St. Mary’s Visitation Parish in Elm Grove is preparing for visitors this weekend, anywhere from 2,500 to 7,000 estimates Fr. Peter Berger, pastor.
The parish is the only site in the Milwaukee Archdiocese to host the major relics of St. Maria Goretti, at age 11, the youngest canonized saint in the Catholic Church.
The major relics of St. Maria Goretti, known as the “patroness of purity,” are on a “pilgrimage of mercy” in the United States.
It is the first time her body has been in the United States. Before the relics are scheduled to be flown to Italy Nov. 13, they will have been venerated in close to 20 states.
“The hosting of these relics is a great gift to the entire parish community,” wrote Fr. Berger in the Oct. 4 parish bulletin. “To have the relics of a saint in our parish church is a source of grace not only for those who will make time to come for the Mass or to simply pray quietly, but also for the entire parish community.”
The relics, inside a glass-sided casket that holds a wax statue which contains her skeletal remains, will arrive in Elm Grove Saturday morning after a daylong stop at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Madison.
According to Fr. Berger, the relics, accompanied by Fr. Carlos Martins, who is leading the pilgrimage, are traveling in a large RV-type vehicle that has been donated for use during this tour.
A Mass in St. Maria’s honor will be celebrated at 9 a.m. at St. Mary Parish, with public veneration of her from after Mass to noon and from 6:30 to 11 p.m. on Saturday. On Sunday, public veneration will be held from 12:30 to 5 p.m.
“I think any time we are in the presence of something holy, we are influenced by it and the Holy Spirit works through it,” Fr. Berger told the Catholic Herald about the tour’s effect on his parish. “To have the body of a saint in our parish church, I really believe will be a source of grace, not only for those who come here, but the parish itself as a community. To have in our house, to have the body of a saint present for a weekend is a true source of grace and strength,” he said
The visit will give parishioners a sense of attachment to St. Maria Goretti, predicted Fr. Berger, saying, “She will probably take on a place in all of our hearts. Similarly, if the Queen of England were to come to our house for dinner, it would be a visit we’d never forget. And in the same way, to have St. Maria Goretti here, a saint in our family home, will be something we will all remember and cherish, and the visit will continue to unfold in the life of our parish.”
Early in the summer, Fr. Berger said he received an email invitation from Susan McNeil, director of the Nazareth Project, asking whether his parish would host the visit. His response was an immediate yes, he said.
“There was no doubt in my mind we wanted to have her here,” he said, explaining that his parishioners have reacted to the visit with a mixture of awe, privilege and excitement.
“Usually you have to travel hundreds of miles or even another continent to see a saint, so there’s a feeling of how did we get her to come to us, so to speak,” he said.
To prepare for the visit, Fr. Berger explained the parish was given a list of instructions. That list includes things how many extension cords must be on hand and the number of tables available. A visit of this sort also involves the work of nearly 100 volunteers, said Fr. Berger, noting that filling the volunteer slots was challenging, since, “that’s a significant number of people to get on a weekend.” The parish will also be assisted by the Knights of Columbus.
The Elm Grove Police Department is working with St. Mary, according to Fr. Berger, to assure that traffic moves easily through the village, unaccustomed to having a large influx of visitors.
Seeing a parish, school or even a prison renewed after an exposition is a wonderful experience, according to Fr. Martins.
“This is the basis for this ministry’s existence, and I cannot wait to see where St. Maria will take it,” he told Catholic News Service in a September interview.
St. Maria Goretti was an 11-year-old Italian child in 1902 when she was repeatedly stabbed while defending her virginity from a 20-year-old attacker, Alessandro Serenelli. As she lay dying the next day, she received the Eucharist and forgave him, saying, “I want to see him in heaven forever.”
Serenelli, who repented his crime while serving 27 years in prison, later entered a monastery. He was present for Maria’s canonization by Pope Pius XII in 1950, at which time she was presented to youth as a model of chastity.
Her relics are on tour while her major shrine in Netunno, Italy, is under renovation.
In keeping with Pope Francis’ declaration of the upcoming Year of Mercy, she was presented as a patroness of mercy, which seemed appropriate for the first stop: Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in New York.
The exposition, held Sept. 21, was not open to the public but gave inmates an opportunity to venerate the relics.
After the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, New Jersey, came stops during the World Meeting of Families in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, at St. Maria Goretti Church in Hatfield, Pennsylvania, Sept. 22; the National Shrine of St. Rita of Cascia in Philadelphia Sept. 23, and at St. John the Evangelist Church in the center city Sept. 24-25.
Fr. Berger encouraged people planning to visit the relics to prepare for the experience spiritually.
“Prepare for seeing them as a pilgrimage; it’s not like going to the museum. Prepare yourself spiritually as well,” he said, encouraging people to also exercise patience with the process. “We’re going to do our best to see that things move smoothly, and while I can’t predict peak times, be patient and exercise the virtue of patience.”
He also predicts that the visit will have a lasting effect on his parish.
“I have no doubt that after this visit, St. Maria Goretti will hold a particular and powerful place in the heart of St. Mary’s Visitation Parish and all of its parishioners,” he said, explaining he already sees a sort of ownership among his parishioners who are calling her “St. Maria,” as if she’s a family member.
“It’s been a beautiful thing to see that people have embraced her now. Obviously she’s a saint of the universal church, but for those two days, we’re going to claim her as a member of St. Mary’s. There’s an affection when people talk about her,” he said, admitting is it growing on him as well.
(Lou Baldwin, CatholicPhilly.com, contributed to this article.)