Young devotion brings St. Pio relics to N.O.

By Beth Donze

Holy relics linked to St. Padre Pio, the 20th-century Italian priest who bore the stigmata – wounds corresponding to those endured by Christ during his crucifixion –are coming to St. Rita Church in New Orleans on Oct. 4.

The daylong event, incorporating prayer, veneration and Mass, is part of a national tour sponsored by the St. Pio Foundation and is expected to draw thousands of pilgrims from across the region on a single Wednesday.

The full schedule for Oct. 4 is:

➤ 7 a.m.: Morning prayer with the reception of the relics.

➤ 8:30 a.m.: School Mass for students of St. Rita, St. Mary’s Dominican High and Xavier University of Louisiana (not open to the public due to seating limitations).

➤ 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.: Public veneration of the relics.

➤ 6 p.m.: Mass honoring St. Padre Pio, celebrated by Archbishop Gregory Aymond.

Relics available for veneration will include Padre Pio’s glove, mantle, a lock of hair, crusts of his stigmata wounds, cotton gauze stained with the saint’s blood and a handkerchief used to wipe sweat from the priest as he lay on his deathbed.

Stigmata began during WWI

Born in 1887 in Pietrelcina, Italy, the future saint, born Francesco Forgione, first expressed his desire to be a priest at age 10. He entered the Capuchin religious order at 15 and was ordained to the priesthood at 23.

During his lifetime, Padre Pio was known as a mystic who had miraculous powers of healing and knowledge and who was privileged to bear the stigmata. Such wounds can appear on one or more of parts of the body, including the forehead, hands, wrists and feet.

Padre Pio’s stigmata first emerged during World War I, after Pope Benedict XV asked Christians to pray for an end to the conflict.

Padre Pio had a vision in which Christ pierced his side. A few weeks later – on Sept. 20, 1918 – Jesus again appeared to him, and he received the full stigmata. The miraculous condition would remain with Padre Pio until his death on Sept. 23, 1968.

Pope John Paul II canonized him a saint in 2002.

Mandeville boy’s devotion

The New Orleans stop on the national tour was far from happenstance. When Amy Cowley, a parishioner of Our Lady of the Lake Church in Mandeville, came across an article on the tour last spring, she immediately thought of her 12-year-old son Christian, who has a special devotion to Padre Pio.

“I thought, ‘Maybe they’ll stop here (in New Orleans), too,’” Cowley recalled. “I knew there was a strong following of Padre Pio because of all the Italian-Americans in the area.”

Upon learning that New Orleans was not on the tour, Cowley contacted her friend, Cory Howat, the executive director of The Catholic Foundation. Howat in turn emailed an inquiry to the tour’s main contact in Italy.

“By the time I woke up the next morning (the tour contact) said they had one date open in the fall,” recalled Howat, adding that “all the chips fell” perfectly in the space of just 10 days: Howat was able to nail down a date with the Pio representative; Archbishop Aymond gave his consent; The Catholic Foundation’s Susie Veters enlisted the assistance of Catholic Women in Action; and Notre Dame Seminary, lacking adequate space to accommodate the thousands of anticipated pilgrims, offered its parish church of St. Rita as the event’s host church.

‘Super’ saints

Cowley’s son Christian, now a seventh-grader at Our Lady of the Lake School and a veteran altar server, became acquainted with Padre Pio after doing a religion project on him in the third grade.

But Christian’s devotion really took off two years later, when he researched a more extensive project for his school’s religion fair that examined saintly “superpowers” – special gifts exhibited by a small clutch of saints. Those gifts included bilocation (being in two places at the same time), levitation and stigmata.

“Whenever Christian sees Padre Pio’s name, it sparks his interest and he wants to learn more about him,” Amy Cowley said. “At night during our prayers, we ask for (Padre Pio’s) intercession.”

Cowley and her husband Stan will pull all five of their children, ages 3 to 12, out of school to attend the Oct. 4 exhibit at St. Rita. Last spring, the couple also took their children to Most Holy Trinity Church in Covington to view the traveling statue of Our Lady of Fatima.

Christian recently added a Padre Pio medal to the long chain and Miraculous Medal that he tucks under his shirt. He also is the proud owner of a Padre Pio relic obtained from the Connecticut-based Padre Pio Foundation of America: a swatch of the saint’s cloak encased in a wallet-like holder. The wallet’s facing side is inscribed with one of the saint’s famous quotes: “Pray, Hope and Don’t Worry.”

“Christian is super excited!” Amy Cowley said. “When I told him that Padre Pio was coming to New Orleans, he had a big smile across his face. He said, ‘Wow! That’s really cool!’”

The Oct. 4 relics stop at St. Rita Church, 2729 Lowerline St., is sponsored by the St. Pio Foundation, The Catholic Foundation of the Archdiocese of New Orleans and Catholic Women in Action. For more information, visit stritanola.com/stpio.

Beth Donze can be reached at bdonze@clarionherald.org.

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