Main Line serves as launchpad for papal visit


By Betty Ben Dor, Photography Editor

The Paoli train station, usually relatively quiet on weekends, was recently transformed into an active center of operations as hundreds queued up to wait for trains, enjoying the booming sounds of a live DJ and preparing for the chance of a lifetime.

Roughly one million people flooded the city of Philadelphia from Sept. 26-27, according to USA Today, as Pope Francis attended the World Meeting of Families and spoke at several events, including masses held at the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The surrounding areas were not left unaffected, as the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) limited the stations for trains into the city to just over a dozen around the entire Philadelphia region. In the T/E school district, several thousand people waited for trains at the Paoli station of the Paoli-Thorndale line, with trains capable of holding 900 people leaving every 20-30 minutes, on average.

The estimates for attendance totaled around two to three million people for the weekend, and SEPTA planned accordingly.

“I just think that they wanted to be safe, since we did expect a large crowd each day. The numbers have been more modest, but I think it’s better to be safe than sorry,” said Senior Sales Development Specialist in Finance at SEPTA Jennifer Scimone. “I think the planning and having the extra security is what was needed, especially since it being an international event because of the pope’s notoriety.”

Detective Sergeant and Public Information Officer Todd Bereba said that the local police had to work to prevent any possible threats. Although the amount of crowds was slightly less than previous estimates, he said it is still better to plan and prepare for all eventualities.

“Security is necessary because in this day and age with different threats, you have to take all precautions,” Bereba said. “We want to make sure that everyone can get to and from this special occasion safely.”

For some people in the Philadelphia region, the pope’s visit provided an opportunity to interact with the faithful flying in from all across the world. Nancy Creaney of Valley Forge opened her house up for people coming to hear the pope. Upon being assigned a group of nuns, she decided to let them stay free of charge. The nuns are originally from the Philippines, but are currently based in Maryland. Creaney said that she connected with the nuns spiritually during their stay by praying daily with them.

“It is so important that we bring everyone together, because we really need change [in this world],” Creaney said. “Let’s hope for the best.”

Stephen Weinrich of Devon took advantage of his proximity to the city to go and hear the pope give his opinion about some of the more controversial issues in today’s society.

“I’d like to hear his ideas on peace in the world and putting aside our differences, whether they be what country you’re from, your political differences or even gender differences,” Weinrich said. “He’s a very welcoming pope.”

For some attendees, getting to Philadelphia to hear the pope was not an easy journey. Taking almost 24 hours to get to the suburban area, a group from Zimbabwe flew in to the U.S. for the weekend.

“Security is necessary but I’m sure they could have improved it to have somewhere to sit. Probably some folding chairs would have been better, “ Pariadza said.

Patrick Mackekera, another member of the group, was slightly upset at the confiscation of their national drums and flags that they had brought to wave around, although he acknowledged the significance of maintaining security during the events.

“I wish they had facilitated what we can have and what we can’t. But all in all, no complaints about security. Our pope has to be safe; we also have to be safe,” Mackekera said.

New York resident Sister Mary Karen has been in town all week with her fellow nuns, helping out with preparations for the World Meeting of Families. She said she appreciated the pope’s focus on forgiveness.

Pope Francis has “been really great at talking about mercy and bringing everyone to know God’s mercy. I was hoping that he’ll be able to tell people how to get that,” Karen said.

Father Jeremy Lambert drove up to Philadelphia from Washington for the papal weekend, although it was far from his first encounter with the papacy. Lambert lived in Rome for eight years, taking an active role in several masses there. He personally had the chance to acolyte a Christmas mass with Pope John Paul II and had a half hour private audience with Pope Benedict XVI in his library. He also shook hands with Pope Francis at a mass that the latter performed in Rome.

“His message that he wants to give everybody is usually about faith and mercy. He doesn’t get very political, he just wants to spread the gospel of angelice,” Lambert said.

Having seen papal masses in both Italy and the U.S., Lambert said that the Italian ones had significantly more relaxed security.

“It’s a different mentality here in the States about over-security,” Lambert said. “However, I think the fact that there were no thefts, no structure disruptions [during the papal weekend in Philadelphia] shows the quality of people, not just the quantity.”

To put the security measures in place, SEPTA employees spent the entire weekend, as well as the months leading up to it, making sure everything would flow smoothly. Although the last train was scheduled to run at 11:54 a.m., Director of Finance Frank Gormley said that an additional 12:30 train had been added on Saturday and he predicted one would run as well on Sunday.

“Everyone’s been very manageable; I’ve been here for two days and I have not had one offensive comment, there have not been any incidences that I am aware of,”Gormley said. “The whole region has responded to this challenge of preparing for the pope.”

Several members of the National Guard were also flown in to ensure public cooperation as well as safety for the pope and the million plus viewers.

“It’s been pretty hectic, but it’s been very well organized. We’ve had the opportunity to support the local law enforcement, and they’ve supported us as well,” Pennsylvania Army National Guard officer Zachary Rendin said. “Everyone is here for a very positive experience. The local police have been very good at controlling the crowds that come through.”

Betty Ben Dor can be contacted at [email protected].

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Photos by Betty Ben Dor, Photography Editor