“Of Lost Causes”: Keith Dannemiller on the Cult of St. Jude in San Hipólito, Mexico City

In his project “Of Lost Causes”, Keith Dannemiller – an American photographer living in the Colonia​ ​Condesa​ neighborhood of ​Mexico​ ​City – shows us a curious syncretistic feast that takes place at the 17th-century Church of San Hipólito on the 28th of every month. Here, he writes, distinct smells and odors clash as riotously as do beliefs. The aromas associated with traditional Catholic places of worship—burning candles, incense, wooden pews—permeate the air. At the same time, the atmosphere is acrid with the stench of industrial solvents and cheap inhalants—dangerous and volatile, “like the souls of the recently converted true believers in this, the cult of Saint Jude Thaddeus.”

Most Mexicans believe in some form of fate but many also have an unswerving confidence in a pantheon of saints, who are supposed to successfully rectify the injustices of their individual destinies. For those who feel that fate has dealt them a bad hand, petitioning your special saint for health, a job, or help in personal affairs—legal or illegal, moral or immoral—is as Mexican as drug cartels and tacos al pastor.


Keith Dannemiler


The followers of Jude Thaddeus are young and old but they don’t come from all walks of life. Keith explains: “They arrive here each month on foot or in public transportation from the inner-city barrios and marginalized neighborhoods that ring the city—breeding grounds for the desperation that feeds the growing cult. Here, the syncretism floats in the thin air like a dark and ominous cloud of hopelessness. Is this the future of Catholicism and the last chance of millions of Mexico’s disaffected youth, who, spurned by ineffectual institutions, gather with little dogma and a surplus of expectations for the Saint of Lost Causes?

“Young seekers, whose families and even other saints have seemingly shut out, are welcomed with open arms by the Claretian missionaries. Those with no where else to turn and little in their pockets will always find solace and refuge in the end-of-the-month congregation of Jude Thaddeus at San Hipólito. Membership only requires the very basic of the acoutrements of the growing cult—a scapular or statue of Saint Jude and a small yellow bottle containing PVC cleaner. One, tightly embraced as an icon of hope; the other inhaled to stave off, if only temporarily, the reality firmly embedded in lives with little or no promise.”



The psychological impact of this energetic public act of devotion and veneration on the believer is undeniable. In the imagery Keith provides, we see raw and intense emotions of despair and worry being alleviated, the helpless and hopeless being empowered, if just for a moment. People find something (and someone) solid to hold onto when opportunities and the possibility of progress seem to slip away. Around the beloved saint, the weak and needy members of the Mexican community coalesce with the strong sense of culture and fraternity.

The photographer writes on his background, his relationship with the religion of his childhood and the character of his current personal spirituality: “I​ ​am​ ​not​ ​a​ ​practicing​ ​Catholic​ ​although​ ​I​ ​was​ ​raised​ ​in​ ​a​ ​very​ ​religious​ ​household.​ ​But​ ​there​ ​are those​ ​who​ ​say ‘​Once​ ​a​ ​Catholic,​ ​always​ ​a​ ​Catholic’, which​ ​may​ ​in​ ​fact​ ​be​ ​true. I​ ​faded​ ​away​ ​from​ ​the​ ​Church​ ​when​ ​I​ ​became​ ​able​ ​to​ ​think​ ​for​ ​myself​ ​and​ ​broke​ ​the​ ​strictures​ ​of dogmas​ ​and​ ​creeds.​ ​That​ ​structure​ ​failed​ ​to​ ​help​ ​me​ ​understand​ ​the​ ​world​ ​when​ ​I​ ​began​ ​to encounter​ ​doubts​ ​and​ ​existential​ ​questions​ ​as​ ​any​ ​teenager​ ​will.

“So​ ​you​ ​may​ ​ask,​ ​‘Why​ ​this​ ​interest​ ​now,​ ​at​ ​this​ ​point​ ​of​ ​your​ ​life,​ ​in​ ​Saint​ ​Jude​ ​Thaddeus,​ ​the Saint​ ​of​ ​Lost​ ​Causes?’​ ​I​ ​have​ ​asked​ ​myself​ ​the​ ​same​ ​question​ ​during​ ​the​ ​last​ ​seven​ ​years​ ​of photographing​ ​the​ ​rituals​ ​and​ ​customs​ ​associated​ ​with​ ​the​ ​worship​ ​of​ ​this​ ​popular​ ​saint. While​ ​I​ ​am​ ​not​ ​a​ ​person​ ​of​ ​the​ ​Church,​ ​I​ ​do​ ​firmly​ ​believe​ ​in​ ​the​ ​power​ ​of​ ​faith.​ ​I​ ​am​ ​attracted​ ​to the​ ​strength​ ​of​ ​the​ ​beliefs​ ​of​ ​the​ ​people​ ​I​ ​meet​ ​almost​ ​monthly​ ​at​ ​the​ ​San​ ​Hipólito​ ​Church.

“Those​ ​who​ ​have​ ​overcome​ ​illnesses,​ ​lack​ ​of​ ​a​ ​job,​ ​personal​ ​relationship​ ​problems,​ ​extreme anxiety​ ​and​ ​the​ ​numerous​ ​other​ ​difficulties​ ​of​ ​the​ ​modern​ ​world​ ​appeal​ ​to​ ​my​ ​nominal spiritualness​ ​and​ ​to​ ​my​ ​visual​ ​curiosity. I​ ​am​ ​able​ ​to​ ​explore​ ​with​ ​my​ ​camera,​ ​and​ ​in​ ​doing​ ​so,​ ​continue​ ​to​ ​attempt​ ​to​ ​answer​ ​some​ ​of those​ ​profound​ ​questions​ ​that​ ​still​ ​need​ ​answers. I​ ​don’t​ ​get​ ​down​ ​on​ ​my​ ​knees​ ​during​ ​the​ ​masses​ ​that​ ​are​ ​held​ ​on​ ​the​ ​28th​ ​of​ ​every​ ​month,​ ​but​ ​I have​ ​taken​ ​to​ ​lighting​ ​candles​ ​in​ ​my​ ​house​ ​when​ ​things​ ​get​ ​a​ ​bit​ ​overwhelming.​ ​​​Maybe​ ​I​ ​am becoming​ ​a​ ​true​ ​believer.”




