St. Pio of Pietrelcina
When Padre Pio arrived in 1916, San Giovanni Rotondo was an insignificant town of ancient origins in the Gargano Mountains. The nearest cities were Foggia in the plains to the southwest and the port city of Manfredonia closer to the southeast. The pilgrimage city of Monte Sant’Angelo was across the wild Foresta Umbria.
About two kilometers (1.5 miles) from the old town of San Giovanni Rotondo, among the barren rocks and vineyards of the Gargano Promontory, was a lonely Capuchin friary and church built in the sixteenth century.
Today that has all changed.
The same old church is at the center of a bustling sanctuary complex. Today it is surrounded by a large hospital, innumerable hotels and restaurants, and souvenir shops. Millions of pilgrims and visitors come to San Giovanni Rotondo every year.
A Tour through the Sanctuary
An itinerary through the complex begins at the old church, known as the Chiesa Antica.
In the rear to the left is the confessional where Padre Pio heard women’s confessions. Just inside the sacristy is the confessional where he heard the men’s confessions. Above the rear of the church is the choir where Padre Pio received the visible stigmata in 1918.
Annexed to the old church, and accessible from within, is the newer, larger church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Due to the fame of Padre Pio and the large crowds that were coming to see and hear him, construction began on this church in 1956. It was consecrated in 1959.
Of note are the mosaics behind the altar and statues throughout the nave.
When Padre Pio died on September 23, 1968, his body was originally interred in the crypt beneath the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. From here, a walkway begins with photographs of the saint’s origins in Pietrelcina. Photos include his parents, his childhood home, and the church where he received his first sacraments.
A staircase or elevator ride up one floor leads to a room displaying more relics and vestments worn by Padre Pio. An entire wall of shelves is filled with thousands of letters that were mailed to Padre Pio in one year alone.
Next, visitors follow a corridor with more photographs, vestments, and relics. There is a life-size picture in which Padre Pio stands with his stigmata visible.
Now within a corridor in the public part of the old friary, pilgrims can visit Padre Pio’s cell where lived the final years of his life and died. The remains exactly the way it was when he died, and all the items are labeled.
Further down the corridor is a room where Padre Pio was operated to repair a hernia.
Finally, the corridor passes the choir above the ancient church with a wooden crucifix. Here, on September 20, 1918, Padre Pio received the visible stigmata that remained on his body until he died.
There is also an English-speaking office within the sanctuary. There are several short videos about Padre Pio and the sanctuary narrated in English as well as a glove worn by the saint. As it is somewhat difficult to find, go to the sacristy and ask for directions. (It is not far from the sacristy.)
The New Church
After exiting the old sanctuary, visitors can go to the new church behind Santa Maria delle Grazie. Known as the Padre Pio Pilgrimage Church, it was completed in 2004. Designed by the world-renowned Italian architect, Renzo Piano, it is an example of ultramodern architecture and can accommodate 6,500 people within the church and 30,000 people in the plaza leading to it.
Of note are the many mosaics along the ramp leading down to the crypt of Padre Pio. They tell the story of Padre Pio on the right side with associated images of St. Francis of Assisi on the left. Once inside the tomb, the mosaics depict scenes of the life of Christ. Designed and achieved by Jesuit priest and artist, Fr. Marko Rupnik the mosaics are an extraordinary example of harmony between contemporary art and spirituality.
In 2008, the sarcophagus of Padre Pio was opened and his body was found to be partially decomposed. His face was preserved and repaired with a silicon mask covering. At that time, his remains were moved to the crypt in the new church and placed on display. At the present time, his body is back in the crypt in Santa Maria delle Grazie.
Beyond the sanctuary complex, pilgrims to San Giovanni Rotondo frequently join guided visits of the hospital founded by Padre Pio, the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza. Other pilgrimage sites include the modern Way of the Cross (Via Crucis) on the hillside behind the hospital and the house of Mary Pyle. Within the old city of San Giovanni Rotondo there are numerous churches as well as the cemetery where Padre Pio’s parents are buried.
The miracles and graces pilgrims and visitors receive through his intercession today is a testament to the veracity of something Padre Pio said frequently while he was still alive: “After my death I will make more noise. My real mission will begin after my death.”