It was the 1940s and the allied air campaign was in full swing over Italy. German forces were entrenched around a small church and five allied bombers went in for the bombing run. All five planes malfunctioned after seeing what appeared to be a man in a black outfit hovering in the clouds waving the planes away.
The pilots turned around and flew in for a second run, saw the mysterious hovering man again, and again all five planes malfunctioned and the bombers returned home still fully loaded. Years later, a few of the airmen, still curious about that day, returned to the site and realized the man in the black outfit was actually Padre Pio in his black Franciscan habit. Pio was later canonized into sainthood by Pope John Paul II after decades of performing miracles. And he was known to levitate.
Pio predicted Pope John Paul II’s rise to the highest post in the Catholic Church when the pope visited Pio as Father Karol Wojtyla in 1947. Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II three decades later, true to Pio’s prophecy.
It’s Father Joseph Connelly’s favorite story as he relayed it earlier this week in front of the bronze shrine of Saint Padre Pio at the entrance of the old church building at Our Lady Queen of Martyr’s Church at 833 Magellan Drive in Bradenton. It’s the same shrine that was vandalized in September of 2015 by a man with mental illness. He was captured but the church never pressed charges.
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“We prayed for him,” Connelly said. “That’s what the church is supposed to do.”
The shrine has since been restored and though dedicated in 2006, the church wants to reintroduce the shrine and Saint Pio to the community. Because of his Italian heritage, the church plans an Italian Festival on Feb. 17 beginning at 1 p.m.
The shrine was the first of Saint Pio in Florida and was created by a man now living in Chicago, but who hails from the same city as Saint Pio. He told the church he was “divinely guided” by Pio to build a shrine in Florida after building one in Chicago. He was guided to Bradenton and eventually the church where he did all the work for free.
Pio was still alive in World War II, having been born in 1887 and died in 1968. One reason he achieved sainthood was for his ability to be in two locations at once, but Pio was one of the few people who have experienced the Stigmata that had no explanation other than a spiritual one. The Catholic Church has deemed him the Patron Saint of civil defense volunteers and adolescents, among others.
Pio was an Italian priest known for his piety and charity, as well as is preachings for forgiveness. Born to peasant farmers in Pietrelcina, he pledged his life to God at the age of 5. He reportedly could see guardian angels and spoke to Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary even before he was taught about them.
More than 100,000 people attended his funeral in 1968 and he was canonized in 2002.
The outdoor shrine, which is always available to the public, has become a popular prayer spot. Connelly said Pio is one of the more popular saints in the Catholic religion.
“People want to remember Pio as he stands before God and His love,” Connelly said. “And asks that he listens to their attentions and needs and people come here just to be present. And it reminds me that I have to be merciful and loving. I can’t let people’s sins turn me down. I have to see them with mercy, especially at this time of year. And to be like Pio, to be understanding, merciful in the confessional and to be caring and to pray for you.”
Everyone is invited to the Feb. 17 festival honoring Saint Padre Pio.