In South Philly, the faithful pray for a visit from Pope Francis

Michael "Puge" Puggi, 40, sells Vatican flags on a busy corner in South Philadelphia.
Michael “Puge” Puggi, 40, sells Vatican flags on a busy corner in South Philadelphia.
(Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)

Anyone of a certain age in South Philly can tell you how it felt to see the motorcade of Pope John Paul II on Broad Street in 1979. And if they were too young to remember, they will tell you what their parents or grandparents told them and point to a family photograph.

Signs appeared on Broad Street listing items not allowed in venues where Pope Francis will appear, and some took that as a good sign.

“Do you think he’ll come here?” Vincent “Vince” Termini, 77, queried his sons over at Termini Brothers bakery. “The priests keep asking me.”


Vincent “Vinny” Termini Jr. 37, shrugged, laughing nervously. “He thinks I’m keeping it a secret,” he protested. “I don’t know anything!”

They were asking the same question a few blocks away at Pat’s King of Steaks in the Italian Market and at St. Rita’s, St. Monica’s, St. Maron’s and the rest of the churches that fill the densely packed blocks of brick row houses bedecked with Vatican flags, yellow and white glitter-dusted ribbons and homemade signs proclaiming, as if anyone needed reminding, “The Pope Is Coming.”

When South Philly likes you, you know it. And you better believe they like Francis.

“You never have to worry about what we’re thinking,” said Vinny’s older brother Joseph “Joey” Termini, 42. “Just ask our local sports teams.”

Even more than the Eagles, Flyers and Phillies, the pope seems like one of their own: son of Italian immigrants, a self-made man known for his spontaneity, humility and love of the working class. If this pope came to town and skipped South Philly, the consensus is, it would be a sin.

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Vince reminded his son that when Pope John Paul came to Philadelphia, he was served cannoli made by Termini Brothers. A priest reported that the pope enjoyed them, and gave the family a photo that is still displayed in a glass case near the tea biscuits, biscotti and signature almond pignoli cookies they have been making since 1921.


“If he came here, you’d have to resuscitate me,” Joey said.

A friend stopped by the shop to drop off tickets from the parish for Vince’s wife to see the pope’s Sunday Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The men will be working. As Sinatra played on a store radio, they mused about what they would do if Francis made a surprise appearance at the shop.

“Wait on him?” Vinny said.

“I heard he’s a sweets person,” Joey said.

“He better wear an apron with that outfit,” quipped Barbara Termini, who met her husband of 49 years while working as a salesgirl at the shop.

“With this pope, he’d probably want you to give him a hug,” Joey said before returning to the kitchen to finish the cannoli using the same mixers as his forbears.

Joe D’Emilio, 62, an altar server and usher at St. Rita of Cascia Church and national shrine on Broad Street, was standing outside greeting visitors this week, remembering John Paul’s visit, the first and only one here by a pontiff.

“It was the same excitement back then — he came right up Broad Street, and we had people standing on roofs,” he recalled, hoping for a repeat. “He just might want to come and see the shrine. You never know.”

A few streets away, Michael “Puge” Puggi, 40, was doing brisk business selling Vatican flags, pope plaques, buttons and T-shirts. Puggi’s mother still has her photo of John Paul on Broad Street, and he hopes Francis makes it to South Philly.


“He’s a hip dude,” Puggi said. “He speaks like three languages. I’m lucky I can speak one.”

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, a longtime bastion of Roman Catholicism in America, has been reeling in recent years from the clergy sex abuse scandal and from financial troubles that prompted the closing and merging of schools and parishes. Puggi went to the now-consolidated St. Nicholas of Tolentine elementary school and St. John Neumann High School.

Among those perusing his wares was Jennifer Siebert, 41, who said Francis gives the church a fresh start.

“With all the controversies and the molestations, he’s trying to give it a new day,” said Siebert, 41, a veterinary technician whose mother and sister attended John Paul’s Mass, and received a blessing.

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Puggi’s friend Matt Matteis, 49, stood smoking a cigar and contemplating how much South Philly has changed since his childhood. His Catholic elementary school, St. Edmond’s, also closed. Asian and Latino immigrants moved in, and their businesses now dominate the Italian Market. Hipsters have opened retro cafes.


They are still a family, Matteis said of the neighborhood, just more diverse. Francis ought to take a look.

But will he?

Over at Pat’s, which opened in 1930, Frank Olivieri said a security detail had visited and was considering his family’s restaurant among about a dozen secret sites the pope might visit, along with Termini Brothers.

Olivieri, 76, sat with his wife, Ritamarie, at one of the street-side picnic tables by a sign warning passersby, “Don’t Buy a Misteak!” The message was aimed at Geno’s across the street. Competition is fierce between Pat’s and Geno’s Steaks. Olivieri likes to chat with the undecided, advising them how to order like a regular (“cheese with” or “cheese without” — onions) and addressing questions about the pope.

“They ask when he’s coming, and I say, ‘I’ll tell you after you buy a steak.’”

Pat’s has hosted all sorts of celebrities, including Frankie Valli back in the day, and the Obamas. Maybe Francis too?

“You never know with him — he ate with homeless people the other day,” a friend said.

“I would not be shocked,” Ritamarie Olivieri said from behind her Dior sunglasses.

It was all so much simpler when John Paul came, she said. The whole city was painted in yellow and white, there was far less security, and everyone just walked to Broad Street to catch a glimpse.

When John Paul came to town, Mike Simon stood on the parkway, close enough to touch him. His wife, Connie, now 76, helped nuns take their two sons and classmates from St. Paul’s School to watch.


If Francis skips South Philly, she said, he’s missing out. Their street is a mix of families in residence 50 years and young new arrivals: a lawyer, a nurse and a professor from the University of Pennsylvania.

“Everybody looks out for everybody,” Mike Simon said.

“Wouldn’t live no place else, right Frank?” his wife called from her open screen door to a passing twentysomething wearing a Phillies cap and a gold cross.

“I wouldn’t,” Frank replied, and she nodded.

“That’s what I’m saying.”

Joann Spina, 51, is torn about the pope’s visit. Her entire block, next door to St. Monica’s, is decorated with Vatican flags and signs, but like many here, the paralegal couldn’t get a ticket to see him and made plans instead to go to the Shore, as local call seaside New Jersey.

But if he came to South Philly….

“Ooooh, I just love him!” Spina gushed. “I love that he’s a people’s pope.”

She consulted neighbor Diana Foschini, 59, her daughter’s mother-in-law, who was having her hair done in her kitchen a few doors down.

“I have a feeling he’s going to go up Broad Street again,” Foschini said.

Spina was having second thoughts. “Maybe I should stay….”

Twitter: @mollyhf



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