September 27, 2015
On Sunday, Center City slowly transformed from one of the country’s largest cities into, for all intents, the largest of outdoor churches as thousands of pilgrims and the curious streamed into Center City to witness Pope Francis’ papal Mass.
Thousands surged against barricades and climbed trees in Center City and along the Ben Franklin Parkway Sunday afternoon as the pontiff who has changed the face of Catholicism slowly made his way to Eakins Oval in the iconic Popemobile, kissing babies carefully brought to him by his security force and stopping only once to see the Knotted Grotto, a public art installation at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, where people in the region and across the globe had written their personal prayers.
As Pope Francis prepared for the Mass and Catholic clergymen and nuns made their way to the altar, pilgrims continued to stream into Center City in hopes of being close to his Holiness.
Last-minute security checkpoints were announced to allow those without tickets to get as close to the religious service as possible, with police at the scene estimating wait times of two hours for people with tickets to the papal Mass and four hours for those without.
Many of those with the closest views of the glistening gold-and-white altar at Eakins Oval said they began arriving in the ticketed-only section as early as 8 a.m.
"I can't believe that we are this close," said Joyce Ramsey, of St. Athanasius parish in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Museum of Art was visible behind the altar, the crucifix hanging from a white backdrop featuring a gold-colored cross with light blue trim. The Cathedra, the pope's throne, sat beneath it.
"Look at all these people," Ramsey said. "Everybody is here for the same reason. Everybody is smiling. Everybody is happy."
Ramsey and fellow parishioner Charlene Cornish credited Pope Francis for inspiring such a united atmosphere.
"It's not a concert," Cornish said. "It's a place where you're going to go in fellowship with other Christians. The atmosphere is going to be totally different than if you were down here for a football game."
Ramsey also was in the crowd when Pope John Paul II served Mass at Logan Square in 1979, but she was a considerable distance from the altar.
Ed and Peg McGlinchey, from Oreland, Montgomery County, also attended that Mass, the last papal visit to Philadelphia. This time, they'll have a much closer vantage point of the pope.
"We saw (John Paul) drive by in the car very fast," Ed McGlinchey said. "At Logan Square, we were quite a distance away. He was a dot up there, but we could feel him."
Peg McGlinchey said she has been unable to take her eyes off the TV since Pope Francis arrived in the United States earlier this week. Here to celebrate the World Meeting of Families, this is Francis' first trip to the U.S.
"I came down here earlier in the week to wonder around and go to the Cathedral," she said. "It was a wonderful experience. I'm very happy I did."
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be here to see the pope, especially being this close," said Scot McCaffery, of Portsmouth, Virginia.
He drove to Philadelphia Saturday with his wife and 18-month-old son. He brought a camera to capture Pope Francis up close.
"A lot of people who are older never get to experience this," he said.
Many in the crowd brought blankets or fold-up chairs for the Mass. Pilgrims lounged, napped or played cards to pass the time.
Herb Kaemmer, of St. Stanislaus parish in Lansdale, arrived shortly after security checkpoints opened at 6 a.m.
He found a vantage spot with a straight view of the altar. His wife, Marianne, is singing in the Archdiocesan choir.
"It's just a blessing to be here in a very special environment, which is Philadelphia, to celebrate Communion with our fellow Catholics," Kaemmer said. "We can address each other's needs more appropriately."
At one point event organizers constructed a tent over a restricted seated area for invited guests sometime after noon, presumably to protect guests from any rain.
But the tent obstructed the view of the altar - and the Cathedra in which Francis will sit - for most in the crowd.
At various points, portions of the crowd shouted, "Move that tent!"
Eventually, organizers relented and took the tent down.
Pope Francis is expected to parade around the Parkway before the Mass in a fashion similar to his parade in the Popemobile Saturday at the Festival of Families.
"I think it's going to be pandemonium," said Pat Conway, of St. Ann's parish in Phoenixville.
Conway came to the Parkway with his son, Ryan.
"I'm really excited to be here, especially so close," Ryan Conway said.
Several students from the University of North Carolina – Wilmington made the trip to see the pope, setting up camp on the Parkway with school books open.
"I love Pope Francis," student Mary Jaskowiak said. "I'm an environmental science major, so the pope speaks to both my faith and my professional aspirations."
"He's just a fantastic model of faith for all of us," Kara Schell, another student, added.
Throughout the morning, pilgrims streamed into Center City, some crossing the Ben Franklin Bridge, which was closed for the papal festivities Friday night, with a surge of people and police on the move at 9 a.m.
Some police slept over on the floor of the Franklin Institute to be ready early.
One bike cop who stopped at Sabrina's Cafe on Callowhill Street used two pairs of handcuffs as an improvised bike lock.
The advice to pilgrims as they arrived was to have their tickets out, face up, and have their cellphones on. Screeners checked phones to assure they had not been turned into weapons.
Donna and Paul Agnew traveled overnight to see the pope Sunday. The couple, from Plattsburgh, New York, were excited to be a part of such an historic event.
"Just being here and seeing the buildup and anticipation is exciting," Paul Agnew said. "And hopefully we'll get to see the pope."
