Just prior to His Ascension, Jesus delivered these parting remarks to His disciples: “And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mk 16:17-8).
Are we modern Christians embarrassed by these words? Do we give in to the temptation to “demythologize” the Gospels by ignoring such statements even though they come from the mouth of God?
Many people today, living in a technologically advanced age, balk at the possibility of miracles. In such an age, St. Pio of Pietrelcina is both a great wonderworker and a sign of contradiction. The stories of the many wonders he worked are an important reminder of how God is still active in our world, providing signs through miracles. These miracles also point toward the Kingdom of Heaven, in which every wrong will be made right and where all sickness and suffering will be healed.
The National Centre for Padre Pio in Barto, Pennsylvania stands as a monument to this important truth and well as to the gratitude of a family favored with a miracle in a time of desperate need.
The Centre was built by Vera and Harry Calandra, who met as high school students in Norristown, Pennsylvania. They married, began a family, and together owned and operated an Italian specialty food store. Their married love brought them six children. Their fifth child, Vera Marie, was born in 1966 with congenital defects of the urinary tract. This serious illness threatened the life of the infant. Her loving parents took her to the best doctors they could find in the nearby city of Philadelphia.
The best they found was actually among the best in the world. C. Everett Koop was a pediatric surgeon at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who achieved international recognition for successfully separating conjoined twins and for advancing the field of pediatric surgery. President Ronald Reagan named him Surgeon General of the Unites States in 1982 and he soon became a household name for raising the nation’s awareness of the dangers of tobacco use and for orchestrating the government’s response to the HIV epidemic.
After several surgeries Dr. Koop had no other option but to remove little Vera Marie’s infected bladder. The parents were devastated at the prognosis that the little time Vera Marie had left in this world would be painful and difficult.
Vera and Harry were in desperate straits. Their beloved daughter was on the verge of death. They needed a miracle.
The elder Vera did not give in to the temptation to think as most modern men do. With childlike confidence she dared to do as Our Lord bids us: “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (Matt 7:7-8).
The year was 1968. Padre Pio was still alive and was not well known throughout the Catholic world as he is today. A biography about this holy man in the Gargano mountains who bore the wounds of Christ came into Vera Calandra’s hands in this moment of desperation after her daughter’s diagnosis. While reading about the Padre, Vera had a mystical experience—she heard an inner voice say: “Bring your little girl to me here in Italy and do not delay, come immediately.”
Vera did not vacillate. She did not doubt God with the easy rationalization that traveling all the way to Italy seeking a miracle would be, to put it plainly, ridiculous. With childlike simplicity she decided to bring her daughter to Padre Pio as she was told.
Her husband Harry decided to let her go while he stayed back looking after the other children and the store. It was also decided that in addition to Vera traveling with her fatally ill two-year-old daughter, they would also have to bring their newborn infant, Christina, who was still being nursed. Their eldest child, the 11-year-old Michael went along as well to help out as he could.
A desperate mother traveling across the Atlantic and climbing the Gargano mountains in search of a miracle from a holy man living at a remote friary would appear foolish to most. Especially with her three young children in tow—with one little girl in diapers and the other in surgical bandages.
Vera’s first audience with the future saint did not meet her expectations. The stigmatic priest who bore the wounds of Christ’s crucifixion for 50 years was now entering the final days of his life. His body had started to fail and he was confined to a wheelchair. Vera had practiced what she would say and how she would ask for a miracle. On August 31, 1968, she brought her three children before Padre Pio, and he touched the ill Vera Marie and newborn Christina on the top of their heads, but was then wheeled right past the mother.
That was simply, in her mind, not enough. She reached out to the Brother porter and asked for a second audience with the Padre. She was told to be at his Mass the following morning.
Vera and her children arrived at Padre Pio’s Mass—celebrated daily at 5:00 in the morning. The church was packed with pilgrims and she was only able to get a seat in the last pew. After Mass, she was instructed to wait for the Padre in a corridor near the sacristy. After divesting he was wheeled out of the sacristy past Vera and her three children. They knelt before the Padre again and without saying a word he simply blessed them and placed his wounded hand upon each of the children. This time, however, Padre Pio reached out to the mother and in her desperation she took his hand, kissed it, and spoke to him through her heart: “Please God, make a miracle so that all the people will believe.”
She made a silent promise that if her daughter were to live, she would help make the whole world know the greatness of Padre Pio.
Upon their return home the doctors at Children’s Hospital again examined the young Vera Marie and discovered a “rudimentary bladder” growing in place of the one that had been removed by Dr. Koop. Removed organs, however, do not grow back. What happened to Vera Marie cannot be explained on the basis of current medical knowledge. It is a miracle wrought through the powerful intercession of Padre Pio.
