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 (now retired at 92), 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. The archdiocesan newspaper, announcing his retirement in 2017, said:
“On Oct. 1, Franciscan Father Guglielmo Lauriola, 90, celebrated his last public Mass at Immaculate Conception Chapel and with his retirement the Franciscans relinquished their presence at the chapel on Folsom Street in San Francisco.
“’We have been blessed by Father Lauriola’s presence in this archdiocese since 1974 – an astounding 41 years,’ Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone said in a letter announcing the closing of the chapel with the loss of the Franciscan Friars of the Province of Santa Barbara.
“He has been present to your families for decades, selflessly giving his time to serve you at many of the most important moments in your lives,” the archbishop wrote. “His departure is a great loss for the archdiocese and he will be deeply missed.”
Father Lauriola is moving to the Franciscan Friary in Oakland, and the Franciscans do not have enough priests to continue to staff the chapel, wrote Father David Gaa, OFM, provincial minister of the Province of Santa Barbara.
“Father Lauriola grew up in the small Italian town of Monte Sant’ Angelo where his parents brought him to see the Capuchin Franciscan St. Padre Pio in his monastery nearby and Father Lauriola continued with a close relationship through ordination and his early years as a priest, until the saint died in 1968.
“Before coming to the U.S., Father Lauriola and three priests were sent as missionaries to Korea where they founded the Sacred Heart Leper Colony which became home to 400 lepers, according to an account in a 2012 edition of the Padre Pio Newsletter. When he left for Korea, Padre Pio gave Father Lauriola the advice, which the Franciscan repeated for the newsletter, “It is the grace of God that brings success to all our efforts. Never attribute anything to yourself.”
“‘I met with him many times one to one,’ recalled 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 continued. ‘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,” said 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, said Father Lauriol (ten years ago, when we interviewed him), “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.
“I grew up Catholic, and as far as I know, it is not normal to be passed notes during Mass,” noted a local reporter. “But near the tail end of services on Sunday at the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, the well-dressed middle-aged woman sitting in the pew in front of me handed me a business card.
“On one side was printed the question: ‘Do you have Supernatural FAITH?’ On the other, written in black ink in her hand, was a direction: ‘ASK THE FATHER ABOUT THE MYSTERIOUS GREEN CROSS THAT APPEARED IN THE KITCHEN WINDOW.’
“It was here, more than twenty years ago, that a parishioner first observed a Marian apparition. One day after services, someone noticed something on the copper-topped gables of the church roof — an image of the Virgin Mary. Frequent scrubbings could not remove it. Word spread, and eventually, so many people came up Folsom Street to see the “miracle” that police had to close the street.”
At one point, this gentle humble man — who once served as an altar boy for Saint Pio — was San Francisco’s only exorcist.
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.”