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One for the ages

Sights, sounds, headaches of the papal visit

MICHAEL BRYANT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Many with "golden tickets" to see the pope yesterday were forced to watch on Jumbotrons.
MICHAEL BRYANT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Many with "golden tickets" to see the pope yesterday were forced to watch on Jumbotrons.Read more

IN PHILADELPHIA, a city so rich in history, it takes something monumental, a little spiritual, perhaps, to leave a lasting mark.

Pope Francis' afternoon Mass yesterday beneath a gray sky on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway was one of those moments, a rare chance to see a world leader who represents the epitome of hope and faith to millions of Catholics.

Francis' visit to Philadelphia affected everyone, including business owners, the homeless, commuters, first responders and nonbelievers.

"It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, even being not Catholic," said Nicole Ludy, 25, of Northern Liberties, just after Francis' homily.

Although much of Center City was empty - a dream world for cyclists and pedestrians - those pilgrims who made their way toward Mass in the morning and afternoon were met with a crush of humanity, thousands upon thousands of people waiting to make their way through security checkpoints with their "golden tickets."

Leroy Bickens, 80, came to the World Meeting of Families from El Paso, Texas.

He had a ticket to the Mass but after a three-hour wait, he gave up and went to the Jumbotron at 17th and Cherry.

"I would have liked to have gotten in, but there were just too many people," he said.

He caught a glimpse of the pope wheeling past in the Popemobile on the way to the parkway last night. He was 20 feet away.

"It's the only time in my life that he will ever be that close," Bickens said.

The lines were a blessing for some, like those peddling souvenirs and the owners of Westy's tavern at 15th and Callowhill streets, who were selling beers outside. The day was a blessing for believers who bleed green, too, like Jim Peltz, 62, of Wilmington, Del., who caught half of the Eagles victory over the New York Jets before trying to get to the parkway.

"I didn't have a really good spot," Peltz said, adding that nobody did. He saw the pope on the Jumbotron and weaved in and out with others to get Communion. "I was surprised how calm everybody was, even the little kids."

Fear of crowds and the checkpoints almost kept many of the faithful from even trying to get to the city, like Jim and Sharon Dingler of Audubon, Camden County. The couple took a dry run to the Ferry Avenue PATCO station in Camden yesterday to scope out the parking situation and found few cars there and open roads along the way.

"We were actually bickering on the way here because I was worried it was going to be overly crowded or we wouldn't be able to be comfortable," said Sharon Dingler, 58, who works at a wholesale French pastry shop. As she boarded a PATCO train headed for Philly, she marveled at all the empty seats.

"It's like our own private train," she said giddily. "We're just strolling into the city to go see the pope!"

Many Center City restaurants and bars appeared to be empty for most of the day. Kevin Konya and his friend Alissa Oltman, both 36, who live in Center City - a/k/a the Box, referring to the Secret Service security box - said they had come out to "people-watch" while eating brunch at Garces Trading Co. on Locust Street near Jessup.

Hassle-free outdoor seating for brunch on a nice day in the Gayborhood constituted a minor miracle.

Also unusual, noted Oltman, was a week off from work in September: Oltman and Konya are both Philadelphia public-school teachers.

On Twitter: @JasonNark