Prayers blessed by pope to be used as housing insulation

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DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Sister Mary Scullion (right) and Donna Crilley Farrell at the grotto.

THE HANDWRITTEN prayers tied to the Mary, Undoer of Knots Grotto were offered up in English, in Spanish and in Vietnamese. They came in languages both obscure and universal.

More than 150,000 people from around the world and across Philadelphia wrote their prayers on white cloth ribbons that they tied in knots around the grotto, and when the ribbons ran out, the prayerful wrote their pleas on pieces of newspaper, shreds of white T-shirts and paper napkins.

"Please heal Monica."

"Please help me find my way."

"Heal his cancer."

Now those prayers, which were part of an interactive art installation honoring Pope Francis' recent visit to the city, will be used as insulation for a future Project HOME site that will provide affordable housing to 88 people.

"So these knots will keep many people warm for many years to come," Project HOME's Sister Mary Scullion said.

At a quiet ceremony under an overcast sky outside the Cathedral Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul yesterday, Scullion and others officially closed the grotto with an interfaith blessing. They also announced plans for the grotto's future and provided updates on the other branches of the Mercy and Justice Initiative.

The initiative was part of the World Meeting of Families' Hunger and Homelessness Committee. The goal was to use the pope's visit as a catalyst for tangible change that will affect those struggling with hunger and homelessness in the region.

"We knew from the beginning at the World Meeting that we would miss a huge opportunity if we didn't find some way to put a spotlight on the pastoral issues that Pope Francis cares about," said Donna Crilley Farrell, executive director of the World Meeting.

The initiative had a three-pronged approach, the first of which was the Francis Fund, which sought donations for 49 social-service programs in Philadelphia and Camden.

Scullion announced yesterday that the Francis Fund had reached its $1.4 million goal, thanks to the donations of thousands of people.

"Every single penny of that money will go directly to soup kitchens, to shelters, to places where women who have been trafficked are housed and healing," Scullion said. "We think that is an awesome legacy to honor Pope Francis' visit with."

The second prong of the initiative was the Campaign for Justice, which called on people to write letters to their elected officials, urging that they take bipartisan action to end hunger and homelessness. Scullion said that as of yesterday, 20,000 letters had been sent to politicians.

The final piece of the initiative was the Mary, Undoer of Knots Grotto, which was inspired by Pope Francis' favorite painting. At the grotto, visitors anonymously wrote down their prayers, tied them to the grotto and then untied someone else's prayer to read of another's struggle and pray for them.

Pope Francis even made a surprise stop at the grotto during his visit, blessing it and all the prayers within it.

The knots and prayers that were blessed by Pope Francis will be used as insulation at a future Project HOME site on Broad Street near York in North Philadelphia that is expected to break ground next spring.

The wooden frame that the knots were tied to will be placed in the rear yard of the Francis House of Peace, a new Project HOME residence on Arch Street near 8th in Chinatown that will offer 94 units of affordable housing for the chronically homeless, low-income working poor, seniors and homeless youth, especially LGBTQ youth.

John Bowie, 59, said he wrote his prayer on a white cloth ribbon six months ago while the grotto was still in its inception. He was living in transitional housing when he gripped the cloth ribbon between his fingers and prayed for a permanent home.

Bowie's prayer was answered. He now has his own apartment, thanks to Project HOME. For Bowie, the grotto and the prayers within it represent hope and faith.

"I think those are the core universal themes that tie all religions together," he said. "Things are the way they are but you can hope they can be better. I think that's what we all have in common."

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