The future saint died on September 23, 1968, only a few weeks after blessing the Calandras. The little girl’s health continued to improve and her mother fulfilled her promise to God made while kneeling before Padre Pio. Both Vera and her husband Harry devoted their lives to bringing souls to God through the intercession of Padre Pio. Under the guidance and blessing of Padre Pio’s Franciscan community at Our Lady of Grace Capuchin Friary in San Giovanni Rotondo, Vera and Harry incorporated The Cause for Padre Pio in the United States of America in 1971, dedicated to perpetuating his mission of leading souls to God and promoting his cause of canonization. The title “National Centre for Padre Pio” was incorporated in 1978, and both titles were used until 1988, at which point the Cause for Padre Pio, Inc., was retired, solidifying the organization under the name it is known today.
In 1987 Pope Saint John Paul II recognized Vera’s work and bestowed upon her the prestigious honor of the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice.
The Centre moved to “The Barn” in Barto in 1990, beginning construction in 1998 on the facility that exists today. For nearly 40 years, Vera traveled throughout the world giving conferences on Padre Pio’s life and spirituality.
Gratitude is one of the more important virtues that should adorn a Christian’s life. The Centre spearheaded by the Calandra’s, and built by contributions and encouragement of countless devotees of St. Pio around the world, is a remarkable testimony to this virtue. Upon beautiful grounds is an impressive complex which includes a replica of the Madonna della Grazie chapel where Padre Pio offered Holy Mass for most of his life at his friary in San Giovanni Rotondo. The chapel houses a confessional used by the Padre. In addition to this is a Museum and Cultural Centre where visitors can view the largest collection of Padre Pio relics in the United States which includes the blood stained gloves and bandages he wore to cover the wounds of his stigmata.
Since Padre Pio was still alive when his intercession won Vera Marie’s cure, it could not be considered as one of the miracles necessary for canonization. When Padre Pio was beatified in 1999, Vera had the honor of delivering the first reading at the Mass in recognition for her work in promoting his cause. While Vera was over in Rome for the event, back home in Barto, the Centre opened its new grounds where 22,000 pilgrims came to watch a simulcast of the beatification. Padre was raised to the altar as a saint in 2002.
Vera died in 2004 and Harry in 2018. To the end, both carried on their work at the Centre which is continued to this day by their children. Vera Marie, who was miraculously cured in 1968, serves today as the Centre’s Vice President, and she and her sisters carry on the day-to-day operations at the Centre, continuing to warmly welcome visiting pilgrims. On my recent visit there she made time to answer a few questions for the CWR:
CWR: Why do you think God granted you this miracle through the intercession of Padre Pio?
Vera Marie Calandra: To me, it was more Mom who was granted a miracle. I was just the benefactor. My Mom prayed these words before Padre Pio: “Please God, make a miracle so that all the people will believe.” This saint knew Mom’s heart before we got there, he knew she’d keep her promise.
CWR: Why is Padre Pio an important saint for our times?
Vera Marie Calandra: Padre Pio himself said it best—“I belong to the whole world.” His battles with the devil, the battle of good against evil, are very well reflected in society today. He was persistent and unbending in his faith, even as he was ostracized for the supernatural things that happened to him. In modern times, Catholics are likewise ostracized for their beliefs. God has been forced out of schools, out of governance… I could go on and on. We can look to Padre Pio as our example, for the strength to likewise persevere in the Faith.
CWR: Tell us a little about the spirit of your parents, Vera and Harry. It’s remarkable to consider what they were able to accomplish in fostering devotion to Padre Pio.
Vera Marie Calandra: “Not my will, but Yours be done.” Mom repeated these words of Christ so many times throughout her life; she lived by them, she used them as advice to others. My parents acted in the spirit of hoping to always do God’s will. If a roadblock was put in front of them, they believed it was God Himself redirecting their path. They always trusted that He would lead them in the way He wanted them to go. “Remember Vera…the Church first. Always for the Church.” These words were spoken to my mother during one of her many audiences with Pope St. John Paul II. Mom kept those words in the forefront of her mind in everything she did, believing that if she was putting the Church first, she was doing what God wanted of her.
CWR: Is the shrine still run by the Calandra family?
Vera Marie Calandra: The Centre is governed by a Board of Directors, of which I am the Vice President, and several of my sisters, as well as my niece and nephew, are currently on the Centre’s staff.
CWR: Tell us about the work of the Centre today and the shrine in Barto as a pilgrimage destination.
Vera Marie Calandra: Prior to the pandemic, we’ve hosted thousands of pilgrims a year. We offer something for everyone, whether that be relics of Padre Pio to venerate, someone to pray with, a shoulder to cry on, or a friendly listening ear. We’ve been called a sanctuary by many who have visited us. Our Museum holds the largest collection of Padre Pio relics outside of Italy, and you can learn about the vast history of our patron saint through our expansive and detailed exhibits, films, and guided tours.
Our largest event of the year takes place each September, our annual Novena to St. Pio. Mass is offered each day from September 14th to 22nd, culminating in the Feast of St. Pio on September 23. Come, spend some time with us and with Padre Pio!
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