Thousands view St. Padre Pio relics at St. Thomas More

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NARRAGANSETT — St. Pio of Pietrelcina — known throughout the world as Padre Pio — likely faces competition only from John Paul II and Mother Teresa for the title of most popular saint of the 20th Century. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the public veneration of his relics at St. Thomas More Church attracted record crowds to the Narragansett parish.

More than 5,000 local and regional faithful came together to join in the veneration on October 1, both to celebrate the miraculous life of St. Pio and to pray for his intercession.

With lines stretching around the church building until 11 p.m., and many pilgrims moved to tears by the experience, St. Pio’s superstar status as a mystic and a healer was immediately evident.

“We’re huge Padre Pio fans,” said Janice Sutton of Warwick, who made the short pilgrimage to Narragansett with her daughter Eiley. “He’s just such a great example of a modern saint, and his message of love and healing is so important for us as Catholics to remember right now.”

The saint’s visit to St. Thomas More was the final northeastern stop on the national tour of his relics, which commenced on May 6 in Philadelphia.

From Narragansett, the relics, which included a lock of the saint’s hair, cotton gauze with his blood stains, crusts of his stigmata wounds and his handkerchief soaked with sweat on the day he died, traveled to Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Atlanta on October 3, before finishing their tour in the Diocese of Rockville Center on Long Island, New York on October 8.

The tour commemorates both the 130th anniversary of Pio’s birth and the 15th anniversary of his canonization. It was organized by the St. Pio Foundation, an American-based charity that aims to foster devotion to the Italian saint and support causes that align with Pio’s mission of “bringing relief of suffering to those in need.”

The president and CEO of the foundation, Maestro Luciano Lamonarca, began his work with the charity after he and his wife managed to conceive a child against medical expectations, a blessing which he attributes to the intercession of St. Pio. Lamonarca said St. Thomas More was among many parishes in New England that applied to host the relics, though only it and two Connecticut churches (St. Theresa Church in Trumbull and the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Bridgeport) were accepted.

“The parish had to have permission from their bishop, and also be able to demonstrate that they had the means to host the event and a firm plan on how to do so,” Lamonarca said. “Father Marcel Taillon [pastor of St. Thomas More] sent us a very spiritual letter that really proved that St. Thomas More could handle the responsibility.”

The veneration, along with the events in the Diocese of Bridgeport, raised money for Project Beloved, which seeks to raise a million dollars in order to open a Catholic women’s health center in Stamford, Connecticut. Billed as a “Catholic alternative to Planned Parenthood,” the center would offer comprehensive medical care to underprivileged women in the Stamford area that addresses the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of their patients and is “life affirming without exception.”

Co-founders Noelle Gross and Tom Amann were connected with the St. Pio Foundation by Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport, and the two charities quickly recognized their common interest in serving the suffering according to Christian mercy.

“Neither of us had a personal relationship with St. Pio before,” Gross stated, “but after this experience, we’ve really come to think of him as being among our greatest intercessors.”

In addition to spreading Pio’s healing message through charity, the veneration was intended to help suffering individuals connect with the holy healer. Many in line for Sunday’s event were in wheelchairs or on crutches.

Father Taillon recounted the story of one of the earliest pilgrims of the day, a three-year-old child suffering from a severe muscular disorder who was wheeled close to the relics by her parents.

“She couldn’t reach the relics from her chair, so I brought them down to her level for her,” Father Taillon said. “She was only three years old but she still somehow knew exactly how to venerate the relics, and as she held them I could just feel God’s love surrounding her.”

Another visitor seeking healing was 12-year-old Claire Kelly, a seventh-grader at Father John V. Doyle School in Coventry.

“I wish it was a more exciting story,” Kelly said of her fractured ankle, which she injured by “trying to play tag while wearing sandals.” Parents Tom and Marissa Kelly heard about the event through the Legion of Mary, and felt compelled to ask for St. Pio’s help in making sure that the fracture heals quickly and completely.

Other visitors came just to venerate the relics and reflect on Pio’s teachings, while one pilgrim actually came for something of a reunion with the saintly priest.

“One of our visitors actually met St. Pio over 60 years ago while he was growing up in Italy,” Father Taillon explained. “He never expected that he would see the saint again, and he was overjoyed to the point of tears at being able to connect with the holy man once more.”

Father Taillon was quick to credit the success of Sunday’s event to the more than 100 volunteers from the parish that helped to keep things running smoothly, as well as generous assistance from the Narragansett Fire and Police Departments.

One of those volunteers, Bryan Pringles, had a unique vantage point from which to view the proceedings.

Tucked away in a control center in a side room of the church, Pringles served as the event technology coordinator, which involved (among other duties) broadcasting the ceremonies by internet livestream. Viewers from around the world (including a parishioner stationed overseas on active military duty) were able to participate in the veneration and the special Mass offered by Auxiliary Bishop Robert C. Evans.

“It was amazing to watch it all take place from the camera,” said Pringles. “I’ve been watching this feed for the past four hours and I’m still amazed by how much real emotion you can see in [the pilgrims’] faces.”

This intense emotion made Sunday’s veneration a truly spectacular experience for pilgrims and parishioners, and one which hopefully will help bring healing to the suffering. At the very least, it represented a remarkable testimony both to the faith of the local Catholic community, and the touching legacy left by the great Priest of Pietrelcina.