Philadelphia shrines reach out to pilgrims awaiting the pope
“Searching for peace?” asked a sign on busy Broad Street this week. “Try Rita.”
It was a pitch from St. Rita of Cascia, one of several national shrines in the area – including St. John Neumann, St. Katharine Drexel and the Miraculous Medal – that were reaching out to visitors in advance of the pope’s arrival Saturday.
St. Rita’s offered free trolley rides from downtown, known as Center City, to the gray stone church at the heart of Italian South Philly.
On Thursday, pilgrims examined relics from Rita and other saints, touching crosses to them, lighting candles and offering prayers.
“It was beautiful, peaceful,” said Stephanie Burke of Birmingham, Ala., who said she was fascinated and inspired by the relics, including St. Rita’s black habit with gold trim.
Her husband, Dan Burke, who works for the National Catholic Register, appreciated the significance of Rita and other saints.
“A lot of people don’t realize that St. Peter was our first pope. You can draw a line from him to the man who will be walking these streets,” he said.
Dan Burke was enjoying the enthusiasm for Francis on display in South Philly. “It’s fun to see the papal flags outside the businesses,” he said.
Visitors came to the shrine Thursday from Virginia, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Europe and Zimbabwe.
Jan Swarthout, 54, of York, Pa., said her mother was named after St. Rita, but she learned a lot during her visit Thursday. “There’s so many things within the Catholic church that Catholics don’t know about,” she said.
To attract visitors this week, the shrines extended their hours, printed more than 45,000 brochures, created a three-minute commercial and built a new website. They also hosted special events, such as the Wednesday night viewing at St. Rita’s of the remains and major relics of another saint, Maria Goretti. The line for that stretched down the block.
At the Neumann shrine in North Philadelphia, visitors can also view the remains of the saint, the fourth bishop of Philadelphia credited with expanding Catholic education in the U.S.
The Miraculous Medal shrine, in the leafy Germantown neighborhood, draws its name from a medallion still worn by Catholics, first made in the 1800s based on a design that St. Catherine Laboure said Mary gave her in a vision.
Another shrine, located outside the city in Bensalem, honors St. Katharine Drexel, a Philadelphia heiress entombed there who spent her fortune — about a half-billion dollars today — to improve the lives of African Americans and Native Americans.
The shrine of St. Rita of Cascia — the Italian nun known as the “Saint of the Impossible” and the “Peacemaker” -- began as a parish church dedicated to welcoming Italian immigrants.
The Rev. Joseph Genito of the Augustinian order, which runs the church and shrine, noted that after St. Rita’s husband was killed in a vendetta, she reconciled with the killers publicly.
“She got hot-headed Italians to make peace,” the priest said, laughing.
In South Philly now, he said, “We still have an Italian flavor, but also other significant groups: Asian, Hispanic, African American.”
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