Toya Hendricks was walking through Dilworth Park on a sunny Monday with two of her grandchildren when she realized something unusual was unfolding in the shadow of City Hall.
Piles of white ribbons and black Sharpies were at a folding table staffed with friendly faces. On one side of the table was a loom. On the other, a post. Both were adorned with ribbons scrawled with people's innermost thoughts.
The 71-year-old Germantown woman could not refuse the offer that she and dozens of passersby received over the course of an hour at lunchtime: to participate in a public art project, "Undoing the Knots," pegged to the upcoming visit of Pope Francis.
Like many others, Hendricks filled an unsigned ribbon with words of a deeply personal struggle, knowing it would mingle with hundreds of thousands more in a display planned for September near the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
"I am still struggling with the loss of my husband and my sister and living alone for 30 years," Hendricks wrote.
Although the very act of recalling this pain rekindled her sorrow, it also felt good, she said, to write it down.
"Undoing the Knots" will be unveiled during the September visit of Pope Francis as a grottolike monument on the lawn of the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul. It is sponsored by the World Meeting of Families, with help from Project HOME, which assists the homeless.
Hundreds of thousands of ribbons will be woven into tall looms and placed in an outdoor display that will serve as an altar of art, rumination, and prayer.
"I don't know how to forget about the negative in my life," one person wrote Monday.
"Prudence and temperance for spending decisions in our family's finances (Emmetsburg, Iowa)," another said.
Wrote still another: "I need to learn to love myself. I just ended a relationship that was nearly seven years. Although I knew returning to him was breaking me, I always took him back after every manipulation and abuse. I am in so much pain now, but I have hope for my healing. This may be difficult now, but I will be much stronger."
The aim of the display is to reach people of all faiths with a unifying message, said project leader Meg Saligman, a mural artist and a onetime Catholic who converted to Judaism.
"As they come together," Saligman said, "there is strength."
She led passersby through a symbolic ritual intended to make them feel not just their own pain, but the balm of community.
First, they wrote a thought. They then tied the ribbon onto a post where others hung. Next, they untied a stranger's ribbon and carried it to a nearby loom made of fishing wire, weaving it through and knotting the cloth at both ends.
For some, the act of removing someone else's sacred ribbon and weaving it into the loom seemed as powerful as putting their own deepest thoughts of pain and loss into words.
"Even though I have my own struggles, I feel very fortunate that some of the things I see people going through, these are not my issues," said Hendricks. Her husband died of cancer, but she was moved by some of the tribulations others wrote of on their ribbons, such as addiction.
Even her teenage grandchildren, who wrote of needing to work on their "attitude," felt humbled.
The 13-year-old boy on her arm, T.J. Mountain Jr., could not quite find words but teared up as he thought about a stranger's cancer struggle written on the ribbon he wove through the loom.
His 14-year-old sister, Armanie, focused on how relieved she felt just writing down her own challenge - needing to do better at school in math.
"It's like a weight lifted off my shoulders," she said.
The art project will be on display from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sept. 3 to 27.
"You can come and see," Saligman said, "and you can also come and leave a prayer."