Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Patroness of Peace... and the Impossible

Those who know the unique little corner of the world where I was raised are well-aware that all the cars idled on the traffic islands of South Broad Street over the last nine days weren't the usual abandoned vehicles, just the traditional parking lot for The Novena.

Today is the feast of St Rita of Cascia, the 14th century Augustinian nun known as a "patroness of hopeless causes." Her national shrine in Philly draws pilgrims all year, but the usual number goes through the ceiling over the nine days leading up to today's observance, which always begins with a candlelight Mass and vigil the evening before.

Still staffed by the Augustinians who founded the parish and built its sumptuous church, the recently-renovated shrine (featuring the above mural) marks its centenary this year. But the mass pilgrimages are nothing new at Broad & Ellsworth, where the novena (scroll down for the prayers) continues throughout the year each Wednesday.

In 1998, in one of his final treks to his native city, the late John Cardinal O'Connor of New York brought a group from St Rita's parish on Staten Island. He had previously promised to lead a parish trip to the saint's tomb in Italy, but such was his schedule that the "next best thing" down the Jersey Turnpike became the only feasible option.

As a boy, the cardinal's mother took him by trolley-car and foot to the shrine, where she gave thanks for being cured of a year of blindness in her son's youth, an occurrence she credited to St Rita. Celebrating Mass for the group, the son of Southwest Philly wistfully recalled the old trolley routes, the streets and the neighborhood churches which, seven decades prior, he passed along the way.

The sentimental return to his beloved hometown also accomplished an ulterior purpose. Having longed to be the archbishop of Philadelphia even after his appointment to New York, O'Connor pulled a fast one, conspicuously bringing along his pallium.

Though well outside his ecclesiastical province, the band of lamb's wool proper to the local metropolitan wasn't left in the sacristy.

National Shrine of St Rita of Cascia