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PHILADELPHIA – Four Roman Catholic shrines, including one featuring the glass-enclosed body of a saint wearing his bishop's vestments and a wax mask so lifelike he appears ready to share a blessing, have joined forces to market themselves to the million-plus visitors expected in Philadelphia to see Pope Francis.
Officials at the national shrines of St. John Neumann, St. Katharine Drexel and St. Rita of Cascia, and the Miraculous Medal shrine, say evangelization is their main goal. But if they can boost gift shop sales, expand mailing lists and create buzz that will keep visitors coming for years to come, that's good, too.
Pooling their finances, the shrines have created an initial print run of 45,000 brochures. They've financed a three-minute commercial running on a local tourism channel and built a new shared website, http://www.phillyshrines.org . They also plan to purchase billboard space and to rent a bus to funnel pilgrims between the three shrines that fall within city limits.
"We've got to have our 'A' game," said A.J. Quay, senior executive director at Miraculous Medal, which is adding daily Masses and pulling in retired priests.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance. How many times is the Pope going to come to Philadelphia? The last time was, what? 1979?" Quay asked. "This is like winning the Triple Crown: It doesn't happen often."
The four shrines, all under the purview of the Philadelphia Archdiocese, are increasing hours, hosting special events such as concerts and lectures, and scheduling more regular workers as well as volunteers.
Shrines are churches or other sacred places devoted to a certain saint or religious practice, and which attract pilgrims.
"Each of our places and our focuses are different," said the Rev. Alfred Bradley, director of the St. John Neumann shrine.
At the Neumann shrine, tucked in a commercial area in North Philadelphia, visitors can view remains of the saint, who was the fourth bishop of Philadelphia and is credited with expanding the Catholic education system in the U.S.
The shrine of St. Rita of Cascia — the Italian nun known as the "Saint of the Impossible" and the "Peacemaker" — offers calm within the marble walls of a church built in 14th-century Renaissance style on a busy street in South Philadelphia. The shrine began as a parish church dedicated to St. Rita to help welcome Italian immigrants.
The Miraculous Medal shrine, in the residential Germantown neighborhood, features striking stained glass windows and sculpture and is dedicated to Mary. Signs throughout advise visitors to keep quite because "Mary's listening to prayers." The shrine gets its name from a medallion that was first made in the 1800s and is based on a design that St. Catherine Laboure said Mary gave to her in a vision.
The fourth shrine, located just outside the city in Bensalem, honors the Philadelphia-born St. Katharine Drexel, an heiress who spent her fortune — the equivalent of a half-billion dollars today — on programs to improve the lives of African-Americans and Native Americans. The leafy 54-acre property features meditative gardens and a chapel designed by the saint herself. Her tomb is also located there.
The shrines are also looking beyond the pope's Sept. 26-27 visit — including to events like the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in 2016.
The leaders said they've asked existing donors for extra money to fund the promotional efforts. Sister Pat Downs, the St. Katharine's director, said her shrine also got a tourism grant.
Before teaming up with the other shrines, she said, she didn't realize what assets Facebook and Twitter could be. Then she learned Miraculous Medal had more than 1.7 million followers on Facebook and got help building her own shrine's online presence. Downs is expecting 3,000 visitors during the week of the papal visit. Attendance for 2014 was about 7,000.
Faith and finance don't have to be in conflict, said Diana von Glahn, host and co-creator of "The Faithful Traveler," a Catholic-themed travel show that airs on the Eternal World Television Network and online.
"The whole purpose is to get the word out. If people don't know about you, they're not going to buy your stuff," she said, referring to both commercial goods and faith messages. "Yes, we want people to support (the shrines) financially and to keep them going for future generations, but we also want to offer them a place where God can touch their hearts."