Born​ ​in​ ​Akron,​ ​Ohio​ ​in 1949, Keith Dannemiller was educated at Catholic elementary and high schools. He attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee for a BA in Organic Chemistry. ​In​ ​1976,​ ​after​ ​four​ ​years​ ​in​ ​San Francisco,​ ​he​ ​moved​ ​to​ ​Austin,​ ​Texas​ ​where​ ​he​ ​worked​ ​for​ ​The​ ​Texas​ ​Observer,​ ​Third Coast​ ​and​ ​Texas​ ​Monthly.​ ​While​ ​living​ ​there,​ ​he​ ​began​ ​the​ ​first​ ​of​ ​many​ ​photographic trips​ ​to​ ​the​ ​north​ ​of​ ​Mexico,​ ​in​ ​the​ ​area​ ​around​ ​Espinazo,​ ​Nuevo​ ​Leon,​ ​where​ ​he documented​ ​the​ ​festival​ ​of​ ​the​ ​Niño​ ​Fidencio,​ ​a​ ​folk​ ​saint​ ​renowned​ ​in​ ​Mexico​ ​during​ ​the 1920s.​ ​In​ ​1987, ​he​ ​decided​ ​to​ ​live​ ​and​ ​work​ ​in​ ​Mexico.​ ​A​ ​relationship​ ​that​ ​began​ ​with the​ ​Mexican​ ​photo​ ​agency​ ​Imagenlatina​ ​in​ ​May,​ ​1987,​ ​resulted​ ​in​ ​two​ ​trips​ ​to​ ​the​ ​Middle East​ ​(1988​ ​and​ ​1989)​ ​to​ ​cover​ ​the​ ​Palestinian​ ​Intifada.

While​ ​currently​ ​independent,​ ​during​ ​the​ ​past​ ​27​ ​years​, ​Keith was​ ​associated​ ​at​ ​different times​ ​with​ ​two​ ​US​ ​photo​ ​agencies:​ ​Black​ ​Star​ ​and​ ​Saba.​ ​In​ ​Latin​ ​America,​ ​he​ ​has covered​ ​a​ ​wide​ ​variety​ ​of​ ​situations,​ ​ranging​ ​from​ ​Nicaraguan​ ​recontras​ ​to​ ​street children​ ​in​ ​Mexico​ ​City​ ​to​ ​life​ ​on​ ​the​ ​US-Mexico​ ​border. A​ ​recurring​ ​theme​ ​in​ ​his personal ​work​ ​is​ ​the​ ​effect​ ​on​ ​the​ ​country’s​ ​rich​ ​traditions​ ​when Mexican​ ​society​ ​is​ ​constantly​ ​reshaping​ ​itself.​

In addition to the project on Saint Jude, Keith has documented the following subjects: ​a​ ​fundamentalist​ ​sect​ ​that​ ​uses​ ​exorcism​ ​to​ ​deal​ ​with​ ​social​ ​problems; portraits​ ​from​ ​the​ ​streets​ ​of​ ​Mexico​ ​City’s​ ​Centro​ ​Historico,​ ​Danzón​ ​in​ ​public​ ​parks,​​​ ​the​ ​struggles​ ​of​ ​Central​ ​American​ ​migrants​ ​in​ ​Mexico​ ​enroute​ ​to​ ​the​ ​United States​ ​and​ ​the​ ​effects​ ​of​ ​drug​ ​violence​ ​on​ ​the​ ​internally​ ​displaced​ ​persons​ ​of the​ ​southern​ ​Mexican​ ​state​ ​of​ ​Guerrero.​ ​His​ ​most​ ​recent​ ​book,​ ​​Callegrafía, is​ ​a​ ​look​ ​at the​ ​intimate​ ​strangers​ ​who​ ​move​ ​through​ ​the​ ​streets​ ​of​ ​the​ ​Centro​ ​Histórico​ ​of​ ​Mexico City​ ​each​ ​day.​ ​In December 2017, the photographer will be Artist-in-Residence in North Carolina for the Eyes on Main Street Photo Festival.

Keith shares his favourite creative people – Music​:​ ​Thelonius​ ​Monk,​ ​Juan​ ​Gabriel,​ ​Los​ ​Lobos,​ ​Tom​ ​Waits; Authors/Thinkers:​​ ​Flannery​ ​O’Connor;​ ​Sandra​ ​Cisneros;​ ​Toni​ ​Morrison;​ ​William​ ​Faulkner; Jane​ ​Jacobs;​ ​Joan​ ​Fontcuberta,​ ​John​ ​Berger,​ ​Arundhati​ ​Roy,​ ​Ariella​ ​Azoulay,​ ​Jim​ ​Harrison, Seamus​ ​Heaney; Photographers​:​ ​Hiroh​ ​Kikai,​ ​Sergio​ ​Larraín,​ ​Garry​ ​Winogrand,​ ​Danny​ ​Lyon,​ ​Louis​ ​Faurer,​ ​Henri Cartier-Bresson,​ ​Nacho​ ​López.

Links: Website (www.keithdannemiller.com) | Facebook (www.facebook.com/keith.dannemiller) | Flickr (www.flickr.com/photos/mxcitystreetphoto) | Instagram (www.instagram.com/keithdannemiller)

Images used with permission.