A monk for all seasons


Dressed in brown robes with his bandaged right hand raised, Padre Pio took permanent residence in the back of Annunciation BVM Church, tucked into an alcove that once served as a confessional.

On Sunday morning, Pio was introduced to the parishioners at 10th and Dickinson when the church unveiled and blessed its newest statue depicting the Italian saint.

Followers’ faith in Pio is stronger than ever on the heels of his canonization in June, particularly among Italian Americans. His faithful fill the city but they go to the country, too.

A shrine erected to the monk in rural Buena, N.J., along Route 40, is attracting hundreds of people in search of cures for their medical and personal problems. Not far from there, in Vineland, the local Catholic bishop celebrated the opening of St. Padre Pio Parish.

And 20 miles north of Pottstown, Pa., in Barto, is the National Center for Padre Pio, where his devotees have constructed an exact replica of the Capuchin monk’s church in San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy.

Pio’s connection to the region, and South Philly, runs deeper than ethnic roots. Several local residents profess their lives have been touched directly by the saint.

Frank Tenaglia said he wishes he had been old enough to meet Pio and thank him for his help before the saint died in 1968 at age 81. The best he could do was visit Pio’s tomb 16 years ago and offer a prayer.

Tenaglia, 38, originally from 27th and Dudley streets and now residing in Bridesburg, suffered many medical complications as a child, the most serious of which was hydrocephalus caused by an excess of cerebrospinal fluid surrounding the brain. There is no treatment for the disease and, as pressure in the head increases, patients either die or suffer brain damage.

A neurologist diagnosed Tenaglia when he was 2, after his parents noticed he seemed to have difficulty hearing, he said. The only treatment for the disease was for doctors to drill a small hole in his head and implant a shunt that would allow excess fluid to drain into his bloodstream.

His parents, Doro-thy and Frank, prayed. At the suggestion of his grandparents, Tenaglia’s father traveled to San Giovanni Rotondo in Italy to visit Padre Pio.

Pio, near the end of his life at the time, had a worldwide reputation for healing incurable ailments. He also was one of few people in the history of the Catholic Church to show the signs of the stigmata — wounds that perpetually bled from his hands, feet and sides, like those Jesus Christ suffered when he was crucified.

Pio first showed evidence of the stigmata on Sept. 20, 1918. The Catholic Church initially discredited the phenomenon.

Tenaglia’s father arrived in Italy with his cousin. They waited with a crowd outside the monk’s church to see Pio for confession. Pio exited the church before allowing people in and visited with the crowd, allowing people to touch and kiss his hands.

Pio paused when he reached Tenaglia’s father and his cousin, Frank Tenaglia said. He then turned to his cousin and told him to leave.

"Get out," Pio said, "and come back when you have been faithful to the church and to your wife!" Tenaglia remained, amazed that Pio knew his cousin’s sins without having met him before.

In Pio’s confessional, before Tenaglia had even mentioned his sick son, the monk told him, "Don’t worry about little Francis. He will be fine and I will always look after him."

Tenaglia returned home to find the pressure building in his son’s skull inexplicably beginning to ease. Two weeks later, the doctors declared the boy to be in normal health.

"There was no way I was supposed to live," said Tenaglia, now a successful opera singer who has performed on the world’s most famous stages and, on numerous occasions, at the National Center for Padre Pio. "I was deaf and shouldn’t have been living to begin with. Now I have perfect pitch."

When he was about 25, Tenaglia began to suffer migraine headaches. A CAT scan revealed he was still hydrocephalic. Tenaglia said it is typical for those cured by Pio to still show the conditions of their ailment but not suffer any dangerous symptoms.

Tenaglia’s recovery is documented with other miracles credited to Pio at the Vatican in Rome, he said.

Pio has touched the lives of other locals, too — among them, Franca Erbivelli, who grew up in Sant’Elia a Pianisi, a small town near San Giovanni Rotondo.

"Pio was a very big fan of my hometown," Erbivelli said. "He loved my hometown."

The monk spent several years in Sant’Elia during the early 1900s, and Erbivelli said townspeople told stories about how Pio would sneak into the city at night.

Part of his attraction to the town was his devotion to Padre Raffaele, a monk from Sant’Elia whose writings were kept there and who also was Erbivelli’s great-uncle.

Erbivelli met Pio in June 1954, three days before she married her husband Anthony. Like Tenaglia, she, Anthony and her brother Mario Cerundolo had gathered in Pio’s church in San Giovanni.

"He came out, him and his secretary Father Pellegrino," recalled Erbivelli. "Everybody was reaching for his hands. I can see him now. Then he turned and we touched and kissed [his hands]. He turned to my husband and said, ‘Tu sei l’americano?’"

Pio was asking if Anthony was the American. Unlike Franca, Anthony had been born in the United States. None of the three had met Pio previously.

Erbivelli, a dressmaker who owns La Pi� Bella at 1611 E. Passyunk Ave., spoke with her brother, who now lives in Montreal, on Tuesday. He remembers the visit with Pio vividly as well, she said, particularly the perfumed scent that emanated from his bandaged hands.

Catholic scholars say many saints have the gift of perfume — a distinct pleasant smell. Some credited the blood flowing from Pio’s stigmata with the smell.

Erbivelli and Tenaglia each believe Pio still blesses them today.

"I don’t care how bad your life is," Tenaglia said. "There is a God, and there are living miracles."

"All the time. He is here all the time," Erbivelli said. "When you have faith, it is just something you can’t explain." Not coincidentally, she added, Pio’s canonization took place on the same day as her wedding anniversary, June 16.