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Years ago, a chapel in downtown San Francisco made the news when parishioners as well as a priest noticed what they perceived as images of Mary, Jesus, and St. Padre Pio on walls inside and outside of the small church.

It began on June 21, 1996, and night after night, hundreds bearing rosaries came to pay homage -- in this area that is not always known for processions involving the Rosary (near as it is to iconic streets of rebellion such as Haight-Asbury and the Castro, which was the epicenter of the homosexual movement).

Yet that's what was claimed -- images in the glow of a brass-gabled roof and other spots that varied in some cases according to the eyes of the beholders but were of the same general nature, presenting what was described as the most impressive attribute: a special feeling.

Father Guglielmo "William" Lauriola, who presided over the church, Immaculate Conception Chapel on Folsom Street (and is still there, at 82), described one phenomenon as "a silhouette" of the Blessed Mother. "The presence of her was overwhelming," said one witness, Taren Sapienza, of the "image" she encountered.

What made it especially interesting is that as a young priest, Father Lauriola had a rather close relationship with one of the holy figures seen as silhouette -- Padre Pio, the incredible stigmatic Capuchin from San Giovanni Rotundo in Italy.

For as it turns out, Father Lauriola is from the nearby town of Monte Sant'Angelo and visited the old church at San Giovanni every other day, often greeting the saint in a corridor that led from the famous monastery to the chapel.

When Lauriola himself became a priest, he was at a monastery just several miles away and so continued his visits, often joining Padre Pio and the fifteen or so other monks at San Giovanni for dinner. While Father Lauriola was also a Franciscan, he was not a Capuchin.

"I met with him many times one to one," recalls Father Lauriola of St. Pio. "He was surprised that I didn't join the Capuchins, but he also said that the Lord puts people where He needs them.

"Often they ate vegetable soup, pasta, maybe a little cheese," the priest continues. "When we were together, he talked about the day, what went on, and so forth. When he was talking, he looked at your eyes and let you know he was still there and then all of a sudden he wasn't there; at times he seemed less than serene. I don't know if he was bilocating or what. When we met face to face in the sacristy, he would put his hands on my shoulders. Several times at Confession, he seemed able to go into my head -- would remind me of this or that."

They are classic St. Pio accounts. At times, says Father Lauriola (who moved to the Bay Area in 1969, shortly after St. Pio died), the holy man would become upset with those who came every other day to his confessional, taking up time that would have been more fairly allotted to pilgrims who had traveled from afar. In those moments, one might even hear the shutter of the confessional shutting loudly!

"I felt badly about his stigmata, it was such an open wound," says Lauriola in further remembrance of this saint who seems especially pertinent to Lent. "I was studying at the Gregorian when I felt he was going to die, and so we went to see him." And indeed St. Pio died shortly after.

Today, says Father Lauriola, "I'm still in contact with him. Sometimes I feel a real closeness." Were the phenomena in the mid-1990s linked?

He says the images appeared outside the baptistry as well as on metal before going into the chapel. They also were seen on the bell tower. The eyes and face of a statue -- the Immaculate Conception -- sometimes seem to move. We hope to visit it this week, and perhaps will have a report.

A bastion -- in this downtown known for debauchery!

Father Lauriola thinks there has been an improvement in that atmosphere since he first arrived at the end of the raucous Sixties. This may surprise some! At least, it is his perspective.

"People now look for God," he told us. "Now, the Lord is considered a necessity."

[Photos right, from elsewhere, on Long Island, courtesy Andrea and Patrick Walshe: Padre Pio seeming to appear elsewhere on a Rosary case, see second one]

[resources: Seven Days with Mary and San Francisco retreat; family healing, mysticism, Mass: Michael Brown, February 27; please pray for us]

[Noted a blogger about the chapel: "The pastor who presides over the flock now, was the same pastor when I was in 5th grade dude!!!  Father William! Anyway, this chapel, tucked away in Bernal Heights (probably how it earned the name 'the little church on the hill') has some of he most gorgeous statues/sanctuaries and stained glass windows ever seen in a church in the U.S.  They still have Masses in Latin."

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