Crowd builds on Parkway ahead of pope's arrival at Festival of Families

The crowd at Eakins Oval Saturday afternoon. ( CLEM MURRAY / Staff photographer )

The Benjamin Franklin Parkway - Philadelphia's quintessential stage for big-name, big-crowd concerts - filled that role again Saturday, as thousands here listened to musical performances ahead of the arrival of Pope Francis.

Opera prodigy Jackie Evancho was the first musician to take the stage shortly before 6 p.m., singing a medley including Disney's "When you wish upon a star" and "The Music of the Night" from the Phantom of the Opera. The roster for the night includes comedian Jim Gaffigan, musicians Aretha Franklin and Andrea Bocelli and others.

Unlike at other parties on the parkway, the crowd Saturday was restrained - for now. Francis is expected sometime after 7:30 p.m.

For Hank Evers, standing on the Parkway in a bright orange shirt that bore a likeness of Francis and read "it's good to pontificate," Saturday evening was the culmination of months of planning. He brought a delegation of 52 from Orange County, Calif. More than 1,000 people from the diocese of Orange County made the journey, he said.

"To see the vicar of Christ- is there anything better?" He said. "That's about the most exciting thing someone could ask for in a lifetime."

He and Robert and Linda Chaix said they had been walking around Philadelphia since about 8:30 Saturday morning.

"The people are wonderful here, and it's great to see people from all over," Linda Chaix, 69, of Newport Beach, Calif. said. "We haven't seen any problems of any kind."

The group was enjoying being surrounded by the crowds.

"It's a pilgrim attitude, mentality. It's oneness," Evers said.

And as for how Evers feels about Pope Francis?

"Almost speechless," he said.

Kevin F. Kelley, Sr., 58, took the train from Wilmington this morning in hopes of catching a glimpse, and perhaps a couple of photos, of Pope Francis. The Catholic Church has changed over his lifetime, he said, and he hopes Francis is leading it towards positive change.

"I don't always agree with the pope, but at least he's trying to get us back to center," Kelley said.

He said he was enjoying the crowds in Philadelphia. he had eaten a pulled pork sandwich and charged his phone in a bar.

"I met more nuns today than I ever have in my life," he said with a laugh.

Charlene French, 58, of Collingswood watched Saturday's mass on TV at home before heading to Center City.

"I actually cried for part. Some of it just brought tears to my eyes," she said. "From him, you can tell it's just really from his heart. It sounds like a cliche, but you can really feel the love from him."

Waiting in the security line at the Parkway Saturday afternoon, French said she wouldn't be too disappointed if she didn't see the Pope in person. She was here for the whole experience.

"I just kind of want to have a little unity with other Catholics, and feel that," she said.

As folks waited at the Parkway security checkpoint on 18th Street, 12-year-old Daniela Delacruz offered oranges and apples to others in line. She and her delegation from Dallas, Texas brought extra snacks to share.

"Some people are not really that prepared," she explained. Her group of 40, from the St. Monica Catholic Church, brought tambourines for entertainment, blankets for comfort, and bread and ham for sandwiches.

They saw the Pope in New York City this week, and on Saturday Delacruz was ready to see him in Philly. In line, she showed a video of him in New York to Lorraine Mobley, a 66-year-old Philadelphia native. Years ago, Mobley saw Pope John Paul II.

"There was such a spirit in the air, and I'm coming back down to see if I can regain that spirit," Mobley said.

Beverly Shepherd, 64, climbed some scaffolding near the Barnes Foundation for a better view.

She had it for about for about 5 minutes. Then some police officers from Bucks County told her and another woman to get down, saying it was unsafe.

"If I can catch a glimpse of something I'll try it," she said a few minutes later with a sly smile. "I should have climbed higher. They wouldn't have seen me."

Shepherd, of Collingswood, NJ, said Pope Francis shares her rule-breaking attitude. She said they both believe in the Catholic Church's doctrine but not "all the mandated rules," particularly those involving gays, divorce and abortion.

"He's taken a softer view and he's not condemning," she said. "He's the most humanitarian pope we've had."

She also values his embrace of immigrants, legal and otherwise.

"The United States is a country of immigrants and we're condemning them," said Shepherd, who works as a quality assurance specialist for Aramark. "My grandfather came from Ireland with $10 in his pocket. They didn't ask him to prove anything."