Tour guide Leonita Dowdy tapped a finger on the glass display case, and five visitors to the National Centre for Padre Pio leaned forward.
"Thats a holy-water sprinkler he used," said Dowdy.
"That's an undershirt he wore," she said, indicating a long-sleeve wool shirt. Near it lay one of the brown wool gloves that Padre Pio, a saintly 20th century Italian priest, wore to conceal his stigmata: spontaneous, unhealing wounds manifested in the pattern of the crucified Christ's.
Dowdy pointed to a color photograph of a bleeding palm: "Padre Pio's visible wounds."
Atop the photo lay a dime-sized red disk resembling a fish scale: "That's a real scab from one of his wounds. It's been lying in this ordinary case for 8 yeras and hasn't dried out. So what you're seeing is a miracle. That scab is a *miracle.* (italicized in article)
In a scientific century grown skeptical of religious miracles, this modest museum bearing the relics of a dead Franciscan priest may seem a throwback to another era.
But every day, tourists and pilgrims come to the National Centre for Padre Pio in tiny Barto, Berks County, about 15 miles north of Pottstown. There, in a converted barn on land donated by a devotee, they marvel at the story and touch the belongings of the priest, who for 50 years shyly bore the stigmata and seemed to live a life as holy as St. Francis himself.
To his many devotees, he is one of the saintliest miracle-workers of all time -- a visionary who, it is said, could heal the sick, read people's souls and tell them their sins, and even bilocate: be physically in two places at once. Even some Hindus and Buddhists revere Padre Pio, who died in 1968. Last year, Pope John Paul II declared him "venerable," the first step towards possible sainthood.
"People just pour in here, seeking help or just to pray," Julia Ciccarone, manager of the center, said Wednesday. Ciccarone's mother established the center about 30 years ago, relying on private funds and donations, with the endorsement of Padre Pio's Capuchin order. The center's 14th annual Padre Pio "Day of Graces" traditionally heald at Our Lady of Czestochowa Shrine in Doylestown, yesterday drew thousands of the faithful.
And on July 11, the center plans to break ground for an ambitious, $3.5 million Padre Pio Spirituality Centre and shrine in Barto, modeled on the small Italian friary where the priest was said to have recieved the stigmata in 1918.
"Our goal is to have the first phase up and ready by next May," said Ciccarone. John Paul has promised to announce early next year the date when he will beatify Padre Pio -- declare him "blessed," the next step toward sainthood -- following lengthy Vatican investigation of the accounts about him.
"Tens of thousands of people from around the world will descend on Rome for the [beatification] ceremony," said Ciccarone, "but many won't be able to go and they'll want to come here. We want to be ready."
Padre Pio was born Francesco Forgione in 1887 in Pietrelcina in southern Italy. At about age 5, according to legend, he reported seeing a person no one else in the family could see. In time he concluded it was his guardian angel, and dedicated himself to St. Francis.
In 1910 he was ordained a priest in the Capuchin order of the Franciscans. After serving briefly in World War I, he spent virtually the rest of his life in the friary of San Giovanni Rotondo. In 1918, he is said to have first displayed the stigmata: blood and wounds appeared in his palms, feet, and left side, below the heart.
Although stigmata are sometimes explained as a psychosomatic event, brought on by an overwrought or neurotic state of mind, Padre Pio's holiness is said to have been evidenced by many other signs. Tales abound of people going to him for confession, only to have him point out secret sins they had omitted.
Adding to his saintly reputation were stories of miraculous health cures occuring to, or on behalf of, those who asked for his intercession -- including the Rev. Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II. More than 1,000 such cures were credited to Padre Pio in his lifetime, and his fame grew so great that members of his order had to hand out tickets to handle the throngs seeking confession with him.
Among his millions of devotees today is Elain Keyser, 48, of Lansdale (PA), a public-school library assistant who stopped by the Padre Pio center last week. What brought her?
"Faith. Strong faith," Keyser said.
She was in her early 20s, she said, when chronic kidney failure was diagnosed two weeks before her wedding. Doctors said she would probably not live past 30 and could never bear children.
After reading about Padre Pio, who had died several years earlier, she wrote to the Pio center in Italy "pouring my heart out" and "asking if I would ever know what it was like to be a mother."
A month later she got a letter back in Italian from a woman at the center who said "my prayers would be answered." A year later, the Keysers adopted their first child. Eighteen months later, they adopted another. They are now 27 and 25, "and I'm still here," she said with a laugh.
Indeed, she was on the way home from an annual checkup at Norristown Hospital. "The doctors say they don't know why my kidneys are working, but they still are." She was stopping by to say prayers of thanks.
Just then, Dowdy approached, carrying one of Padre Pio's wool gloves in a glass frame. "Do you want to touch the glove, Elaine?" she asked.
Keyser shuddered. In the past, touching the glove had filled her body with such heat "I felt I was on fire," and on several occasions she had "sobbed uncontrollably."
"I won't touch it today, but I will take it with me," she told Dowdy.
Then, gripping the frame carefully, she headed into the chapel to pray.