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August 05, 2015

Residents worry over pope's visit in Lower Merion

Pope will be staying overnight in the Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary

Pope Francis Traffic
St. Charles Borromeo Seminary Source/Google Street View

Pope Francis will stay at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary when he visits Philadelphia in late September.

While Philadelphia is still reacting to the extraordinary security measures being put in place for Pope Francis's historic visit to the city, the much smaller community of suburban Wynnewood has security issues of its own. 

After all, the pope may be speaking in Philadelphia, but he will be sleeping in the Main Line community at the Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary.

Lower Merion residents, who live near the seminary where Pope Francis will stay overnight during his visit, were given details about road closures, possible special parking passes and the sheer unprecedented size of the expected crowds from local officials Wednesday during an information meeting.

“Whether you want to be involved in this or not it is going to impact you,” said Lower Merion police superintendent Michael McGrath.

McGrath, alongside other local officials, answered questions from about 100 residents who wanted to understand exactly what it will mean for them when the pope shows up in their normally sleepy, tree-lined neighborhood. At a conference room in Lankenau Medical Center's Annenberg Center for Education, residents were cautioned to plan ahead, expect unprecedented crowds and security fit for a head of state.

During his stay the weekend of Sept. 26 and 27 at the seminary, Pope Francis will greet seminarians Saturday afternoon and hold a conference with cardinals and bishops at the campus Sunday morning, according Vatican officials.  And where the pope spends time, officials expect there to be crowds.

“If you are not excited and you do not want to have a glimpse of the pope… you might want to think about going on a vacation,” said Liz Rogan, president of Lower Merion's board of commissioners and seventh ward commissioner, which encompasses Wynnewood.

McGrath said residents would be able to get to their homes by car during the visit but cautioned that streets would be crowded. Parking passes for residents may also be handed out to indicate who has the right to park on local streets and who doesn’t. The tightest security will be put in place on East Wynnewood Road near the entrance to the sprawling seminary campus. For residents who live in the closest dozen or so homes near its entrance, they may have to enter their property through a checkpoint. 

The Secret Service will be largely in charge of security in the seminary along with Lower Merion police which will be getting extra help from neighboring departments.

Ensuring access to Lankenau Medical Center — located across from the seminary — will be paramount. Rogan said that there will be parking at the medical center for individuals who have a reason to be there - people just looking to park on the property to see the pope won’t be allowed to do so.

Nutter unveiled some travel details at a press conference Wednesday. One of the announcements will impact Lower Merion - U.S. Route 1 will be closed in both directions from U.S. 30 to Belmont Avenue. That closure will be in effect starting at 6 p.m. Friday, Sept. 25. Officials did not say exactly when the roads will reopen but McGrath indicated that some cross street traffic would be allowed.

Nutter said security officials will enforce a "traffic box" in which vehicles can exit but not re-enter until the papal visit concludes. Private vehicle traffic within the box, which becomes effective at 6 p.m. Friday, Sept. 25, likely will include challenges to motorists. 

Any buses registered with the World Meeting of Families will be able to enter the traffic box. Otherwise, only emergency vehicles, bicycles and pedestrian traffic will be allowed to enter from the outside.

In addition to the pope’s physical presence in the area, one of the 18 regional rail stations that will operate that weekend will be Radnor station, which is just outside of town.

Residents in the meeting were both excited at the prospect of having the charismatic pontiff as a temporary neighbor and terrified at the prospects of thousands of people and hordes of media descending on the neighborhood.

Todd Sinai, a resident who lives on Forrest Road, asked “What kinds of crowds do you expect around the [seminary’s] fences and gates?”

McGrath replied that people would be restricted from East Wynnewood Road, but the public would  likely have access to City and Lancaster avenues, which border the seminary.

“There are going to be crowds, want to know how many? Flip a coin,” said McGrath adding that the nature of the event made it difficult to accurately predict crowd sizes.

One resident asked what she should do if suddenly confronted with 150 people camping out on her lawn. McGrath said if she didn't want them on her property to call the police. 

The meeting started with a presentations and tips by McGrath and Rowan on how area residents and businesses should prepare, including the prospect that area gas stations might run out of gas that weekend. They said people should do their shopping before the weekend and handle the visit as if it was a blizzard people knew about in advance. Then they answered questions for about an hour on everything from security concerns to crowd control.

McGrath emphasized the grand scale of the event saying that it was going to potentially double the city's population and could swamp the entire region with pilgrims. The federal government is managing security preparations - McGrath said plans could change but that most of the specifics would likely be in place by Labor Day.

Residents were told to pay attention to details. Previously booked appointments for the weekend of the pope's visit should be confirmed, cars should have full tanks of gas and travel plans shouldn't wait until the last minute.

“You should do all the thing you need to do before hand,” Rogan said.

Staff writers John Kopp and Kevin Shelly contributed to this story.