Closed Ben Franklin Bridge becomes one big block party

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The Ben Franklin Bridge was closed to motor vehicles. Many pedestrians and cyclists said it felt like "one big block party."

The 365 voices from parishes in Newark, Elizabeth, and Linden, N.J., were triumphant as they marched across the Ben Franklin Bridge on Saturday, eager to arrive for the papal festivities.

"Glory! Glory! Glory!" the group sang, accompanied by guitars and drums, as the crowds parted to let them pass.

The 1.8-mile span was like a fall block party - thousands of joggers, in-line skaters, cyclists, dog walkers, and families pushing strollers - and then there were the faithful headed to see Pope Francis in Philadelphia.

Everyone stopped to take a selfie on the deck of the bridge, which is the equivalent of a 13-story building at midspan.

"We are here to see the pilgrims," said Gail Maurer, 39, of Magnolia, Camden County.

Maurer and her sister, Bridget Zino, 41, of Riverton, Burlington County, paused for their photos as they crossed the bridge on road bikes. The two, who expected to cycle about 30 miles before the day was over, made it within two blocks of the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul.

"This is more fun than I ever expected," Zino said of the trip.

"Usually there is a lot of kindness when there is a pilgrimage," she said of the atmosphere they encountered on the bridge, which is closed to vehicles until Monday. "People doing good deeds and looking out for other people."

"Philly knows how to throw a party," Zino said.

Officials were unable to estimate how many people walked across the bridge but said the crowd was lighter than anticipated. More people are expected Sunday.

A group of pilgrims from Ecuador stopped for an impromptu concert at the base of the bridge, beating conga drums and playing guitars. A group formed around them performing a traditional dance until police urged them to keep walking.

Walking with a crutch and wearing fuzzy brown bedroom slippers, Olga Perez, 47, of Camden, slowly made her way across the Ben Franklin, despite a stress fracture in her right leg. "It means a lot. I feel blessed," Perez said.

Father Rick Rohrer, of SS. Cyril and Methodius Byzantine Catholic Church in Cary, N.C., who accompanied about 10 church members, said the pope's message during his visit to the United States should resonate with people of all faiths.

"He's really inspiring us to believe that we can live together in harmony. He represents a new awakening in America," Rohrer said.

Their muted gray garb did not disguise the joyous hearts of Sisters Cecilia Ann Rezac, 48, and Janelle Buettner, 37, nuns with the Marian Sisters of the Diocese of Lincoln in Waverly, Neb., as they walked across the bridge.

"I touched him," said Buettner, still beaming about her experience in Washington, when Pope Francis was at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

"It has been neat to see the whole church come together to celebrate the beautiful truths the pope teaches," Rezac said.

Their 60-year-old order is small - only 37 nuns. They hope more women will join.

"It's been a beautiful life," Rezac said. "Any time you are doing the work of the Lord, you're happy."

The two will pray that people embrace Francis' message to care for one another.

"So we can understand poverty is not a disease," Buettner said.

Ana Feliciano, 50, a mechanical engineer from Browns Mills, and her mother, Tulia Ronda, 78, made a last-minute decision to see the pope. For Ronda, the trek across the bridge carried special meaning. "You know you are going to see God in heaven," she said. Pope Francis "is the representative of God on Earth."

Anhtuan Tong, 46, traveled from Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., to see the pope - first in Washington and now Philadelphia. Through the kindness of strangers he met along the way he ended up with tickets for the Wednesday Mass in Washington and Saturday's Mass here. "I can't expect more," he said.

Tong, originally from Vietnam, practices internal medicine at St. Francis Medical Center in Torrance, Calif. For him this trip has been a "journey of faith." He has met new friends and found peace and acceptance.

"It has made me think I am more Catholic that I thought I am," Tong said.

He said that shortly after arriving in Washington he met a monk from Peru who gave him a ticket to Wednesday's Mass. The next day he went to the Capitol in hopes of getting a glimpse of the pope and was given a ticket for the West Front Lawn for the pope's address to Congress.

He later accepted a ride to Philadelphia from two people he had not met before, he said. And received yet another entry to a ticketed event - the Saturday Mass in Philadelphia.

"I just came for the pope," Tong said. "On the way I found a lot of nice people."

mschaefer@phillynews.com

610-313-8111@MariSchaefer