The pastor of Charlotte’s St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church predicted Saturday that as many as 12,000 people would walk through his church’s sanctuary by Sunday morning to view the glass-sided casket containing the skeletal remains of St. Maria Goretti – the youngest person ever canonized a saint by the Catholic Church.
The public veneration in Charlotte of the 11-year-old Italian martyr began Saturday morning, when more than 1,100 Catholics – many of whom drove in from other cities in the Carolinas – packed the church for a two-hour Latin Mass. The casket, also featuring a wax statue of Goretti, was rolled down the center aisle to start the sacred celebration, which included incense, bells, and a procession of Knights of Columbus with their capes, feathered hats and swords.
By the time the Mass was over, another 1,000 or so people had lined up outside the church, waiting for their chance to pay respect to the relics of Goretti, who was stabbed to death in 1902 by a wound-be rapist.
On her deathbed, she forgave her attacker and said she wanted him to be with her in heaven – an act that earned her the title of “The Little Saint of Great Mercy” after she was canonized in 1950. Alessandro Serenelli, who served 27 years in prison for the murder, later repented, personally sought forgiveness from Goretti’s aged mother and became a Franciscan, a Catholic order priests and brothers.
St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church planned to stay open all night Saturday and Sunday and end the Charlotte leg of the national tour of her relics – called the “Pilgrimage of Mercy” – with a Mass at 7:30 a.m. Sunday.
The Rev. Patrick Winslow, the church’s pastor, said he expected the lines to continue until the end. He noted that 6,523 people had viewed the casket on Friday at a Catholic church in Greensboro – another of the 54 cities on the tour’s 55-day schedule.
“I’d be surprised if we did any less than double that (Greensboro number). We’re a bigger city and have more Catholic parishes,” he said. “I just hope that people receive a blessing. (Goretti’s) story is so extraordinary that it would be hard to imagine not being touched.”
Traditionally, many Catholics have a devotion to one or more saints – people who have been judged to have lived a holy life and are now in heaven. Catholic churches and schools are often named for saints, and the fascination with saints’ skeletal remains go back many hundreds of years, with some associating them with miracles.
There was a sense Saturday that many in the pews felt a particularly strong connection to St. Maria Goretti – a relatively modern saint and a child with heroic faith.
Marie Kidd, 65, who drove in from Taylors, S.C., said she was a teenager living in a Catholic orphanage in East Chicago, Ind., when she became devoted to St. Maria Goretti. Now, decades later, she said it was “absolutely breathtaking” to be able to venerate her remains.
As she prepared to later walk by the casket, she said, “I’ll probably ask for her intercession (with God) for the rest of my life.”
After Goretti’s death, a few of her brothers emigrated to the United States, settling in New Jersey. On the second day of the U.S. tour, one of her brother’s daughters, now 94, finally got to “meet” her aunt, at a Catholic cathedral in Newark.
And on Saturday, at St. Thomas Aquinas, three distant cousins of Goretti filed into the second row, still dazed that they’d be able to venerate their sainted Italian relative in Charlotte.
“As a child, I heard from my grandfather (Daniel Rossetti) about St. Maria. He’d been born in the same house as her, but it always seemed so far away,” said Barbara Everitt, who attends St. Matthew Catholic Church and came Saturday with her daughter and granddaughter. “To have this (veneration) a few miles from my home is amazing.”
St. Thomas Aquinas parishioner Cecilia Cerrone, who also traces her ancestry to Italy, said she came Saturday with her husband and their two children because Goretti “is a saint who came from Italy and she brings miracles.” Walking by her casket – each pilgrim had 15 seconds – she prayed for the health of her family. “It was very emotional,” Cerrone said.
Gerald Guanga, 40, made the three-hour drive Saturday from Raleigh with his 80-year-old mother, his wife and their three children.
“We’d go to Texas if we had to,” he said of the distance traveled to venerate Goretti’s relics. “St. Maria is a good model for us.”
The relics tour was approved by the Vatican as a way to prepare U.S. Catholics for the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis. As of Saturday, about 160,000 Americans had viewed the casket.
On her way out of St. Thomas Aquinas on Saturday, Hilda Ntasin, 43, a parishioner at Charlotte’s St. Vincent De Paul Catholic Church, said her moments with her three children at the saint’s casket left her feeling serene.
“It was very special,” Ntasin said. “You can feel her presence.”