During the Second World War, I was stationed in Italy and had the honor and privilege to meet Padre Pio, his family and their close friends. This beautiful friendship has endured through the years.
I first met Padre Pio on October 6, 1944 and enjoyed many congenial visits with him for the next ten months when my Army unit was transferred to France on July 15, 1945. In those ten months, a close relationship developed with Padre Pio, his father Grazio, his brother Michael, and Michael's daughter Pia, and her fiance Mario and me.
After the war, I returned to America, but my dream was to return to Italy to spend some time with Pia and Mario, my adopted family.
My dream became a reality in March of 1988 when the Padre Pio Foundation of America in Cromwell, Connecticut, invited me to accompany them to Italy to record on VCR Padre Pio's birthplace and the Monastery where he lived for over fifty years and now lies at rest. Four of us made the pilgrimage to Italy; Joe Peterson, another U.S. soldier who was very close to Padre Pio; Br. John Sulyma, a member of the Missionaries of the Holy Apostles who was the camera man; Fr. Bob McQueeney, the Spiritual Director of the Padre Pio Foundation of America; and myself.
Fr. Bob supervised the project while, in reality, he was complying with the wish of Padre Pio to make all of America his Spiritual Children by introducing Padre Pio into the homes of those Americans who do not know of him.
Pietrelcina is the birthplace of Padre Pio who was born Francesco Forgione. He spent his childhood in Pietrelcina, and was assigned there after his ordination as a Capuchin Priest in 1910 until he was drafted into the Italian Army in 1915.
When we arrived at Pietrelcina, we were invited to be guests of the Capuchin Monks at their Monastery. This is the same Monastery that was built by Mary Pyle in fulfillment of the prophecy of Padre Pio when he was a young boy. At that time, he had told Padre Pannullo, the Pastor at Pietrelcina, that "I can hear the angels singing because one day a Monastery will be built on this very spot."
With his video camera, Br. John recorded all of Padre Pio's "Beth- lehem" where he grew in sanctity and grace behind its walls. High up on a castle wall stands the Santa Anna Chapel where Padre Pio was baptized and served as an altar boy. This church was completely restored by the Padre Pio Foundation of America based in Cromwell, CT. Not a single detail was omitted in making this little Church conform to the exact condition that existed in 1887.
In 1915, at the Forgione farm on the outskirts of Pietrelcina, Padre Pio was praying under a tree when a snake crawled across his lap. Referring to the snake as Satan, Padre Pio said: "Even here you won't let me alone." Suddenly, his hands, feet and side began to burn as if hit by a bolt of lightning. This was the invisible Stigmata which man- ifested itself in the choir at San Giovanni Rotondo in 1918. As you know, a Stigmatist bears the visible wounds of Christ crucified. And, what is left of the tree under which he was sitting is preserved in a room in the little Chapel because relic seekers had reduced the tree to no more than a trunk.
After bidding farewell to the Priests and Brothers at the Monastery at Pietrelcina, the four of us headed to San Giovanni Rotondo where Fr. Bob, Br. John and Joe Peterson checked in at the local hotel and I went to stay with Pia and Mario, Padre Pio's niece and her husband. I do not have the words to explain how I cherished that reunion after 43 years. My dream had been realized.
In the following days, we video-taped as much as we could of this holy place that continues to exude the presence of so great a man. This was Padre Pio's "Jerusalem" where he followed Jesus with love to Calvary, sacrificing his life for the salvation of souls.