.

Inside the church, hundreds of people waited in line to be cured by one of several barefoot "materias" (healers), who dressed in a red, blue or purple cloak, a white tunic and a cap.

Before beginning the "healing," the materia performs a ritual in which he or she enters into a trance and "receives the spirit" of Fidencio.

Later, the healers run their hands and a crucifix over the patient's body, and dance and sing with the patient accompanied by the Northern Mexican music known as "norteña."

Once the patient is "healed," he or she performs a type of penance, sometimes self-flagellation.

The final stage of the pilgrim's visit, which began at the pine tree at the entrance to the town, ends in a dirty, malodorous pond where the people are submerged to cure their affliction.

The rector of the Fidencista Church, Fabiola Lopez, rejected the use of the term "cult" to describe Fidencismo.

"Those who visit Espinazo come because they are suffering from some pain. Here, each 'materia' receives the spirit of the Niño," Lopez said.

Lopez said the "church" originated in 1993, although Fidencismo is several decades old and has more than 1,000 healers in Mexico and the United States.

"Every materia has a congregation in their place of origin and they assemble their followers for the trip to Espinazo," Diaz said.

In Diaz's judgment, the present-day problems and necessities of the poor lead them to Fidencismo, because it offers solutions that are immediate and free, as the healers do not charge fees.

"Medicine is not the only thing that cures, faith does too, and it's cheaper," Lopez said.