Grotto highlights needs of poor, image of Mary as ‘Undoer of Knots’

PHILADELPHIA — In front of Philadelphia’s Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul stands a visible representation of Pope Francis’ favorite religious image: “Mary, Undoer of Knots.”

A painting of Mary Undoer of Knots hangs within the Knotted Grotto at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia during the World Meeting of Families. The project, led by local artist Meg Saligman, invites visitors to write their prayer intentions on the white strips and then tie them to the structure. (CNS photo | Carley Mossbrook)

The “Knotted Grotto” is a dome-shaped lattice-work frame that stands about 10 feet high with an approximately 20-foot circumference and features tens of thousands of white ribbons knotted into a lattice structure.

In an unplanned gesture before the papal Mass Sept. 27 on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the pope stopped his motorcade to visit the grotto devotion, which by then had 100,000 ribbons tied to it. When the World Meeting of Families opened Sept. 22, more than 10,000 ribbons were being added daily.

Each ribbon represents a prayer intention, which visitors may read and offer in their prayers, as well as add a new ribbon. Above all the ribbons hangs a large portrait of Mary, the Mother of God, as one who unties the knots of people’s lives.

Project HOME, the Philadelphia organization serving homeless people in the city, has been collecting the pieces of cloth throughout the Philadelphia and Camden, N.J., regions.

Over the past several months, the group canvassed prisons, soup kitchens and workshops, collecting petitions that reflect poignant prayers for topics ranging from personal issues to social justice to health concerns.

A few examples include: “I am asking for prayers for my whole family”; “Let there be food for all … bountiful food for all”; “More faith in God and more belief in God’s love”; “For school communities, that students, teachers/professors can come together and share school pride and values.”

One prison inmate penned his hope to be free of addiction and be able to make a life for himself once released. Some petitioners asked for healing from anxiety or cancer, or other physical and mental disorders.

Project HOME commissioned artist Meg Saligman to create the grotto to help draw attention to those in need, especially members of society for whom Pope Francis focuses much of his concern.

“We invited Meg to create this work of art so that people will be moved to acknowledge a higher power and to also acknowledge the power within themselves to act,” said Mercy Sr. Mary Scullion, executive director of Project HOME. “We need God’s grace to untie the knots.”

Sr. Scullion conceived the project was a way for people to remember each other — and the poor — in their prayers, following the example of Pope Francis, whom she met when he stopped in front of the grotto on what was his last day in the United States.

At a Sept. 3 dedication of the grotto, Fr. Dennis Gill, rector of the cathedral, led prayers and Imam Abdul-Aleem, of the Masjidullah Mosque in Philadelphia, delivered remarks.

Members of Project HOME — wearing yellow T-shirts with blue lettering that said, “Act With Mercy, Seek Justice” — were scattered throughout the crowd asking those who attended to sign petitions that will be sent to Congress to urge lawmakers to act in a bipartisan fashion to alleviate homelessness and hunger.

Donna Crilley Farrell, executive director of the World Meeting of Families, told the crowd that she and her co-workers watched the progress of the artwork installation from her office. She said that helping the poor was a priority for both Pope Francis and Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput.

“As I look at the thousands of knots in this grotto, it just takes your breath away,” she said. “Each of these knots represents the hopes and prayers of the people. It is incredibly moving. People from around the world will be able to share in the artwork” during the World Meeting and the papal visit, Farrell said.

Imam Abdul-Aleem said after the ceremony that his mosque received funds from Project HOME that enabled him to expand his ministry of feeding people of all faiths who are in need.

During his remarks, he asked God to bless and loosen the knots that represent human struggles and prayed that the pope’s visit would be “a transformative moment in the history of mankind, a moment to undo the knots of racism, classism and sexism that kept many people at arms-length of society.”

“True religion is not rituals,” he said. “True religion is a recognition of God’s grace, but also the power we each have within us to make a difference.”

In honor of the pope’s visit to Philadelphia, Project HOME established the Francis Fund to collect money to provide to other organizations to alleviate hunger, poverty and homelessness in Philadelphia and Camden. Its goal is to raise $4 million; by early September it had collected $2 million.

Fisher writes for, the news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Contributing to this story was Matthew Gambino, the site’s director and general manager.