An Angel For St. Philip Church

Originally published in the Smithfield Times – November, 2018 

An Angel For St. Phillip Church

By Jim Ignasher

     Perhaps you’ve driven past St. Philip Church in Greenville recently and noticed something’s different, such as the twelve-foot-tall statue of an angel standing between St. Philip School and the church. Although the angel is a recent addition, the reason for its being there can be traced to the school’s origin in 1960.

     By the mid-1950s St. Philip parish had grown to the point where parishioners felt a parochial school for the elementary and middle school grades was warranted, and funds were allotted for its construction. Monsignor Joseph P. McNamara, then pastor of St. Philip Church, oversaw the construction of both the new school, and an adjacent convent building that would serve as a dormitory for the nuns who would serve as teachers and administrators.

     The new school opened in September of 1960 with a staff of only four nuns, each belonging to the Religious Sisters of Mercy at Mount St. Rita’s Convent in Cumberland. When they first arrived, the convent at St. Philip’s had yet to be completed, so they were temporarily housed at the St. Aloysius Home, then located on Austin Avenue.

     And the school had yet to be fully stocked with necessary items such as books and desks, forcing students to improvise for the first few weeks. Yet despite the initial set backs, the school proved to be popular among the parishioners, and by 1964 enrollment had reached capacity necessitating waiting lists. By the later 1960s, the teaching staff had grown to eight, (One teacher for each grade.), with class size routinely hovering around fifty students. Despite the large classes, the school became known for its academic excellence.

     Over the ensuing years thirty-nine Religious Sisters of Mercy served at St. Philip School, five of them as principals, which brings us to the statue of the angel. In 2016 it was announced that some demolition work would take place at the Mount St. Rita Convent, and the statue of the angel would need to be relocated in order to be saved. To make a long story short, the statue was brought to St. Philip Church to create a Mercy Memorial Garden as a way to honor and remember the nuns from the convent who served at St. Philip School.

     In August of this year the statue was placed atop a cement slab outside the school, and given a dazzling white protective coating of paint. Then a memorial walkway was installed, with inscribed bricks bearing the names of the thirty-nine sisters from Mount St. Rita Convent who taught at the school; five ivory colored bricks for those who served as principal, the rest done in red. Finally, landscaping was added.

     On September 13, a dedication ceremony was held that was led by Reverend Francis C. Santilli, the present pastor of St. Philip Parish, and assistant pastor, Father Ryan Simas, during which the statue was blessed, and named the “Angel of Peace” in reference to the Angel of Portugal who appeared before three peasant children of Fatima in 1916 asking them to pray. The following year the three children would experience numerous visions of the Virgin Mary that have become world famous.

     In addition to dedicating the statue, a large room in the former convent, now used for administration purposes, was dedicated as “Mercy Hall”, in honor of the Religious Sisters of Mercy, and another room in the school was named “Peters Place”, in honor of Sister Mary Assunta Peters, R.S.M, the first principal of St. Philip School.  

     The ceremony was well attended by an estimated 300 people, with music provided by the St. Philip School youth choir.

     Special honored guests included eight former nuns who served at St. Philip School. When it was over, they were given a special tour of the renovated convent, and invited to dinner at the St. Philip Parish Festival taking place behind the church.

 

A Pilgrim’s Quest For Mary

Originally published in the Smithfield Times – September, 2015 

A PILGRIM’S QUEST FOR MARY

By Jim Ignasher    

 

Nick Cerbo

     They come from all walks of life, from all over the world, for many different reasons. For each of them the pilgrimage is unique and personal, but they all share one commonality – faith. And they come by the millions, twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year, waiting and praying in long lines leading up a mountainside in France, hoping for a miracle.

     Recently, Nick Cerbo of Saint Philip’s Church in Greenville became one of those pilgrims and traveled to Lourdes, France, a spiritual place known throughout the world for miraculous healing. Nick is a 20-year-old sophomore at Saint John’s University in New York City studying psychology and theology, and hopes one day to be able to help troubled children.

     Lourdes has been a religious destination for those suffering various afflictions since 1858. On February 11th of that year, 14-year-old Bernadette Subirous, (Later Saint Bernadette), her younger sister Toinette, and a friend, were looking for firewood near a naturally formed grotto in the side of a rocky cliff. It was there that Bernadette experienced the first of eighteen visions of the Virgin Mary. Since then, the water that flows from the grotto has been associated with miraculous healings.

     The trip to Lourdes was sponsored by the university, and Nick was one of eleven students and three chaperones chosen for the journey. Yet going wasn’t simply a matter of signing up.

     “We had to fill out applications.” Nick explained. “Thirty-five students applied, but only twelve could go.” Questions on the applications included citing one’s reasons for wanting to go, and about one’s faith and their relationship with Mary. Nick’s not sure how the selection committee made their decisions, but he’s very grateful for the opportunity.

