A Pilgrimage to Philadelphia

It was the chance of a lifetime to see Pope Francis when his motorcade drove through Philadelphia, and I almost sat home to watch it on TV. I would not have gone into the city, but my friends from Pittsburgh had extra train passes from the transit lottery. The idea of spending the day with some of my favorite people convinced me to go and I brought my son along to be with his godparents.

The regional rail passes were nice enough to be a keepsake.
The regional rail passes were nice enough to be a keepsake.

I was still full of doubts on the day before the event. Where would we park for the train if all those people were departing from the same station? They had sold 90% of the available passes for that station. Would we lose each other in the crush of people? What was there to do all day? Would there be food or facilities? We searched online for answers – me, my friends, and another close friend who offered us her house for the weekend. We got some answers, but a lot of the information was vague or incomplete. Other things I read that talked about how to prepare for long lines or potential disasters made me worry more.

Once I put the word ‘pilgrimage’ to the trip, I found I was able to cope with the uncertainty. If the first disciples traveled with only the clothes on their back, I could survive Philadelphia with a daypack full of water and granola bars.  People of Muslim faith go on haj knowing that they may not return, and several died this year in a stampede. Yes, the worst could happen, but organizers in Philadelphia were doing all they could to plan for it.

Friday night we drove to our friend’s house. She had accidentally booked a vacation that same weekend, but she generously let us use her house while she was gone. It’s a blessing to have such amazing friends. She gave us her garage door access (in code), bought breakfast foods, and left us with detailed instructions and bus passes.

We were ready to leave the house by 9am Saturday morning. We had backpacks of snacks, water, books, and a beach blanket. We had a packet of printouts from our research – directions to parking lots, the bus route, a map of the city. The first choice, a Park & Ride lot was eerily empty and we saw no sign for a bus stop. The next possibility was the Wegman’s lot. We were a little concerned about the signs saying it was for customers only, but we parked far from the store and the bus stop was right there on the main road.

We dashed across 4 lanes to get the bus in the correct direction. When it arrived, we were its only passengers. I think the driver was almost as surprised as we were. He took us to within a block of the station and gave us directions from there. We walked past police and National Guard, thanking each of them for serving. One of the station’s parking lots was set up with corrals for crowds. I saw a sign saying that the wait time for that corral was 180 minutes. All of those corrals were going unused. We were waved through and straight onto a waiting train.

The train was filled with excited people from all over including a group of nuns and novices from Tennessee. The ride into the city felt long, with one stop in Radnor. We had to wait a few times until the train received clearance to continue, but soon we were in Philadelphia and everyone got off the train. My anxiety levels went up as a full train tried to get through a single door leading off the platform, walk down stairs and hallways, and head out through long corrals on the street.

Pedestrians only in the city
Pedestrians only in the city

The city felt completely different. There were no cars to be seen – only pedestrians and vendors. And we didn’t have to think which way to go. We followed the Virgin Mary. About a half block ahead of us someone was walking with a flag of Our Lady, and we figured that we should follow it. This worked for a while, but as we got closer to City Hall traffic had to separate into security screenings for those who had special tickets and those like us who were general admission.

We had to go down and over a block or two for a general admission security gate, and people on the side streets were making the best of the quiet city. One person had a cardboard cutout of the Pope wearing a Phillies cap and was offering it for people to take their photos with him. My friend covered the cap with his Pirates cap and got a great family photo. Next door was a restaurant offering free samples of french fries. The samples were amazing, but unfortunately we weren’t ready to stop for lunch. Next time I return to Philadelphia, I have to eat at the Milk House on S. 19th Street, between Market and Chestnut. They claim to have the best Grilled Cheese in the city.

The security gate was similar to airport screenings and run by TSA agents though the lines we saw were shorter than at many airports. People weren’t allowed to bring fresh fruit through the checkpoint, so they passed their apples and bananas back in line to anyone who wanted to eat them before their turn. I had to open & unzipper everything in my pack for the screener to thoroughly go over it. The metal detectors were sensitive enough that I had to be checked with a wand due to the rivets on my jeans and the metal hooks on my bra.

On the other side of that zone, the atmosphere of celebration returned and we looked for an open spot along the parade route. We found a few feet of open pavement on the south side of City Hall, near The Ritz-Carlton, and put down our beach blanket. We had amazing architecture in front of us. Down the street to the right we could see and somewhat hear the video display with the Mass at the Cathedral Basilica. Did you hear the trumpets from that celebration? They sounded amazing.

There was a screen between City Hall and the Wannamaker building

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This was where we settled, and it was not quite noon. We knew we had over five hours to wait. Half the group went out exploring and returned with cups from Starbucks. When my son, friend, and I took our turn, we walked toward JFK Plaza / LOVE Park.  One of the official merchandise sites for the World Meeting of Families was there along with many food trucks. People were handing out free water from pallets upon pallets of water donated by Wawa. There was a guy selling Catholic dubstep music. I paused to let my son listen, but it didn’t catch his ear.

