“It’s very important for us to see the pope up close': Suburban pilgrims head into Philly

Pilgrims from Colombia, Venezuela and Mexico at SEPTA's Paoli Station at 5 a.m. Saturday. (Kathy Boccella / staff)

At 5 a.m., the Paoli train station was bustling with activity in the otherwise dead calm of the pre-dawn streets, surrounded by police cruisers with flashing lights and teams of officers — including the National Guard and a canine patrol — directing cars at a busy drop off station.

Some 150 people joined a long line to board the earliest trains. Among them was a gaggle of pilgrims from several Latin American nations who’d made the long journey north and were staying with friends in Chester County.

Carolina Bittar, 41, who lives in Caracus, Venezuela and works in customer service, said that she’d seen Pope John Paul II twice — once in Venezuela and in Rome in 2000 — and now she was excited to see Pope Francis for the first time.

“It’s very important for us to see the pope up close,” said Luis Colmenares, a 47-year-old consultant from the Venezuelan capital. “it’s a very spiritual moment for us”

Added Bittar: “After 9/11, it’s a very good moment for the United States. It’s touching everybody’s heart.”

Of his fellow South American, Colmenares said: “It’s a blessing to have a pope from this continent.” 

Next to them on line was a foursome from Cali, Colombia: Dora Galvis, a 51-year-old business administrator, her son Nico, 19; daughter, Veronica, 21, both students at West Chester University; and her 30-year-old sister, Doris Ramirez, 30, a teacher.

“Everyone is coming together as a community of Catholics,” Nico Galvis said. “Hey, I’m 19 and I get to see the pope — it’s kind of wicked.”

Imelda Varjas, 31, a housewife from Zacatecas, Mexico, said she’d had no one to come to Philadelphia with until she found the Colombians through a prayer group. The trip was not only her first time on an airplane, but now her first time aboard a train.

A few hours later, at the Fort Washington SEPTA station, students from Delaware Valley College came prepared for the all-day pilgrimage to see Pope Francis -- backpacks, sneakers, and one pillow.  

"Traveling from one place to another for religious reasons? That's a pilgrimage," said Matthew Tichy, 19, of Saylorsberg, Pa. 

"My goal is to be able to see him without the Jumbotrom," said Audrey Morgan, 19, of Cherry Hill.  "But if not, just to be near him I'll be happy." 

Peter Butler, 20, who goes to Penn State but was "adopted" by the DelVal club, said he already saw Pope Francis in New York's Central Park Friday. 

Security was tight, Butler said, and "it took a long time to get everyone through the gates. Everyone was into it though, able to go through the super long wait to be part of that."

"If you get a blessing, it extends to your whole family," Butler said. 

"Everybody gets a blessing! It's like Oprah!" 

When the train pulled up around 8:40, the crowd clapped and cheered, and Upper Dublin police officer Ryan Copelin took a video of the happy crowd. 

"This is the busiest one so far," Copelin said, as passengers orderly shuffled into the train, waving and thanking station staff and volunteers. "It's nice to see everyone in good spirits too," he said. 

The train was nearly full, with 425 passengers, a SEPTA worker said.