While some have been critical of the heavy security surrounding the papal visit to Philadelphia, the Agnews took it all in stride and were understanding of the wait and increased security for the event.
"You have to expect it for something like this," Donna Agnew said.
"I'd rather be secure and delayed for a while to be safe," Paul Agnew added.
Carol, Jeff, Hannah and Abbey Schwoebel traveled overnight by bus from Westport, New York.
"I think we all agree that we like Pope Francis – who he is and what he stands for," Jeff Schwoebel said.
The family was surprised by some of the security restrictions, including the prohibition on fruit that could be used as a projectile.
"We had some apples and oranges," Carol Schwoebel explained. "We ate those really fast so we wouldn't have to throw them away!"
Overall though, they felt the security checkpoints went smoothly.
Sheila Pitawanakwat traveled from Burlington, Ontario, with other members of the Diocese of Hamilton.
It's her first time in Philadelphia, a city she says has welcomed her with open arms.
"Today is about just a pure love of God," she said. "It's a treasure to be here with such welcoming, beautiful people. I've met people from all over the world – true brothers and sisters. We've been treated like royalty since we arrived."
Pitawanakwat was lucky enough to see Pope Francis drive by her on Saturday.
"It was wonderful," she said. "I'm blessed."
Meanwhile, Rosamaria Giuliano, 67, and her daughter, Michelina, 36, of Cedar Grove, New Jersey, saw Pope Francis during the Mass at Madison Square Garden in New York City Friday and were excited for a chance to see him again Sunday.
"He's the best person on Earth," said Michelina Giuliano.
Both noted an incident in which Pope Francis was said to touch a woman, who had two tumors in her lungs, on her chest and one went away.
"That was a miracle, we believe," said Michelina Giuliano. "He was chosen by God."
Miracles? Can someone please page Chip Kelly?
Eagles fan William Castelberg, below, from Bucks County, planned to tune into the game while at the papal Mass. He's equipped with his portable radio.
Castelberg, who sported an image of Pope Francis on his shirt along with his Eagles cap, is attending the Mass with his wife and son.
"This whole event is based on family," he said. "And that's what I believe in. Everything starts with family."
He wasn't alone in wearing his Eagles swagger at the papal Mass.
Pete McLaughlin, 59, of Brookhaven, was wearing a special T-shirt and was ready to celebrate Pope Francis and the Philadelphia Eagles at the same time. The shirt was a gift from the St. James High Alumni Choir, of which he is the director.
"I'm excited for both the Eagles and the pope," he said.
Maria Guadio, 27, a Roxborough resident and St. Joseph's University graduate, came early to the Parkway.
She had a special ticket that allowed her to park at the Mann Center and get screened by security before boarding a bus.
But she left the secure zone to hit a Starbucks for coffee and a cookie.
"This is a historic event. He chose Philly. That's an honor," she said.
She said screening Saturday at Independence Mall and Sunday at the Parkway was "very easy," adding that law enforcement had been both nice and efficient.
She said she planned to stay until the Mass was over.
As the time for the Mass approached, spontaneous celebrations of song broke out among the faithful.
"We perform to show a sign of faith, to be joyful to God," said seminarian Francesco Basso, 42, a native of Italy who is now studying in Denver. "We are here for the pope, to deepen our faith."
The group had hoped to get onto the Parkway but settled on watching on a Jumbotron on Spring Garden Street. They were worried about the wait and decided to stay together as a group.
Father Dominic Tran, 64, from the Saigon Archdiocese, traveled from Vietnam for the pope's visit. Tran said he enjoyed his experience and has liked the time he has spent in Philly.
However, he hopes that the pope will be able to visit Vietnam sometime in 2017.
"We love the pope very much, " he said through a translator. "Hopefully, one day, he will come and see our country."
Some of the music that could be heard at the Parkway on Sunday was a little different from the traditional religious sounds.
Joshua, a volunteer for Priests of Beat who declined to give his last name, was promoting the group's new Catholic electronic music.
The project combines the higher-energy sounds with traditional, Catholic messages.
"It's modern and edgy, but still traditional. It's wholesome," he said. "Kids love this kind of music and electronic style."
He said students who were attending with their school sports teams were purchasing the music to use as pump-up jams. Others wanted it for workout tunes.
The mix of dubstep sounds and higher-energy house music gives a new twist to religious tracks.
"I heard this music and loved it," said another volunteer who also preferred to remain anonymous. "I want to help get it into the community."
As more pilgrims and the curious continued to stream into Center City, it was announced that a new entry point to the papal Mass was opening up at 20th and Spring Garden streets, but the wait would be up to four hours to get in. Still, a crowd quickly formed.
But others felt better avoiding the massive crowds.
Pat and Dennis Kluczynski, from Buffalo, New York, parked themselves in front of a quiet, sparsely populated area at a Jumbotron at Broad and Green streets for the Mass because they don't like crowds and Pat Kluczynski has trouble walking around.
But they said they would likely be back for the Philadelphia Flower Show, which they love.
PhillyVoice staff writers Christina LoBrutto, John Kopp, Hayden Mitman, Kevin Shelly and Daniel Craig contributed to this report.