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Prayers, dollars help ‘undo knots of poverty’

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PHILADELPHIA - For weeks, Catholics had been streaming to the "Knotted Grotto," a dome-shaped lattice-work frame outside the chapel of the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, tying white strips of paper offering prayers for healing of sick friends and relatives, world peace, protection of the environment, the elimination of poverty and more.

By the time the grotto closed with an interfaith blessing Oct. 7, 150,000 strips fluttered in the breeze.

After the solemnity and festivities of the Sept. 22-25 World Meeting of Families and the two-day visit to Philadelphia by Pope Francis, the exhibit, if not the hopes of the flock, was dismantled.

The grotto as designed by artist Meg Saligman invited passers-by to pray for the intentions on one of the ribbons tied outside the grotto, unknot it and retie it inside the grotto, and then leave a new ribbon with one's own intention to be prayed for by someone else.

Before celebrating an open-air Mass Sept. 27, the pope, known for his devotion to "Mary, Undoer of Knots," made an impromptu visit to the display to bless the grotto and the achievements of the Mercy and Justice Campaign, of which the grotto was one part.

The concept of Mary, Undoer of Knots is taken from a chapter in a work by St. Irenaeus of Lyons in which he demonstrates a parallel between Eve and Mary, writing that the "knot" of Eve's disobedience was undone by Mary. Pope Francis first began his devotion to Mary, Undoer of Knots during a visit to Germany after seeing an 18th century painting of the same title by artist Johann Georg Melchior Schmidtner.

Mercy Sister Mary Scullion, executive director of Project HOME and co-chair of the World Meeting of Families' Hunger and Homelessness Committee, was joined at the Oct. 7 blessing by Donna Crilley Farrell, the world meeting's executive director, and other program leaders to address the future of the Mercy and Justice Campaign.

It was created to generate action and awareness about hunger and homelessness when Pope Francis visited the area. His ongoing message of mercy and his plea for people to help those living in poverty motivated the successful four-month effort.

"I am very happy to report that because of the generosity of countless caring and compassionate people in the greater Philadelphia area, we reached our goal for the Francis Fund," Sister Mary said about the fundraising initiative that launched in June. "We have collected more than $1.4 million, through which we will be able to provide financial support to over 50 remarkable organizations serving some of the most vulnerable people in our community."

Sister Mary said that although the grotto was being dismantled, "we will keep working to undo the knots of poverty and injustice."

Attending the grotto closing were Father Dennis Gill, cathedral rector; John Bowie, a resident of Project HOME and volunteer for the Mercy and Justice Campaign; Imam Salaam Muhsin of Philadelphia Masjidullah; and Rabbi Andrea Merow of Beth Sholom Congregation in suburban Elkins Park and founder of the Beth Sholom Mitzvah Food Pantry.

Philadelphia Masjidullah and Beth Sholom Mitzvah Food Pantry receive Francis Fund financial support.

Pope Francis' presence will remain in Philadelphia in another way when Project HOME and the Chinatown Development Corp. dedicate the Francis House of Peace, a nine-story, mixed-use building near the city center that will provide affordable housing for formerly homeless men and women and at-risk young adults.

The name honors Pope Francis and his commitment to improve conditions for those who live in poverty. The 94-unit building is expected to be completed in November.

"Francis House of Peace is a sign of hope for our entire community," Sister Mary said. "It demonstrates that we are finding even more ways to take concrete steps toward truly preventing and ending homelessness in Philadelphia, and it shows what is possible when people come together with shared vision and commitment."

Residents will have access to all Project HOME services including basic medical care and fitness classes through its Health Initiative Program and employment training.

One of its features will be familiar to those who have walked by the cathedral since the summer. The Knotted Grotto will be relocated to the residence.

The 150,000 prayer ribbons will be removed and see new life as insulation in another future residence of Project HOME coming to North Philadelphia in 2016.

Fisher writes for CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015