LOWELL — A shiny black van pulled up to Immaculate Conception Church on Wednesday morning, accompanied by a police officer on a motorcycle, lights flashing. The van’s side door slid open, disgorging five Capuchin friars in hooded robes. One carried a silver vessel in the likeness of a house.
Inside the house was a glass box. In the box, a dried-out human heart.
The heart belonged to St. Padre Pio, a mystical Capuchin friar from Southern Italy and one of the most popular figures in Roman Catholicism. He is said to have bled from stigmata — holes in his hands, feet, and sides, as if he’d been nailed to a cross like Jesus — from 1918 until his death in 1968.
His heart’s visit to Boston this week marks the first time any major relic of Pio has traveled outside Italy. Its appearance enthralled hundreds who lined up to pray, to kiss the reliquary, and to touch prayer cards, rosaries, and medallions to the glass encasement.
“It was overwhelming,” said Leslie Allain, of Farmington, N.H., who wept after her encounter with the encased heart Wednesday.
She believes her desperate prayers for Padre Pio’s intercession 26 years ago helped save her severely ill newborn, Hunter, who was expected to die in infancy but is now an adult.
“As soon as we heard about this we were like, ‘We’re taking the day and we’re coming,’ ” she said.
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston and a Capuchin friar like Pio, asked to have the heart brought to Boston because of Pio’s popularity here, said the Rev. Mariano Di Vito, director of the Fondazione Voce di Padre Pio in San Giovanni Rotondo, the small town where Pio spent most of his adulthood. The town hosts a shrine to Pio visited by some 3 million people a year.
Pio is particularly beloved in two countries from which many Bostonians trace their heritage, said Michael Di Giovine, an anthropologist at West Chester University in Pennsylvania: In Italy, the saint is regarded with a familial affection, and in Ireland, his trademark bloodied fingerless gloves are seen as having healing properties. Di Giovine said Pio’s direct encounters with pilgrims from all over the world help account for his massive following.
“When you ask people why they believe in him or pray to him, they say, ‘Well, he was alive when I was around,’ ” Di Giovine said.
Pio’s remains were exhumed in 2008 and found to be remarkably well-preserved. His body, fitted with a silicone mask, is now on display at his Italian shrine. The heart was cut out of the body — it, too, was intact — and chemically treated so it could be exhibited, Di Vito said.
Pope Francis has extolled Pio as an exemplar in the Jubilee Year of Mercy, which ends in November. Last winter, the pontiff had the corpses of Pio and St. Leopold Mandic, another Capuchin, brought to Rome as part of the celebration.
“I admit it’s quirky, but it’s also profound and deep and spiritual and serious, having the heart of a great saint so focused on healing the world come here to inspire us,” said the Rev. Paul Soper, secretary for evangelization and discipleship for the Archdiocese of Boston. Soper said it gives Catholics “a connection to that mercy that is palpable.”
Pio spent most of his days hearing confessions, rebuking people he deemed insincere. Devotees believed he could heal and appear in two places at once. They said they smelled roses or violets in his presence, Di Giovine said.
Detractors dismissed Pio as a charlatan during his lifetime, and many still do. An Italian historian, Sergio Luzzatto, recently wrote a book positing that Pio used carbolic acid to keep his wounds fresh. The Vatican once considered him a fraud, and even forbade him from saying Mass in public for a time, but Pope John Paul II eventually canonized him in 2002.
Thousands are expected to travel to Boston from across the country this week to venerate the relic, which the Italian Capuchins escorted to Boston on a British Airways flight. (The relic, housed in a wooden case, had its own seat, Di Vito said.)
After spending the day in Lowell, the relic traveled Wednesday evening to St. Leonard Church in the North End. It is expected to be at the Archdiocese of Boston Pastoral Center in Braintree during the day Thursday and at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End in the evening.
On Friday, the relic is scheduled to remain at the cathedral, with O’Malley saying Mass at 7 p.m., followed by veneration until midnight.
At Immaculate Conception, worshipers prayed and sang, as a long line of people waiting to venerate the relic snaked around the sanctuary. The noontime Mass drew a standing-room-only crowd of about 1,000, including several hundred school children.
“You feel a lot of love,” said Emily Dupuis, 84, of Lowell, a widow who lost her daughter several years ago. “It’s almost like a little bit of heaven.”
Pat Ponticelli of Amesbury, a nutrition counselor who is suffering from brain cancer, came in a polka dot dress, with electrodes affixed to her head, part of a treatment for her tumor.
“I just really wanted him to see my soul more clearly, so that if I do end up succumbing to cancer, I’ll have a clean soul as I face God,” she said.
Others came with broader concerns.
“The world’s in big trouble right now, there’s no love left,” said Randy Nicewarner, 48, of Brookline, N.H., who held the reliquary to his own heart when it was his turn to venerate it. “I could feel the power of his heart inside of mine.”
Christine Lemieux came with her seven children from Pelham, N.H. Over the summer, she rescued three children from drowning at Profile Lake in the White Mountains. She could not, however, save the children’s father in time, and he drowned.
“It’s been very hard for us,” said Lemieux, who said she has had a longtime devotion to Pio.
In the presence of the saint’s heart, she said, she was able to cry for the first time since the tragedy, and to feel a little peace.
“I just took in the moment, it was very personal,” she said. “I felt such grace.”