     Each in the group had different reasons for wanting to go. For Nick it was a chance to grow in his faith. He’s been involved with the St. Phillip’s youth group and other church activities, and says he felt drawn by the Holy Spirit to go. During our interview, he spoke of the fourth station of the cross, where Jesus is carrying His cross to the site of His crucifixion, and He meets His mother, Mary. Nick has a devotion to the Blessed Mother, and metaphorically speaking, we all have our crosses to bear. Therefore, he saw it as an opportunity to meet Mary and carry his burdens to her.  

     In preparation for his trip, he placed a book containing blank pages in the lobby of St. Phillip’s Church. At mass it was announced by St. Philip’s pastor, Father Francis Santilli, that any parishioner who wished to do so, could write their prayer intentions in the book, which would be brought to Lourdes and placed before a statue of the Virgin Mary. According to Nick, many took the opportunity to write (anonymously) in the book. The prayer requests covered a broad spectrum, ranging from asking for help with certain difficulties they or their loved ones were experiencing, to cures for various ailments, to general prayers for peace. He saw it as a way to bring other people’s burdens to Mary and ask for Her intercession on their behalf.  

     When he got to Lourdes, Nick placed the book in a basket located in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary. The basket is there specifically for pilgrims to put pieces of paper containing their prayer requests. “I put the book in the grotto and prayed over it,” he said, “and we had mass everyday, and we prayed for our intentions and all the intentions other people gave us.” The prayer intentions are collected each day by local nuns who burn them as a way of offering and protection of people’s privacy.

     According to the Lourdes website, six million travelers come to Lourdes each year. Nick witnessed the long lines of people first-hand. “There were thousands of people there from all over the world praying in different languages,” he recalled. “I never felt so insignificant. It made me realize just how world-wide the Catholic religion is.” And despite language barriers, everyone seemed to generally understand each other, for they were all there for a common purpose.  

     “There are places where people can bathe in the waters,” Nick said, and he went on to explain how his group had volunteered to help those wanting to be immersed. They each wore special Polo shirts to designate their volunteer status. Wearing robes or bathing suits, those entering the baths gratefully accepted the offers of help for many were battling infirmity or disease. Some had come with family or friends, while others were all alone, and many carried rosaries.  

     “When the people came out of the baths they cried a lot,” he recalled.

     While Nick didn’t witness any healings first-hand, he saw empty wheelchairs, canes, and crutches left behind by those who had. He also saw a lot of Rosary beads draped over statues of Mary and Jesus in the Stations Of The Cross area.

     The first documented healing occurred not long after Bernadette experienced her first vision. Mrs. Catherine LaTapie had suffered a severe hand injury which left two fingers on her right hand paralyzed. When she submerged her hand in the water outside the grotto it was instantly healed! Over the years, thousands of people have reportedly claimed to have experienced unexplainable cures from all sorts of maladies including physical deformities, chronic illness, and cancers. As of this writing, the Catholic Church has recognized sixty-nine of them as miraculous.  

    Nick and his fellow students spent ten days at Lourdes, and his first impression of the town was one of awe. “I was taken aback by all of the beauty.” He said, “It’s surrounded by mountains and hills, with a beautiful church with a cross at the top. It was the closest thing to Heaven for me.”  

     As a point of fact, this was not Nick’s first trip abroad connected to his faith. In 2013, he and other members of the St. Phillips Youth Group went to Jamaica with Father Nixon to volunteer at an orphanage.  

   It would seem that those who visit Lourdes come away with a stronger sense of spirituality. Nick told me he definitely felt Mary’s presence, and had found what he had hoped for, a chance to grow in his faith. That growth has given him a better understanding of his own cross that he’s been carrying since his youth, for he has a stutter that at times makes it difficult to speak.

     “I believe God can use my stutter for something greater”, he said, “and I’m happy that I can carry that. Perhaps it’s for a bigger purpose to help others who need healing in their lives.”  

     If one is so inclined, they can take water from the healing spring with them, which Nick did. During the interview he presented me with a small bottle of holy water from Lourdes. Holding it in my hand, I thought of the millions who have traveled to France just to touch what I had in my hands. I thanked him for the gift, for as a Catholic I believe in what the water can do. With Nick’s permission, I passed it along to someone who is battling cancer.

     Nick hopes to one day return to Lourdes, but first he has to graduate. He knows what he wants to do with his life, and as a man with strong faith, he’s open to God’s plan for him. And he feels there was a reason he was selected to go, but isn’t sure what the reason is – yet. “I believe there will be ripples down the road where I’ll see the effects of the trip, “he said, “where something couldn’t have happened without it.”      

 

 

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