A woman writes her prayer intention on a ribbon to be tied on the Knotted Grotto. (Bob Kelly)

A woman writes her prayer intention on a ribbon to be tied on the Knotted Grotto. (Bob Kelly)

For weeks, the faithful had been streaming to the Knotted Grotto, a domed lattice outside the chapel of the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, tying white strips of paper on which their prayers were written. The petitions ranged from healing for themselves or family members, world peace, the elimination of poverty, protection for the environment, the preservation of families and thousands of other requests.

By the time the grotto closed with an interfaith blessing on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 150,000 strips fluttered in the breeze. After the solemnity and festivities of the Sept. 22-25 World Meeting of Families and the two-day visit to Philadelphia by Pope Francis, the exhibit, if not the hopes of the flock, was to be dismantled.

The grotto as designed by artist Meg Saligman invited passersby to pray for the intentions on one of the ribbons tied outside the grotto, unknot it and retie it inside the grotto, then leave a new ribbon with one’s own intention, to be prayed for by another person.


(See more photos of the grotto in our photo gallery.)

Before celebrating an open-air Mass on Sept. 27, the pope, known for his devotion to Mary Undoer of Knots, made an impromptu visit to the display to bless the grotto and the achievements of the Mercy and Justice Campaign, of which the grotto was one part.

The concept of Mary, Undoer of Knots is taken from a chapter in a work by St. Irenaeus of Lyons in which he demonstrates a parallel between Eve and Mary, writing that the “knot” of Eve’s disobedience was undone by Mary. Pope Francis first began his devotion to Mary, Undoer of Knots during a visit to Germany after seeing an 18th century painting of the same title by artist Johann Georg Melchior Schmidtner.

Mercy Sister Mary Scullion, executive director and co-founder of Project HOME and co-chair of the World Meeting of Families’ Hunger and Homelessness Committee, was joined at the Oct. 7 blessing by WMOF Executive Director Donna Crilley Farrell and other program leaders to address the future of the Mercy and Justice Campaign.

It was created to generate action and awareness about hunger and homelessness when Pope Francis visited the region. His ongoing message of mercy and his plea for people to help those living in poverty motivated the successful four-month effort.

“I am very happy to report that because of the generosity of countless caring and compassionate people in the greater Philadelphia area, we reached our goal for the Francis Fund,” Sister Mary said about the fundraising initiative that launched in June. “We have collected more than $1.4 million, through which we will be able to provide financial support to over 50 remarkable organizations serving some of the most vulnerable people in our community.”

Sister Mary cited Pope Francis’ words to the U.S. Congress during his visit to Washington, D.C., before heading to New York then Philadelphia: “I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty. They too need to be given hope. The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes,” the pope said.

“We will continue that fight here in Philadelphia,” Sister Mary said. “We will keep working to undo the knots of poverty and injustice.”

Those attending the grotto blessing and closing included Father Dennis Gill, rector of the cathedral; John Bowie, a resident of Project HOME and volunteer for the Mercy and Justice Campaign; Imam Salaam Muhsin of Philadelphia Masjidullah; and Rabbi Andrea Merow of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park and founder of the Beth Sholom Mitzvah Food Pantry.

Both Philadelphia Masjidullah and Beth Sholom Mitzvah Food Pantry are recipients of support through the Francis Fund.

Pope Francis’ presence will remain in Philadelphia in another special way when Project HOME and the Chinatown Development Corporation dedicate the Francis House of Peace, a new nine-story, mixed-use building at 810 North Arch Street that will provide affordable housing for formerly homeless men and women and at-risk young adults.


The name honors Pope Francis and his commitment to improve conditions for those who live in poverty.

“Francis House of Peace is a sign of hope for our entire community,” said Sister Mary. “It demonstrates that we are finding even more ways to take concrete steps toward truly preventing and ending homelessness in Philadelphia, and it shows what is possible when people come together with shared vision and commitment.”

Francis House of Peace residents will have access to all Project HOME services, including basic medical care and fitness classes through its Health Initiative Program, and employment training.

The 94-unit building is expected to be completed in early November. One of its features will be familiar to those who have walked by the cathedral since last summer: the Knotted Grotto itself, which will be permanently relocated to the residence.

The 150,000 knotted prayer ribbons will also be removed and see new life as building insulation in another future residence of Project HOME, coming to North Broad and York Streets in North Philadelphia next year.

A painting of Mary, the Mother of God, depicts her untying the knots of people's lives. The devotion is a favorite of Pope Francis, who blessed the Knotted Grotto Sept. 27 during his visit to Philadelphia. (Sarah Webb)

A painting of Mary, the Mother of God, depicts her untying the knots of people’s lives. The devotion is a favorite of Pope Francis, who blessed the Knotted Grotto Sept. 27 during his visit to Philadelphia. (Sarah Webb)