Temperatures were perfect. Jeans, a t-shirt, and a light jacket or sweatshirt kept us comfortable. We were slightly warm when the sun shone. When the breeze blew, we pulled our jackets a little tighter around us. Though the skies were covered in clouds, there was no worry of rain.

This sculpture was much smaller than I though it would be
This sculpture was much smaller than I though it should be

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The facilities were much better than expected. Outside 30th Street Station there was a huge line of portable toilets for people headed to or from their trains. Another long row was found at the security checkpoint. Inside the festival grounds, we found one group of about 4 toilets with a line about 30 people long and that gave us reason to worry. The next group to venture out from our base discovered that a block away was a row of at least 20 toilets. No lines. The longest we waited was for someone to come out. You did have to provide your own sanitizer, and we had plenty. Next time I passed by that long line for the toilets, I stopped and let others know about the ones just around the block.

The performers for the evening’s celebration were staying at The Ritz-Carlton. Throughout the day, we saw escorted SUVs line up in front of the hotel to pick up people. My friends claim that they saw Andrea Bocelli get into one of the vehicles with his kids and possibly his mother. People kept asking the police for reassurance that the vehicles would move before the Pope was due to arrive.

When Pope Francis appeared on the video monitors to speak at Independence Hall, the crowd cheered loudly. His speech was in Spanish, and we were too far away to read the translation on the bottom of the monitor. Still, we were happy to hear his voice. Did you know that the podium he used was the same one Abraham Lincoln used for the Gettysburg Address? That’s pretty cool.

As the day dragged on, our energy level and the energy of those who had been around us all day started to wane. From across the street we heard the tune of a familiar hymn, but the lyrics were in Spanish. People to our left and to our right were waving their arms and singing along. That song ended and they started another. Even though we couldn’t sing along, it felt good to be surrounded by such joy.

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Security was serious along the parade route. State and city police were assigned their spots along the road. Secret service officers were obviously overseeing them. Motorcycles and other vehicles drove past all day. K9 dogs rode past and walked the route. Despite the seriousness of the assignment, the state and city police in our area were more welcoming and friendly than I ever expected. They should be celebrated for the good impression they gave of the city and my state. They encouraged us to cheer, challenging each side of the street to cheer louder. They got us cheering for anyone who passed, whether they were wearing National Guard fatigues or a vest with DEA on the back. One serviceman said that he had been working for the past 15 hours and our cheering made his day. We watched one state police officer take cameras from the crowd to good photos of their groups from his vantage point in the street.

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We thought the parade would be between the speech at Independence Hall and the festivities at the Art Museum, but performers came on the screen and the motorcade was nowhere to be found. Enthusiasm waned as the entertainment continued on the video screen. Jackie Evancho sang “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” She wasn’t Papa Francisco, so we didn’t feel it. Jim Gaffigan failed to make us laugh.

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By 6pm, everyone was convinced that the parade must happen soon. We all stood and crushed toward the barriers. And stood. And waited. We were all rather numb as 6:30 passed. I was checking the #PopeInPhilly hashtag on Twitter to see if anyone posted about the motorcade yet. It was almost 7pm when the motorcade appeared on the video monitor and we all came back to life. We watched and waited until the motorcycles, lights flashing, came past us. There were several vehicles in the motorcade, but it was all a blur due to both excitement and the speed in which they passed. Finally the blazingly white jeep came into view. Cameras flashed, we all shouted, and it was over.

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Here’s a YouTube video, captured by a television crew almost across the street from where we were. I think I spy my son’s blue sweatshirt around 1:57 of the video.

It was disappointing how quickly he drove past, but he was an hour late to his own party. Was it worth it? Pope Francis has and will make a large impact on the world. I think he brings our attention back to what’s important in life. For that I appreciated the chance to see him in person for the briefest of moments. More significant was spending the day surrounded by others who were there for the same reason. Philadelphia was friendlier than I’ve ever seen it. We lost track of the many different orders of religious women we saw.  Best of all was still my first reason for going – getting to spend the day with some wonderful people. We had a great adventure together.

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We still had to get home. What were we facing with many of the pilgrims going home at the same time? Again, we should not have worried. I’ve been more stressed trying to get out of the Magic Kingdom after fireworks. The walk down Market Street to 30th Street Station was relaxing. My son was a little jealous watching some guys cruise the nearly empty streets on their skateboards. SEPTA staff and volunteers made sure we got into the correct chute for our train. There was nearly no waiting. We kept walking right up to the train waiting on the platform. The cars were full, but everyone had a great attitude, sharing space and chattering with each other. The ride back seemed faster than the ride in, and soon we were walking the streets of Paoli, thanking the police and National Guard we met along the way. A bus was waiting for us right where the other one left us off. We were the only people looking for the bus, so he drove us directly to our stop, and our car was still there.

As the excitement wore off, we realized how hungry we were. Since the supermarket parking lot was technically for customers only, we went inside and raided the prepared foods section for anything and everything that looked good plus some bags of carrot sticks to be healthy. Back at the house we feasted while watching the remainder of the celebration on television. We were exhausted, but it was a good, good day.

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