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‘The Lord has made it so that we can go’

Marian Center’s hand bell choir plays for Pope Francis in Rome, others in Italy

MIAMI GARDENS| The sound of bells tolling is part of the soundtrack of Rome, the eternal city. But from April 2 to 7, 2018, their resonance was altered by the musical input of 13 members of the Marian Center’s hand bell choir, who toured and performed at various locations, including for Pope Francis at the general audience April 4.

After months of rehearsing and preparing, a dream became a reality as the Marian Center’s students, teachers and chaperones met Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square. The pope greeted and blessed them, and even gave a shout out to Miami. (Look for the videos posted on their Facebook page.)

The group presented the pope with a quilt containing patches with crosses, hearts, flowers, butterflies and more, all made by students of the Marian Center to commemorate the trip. The quilt included a quote by Pope Francis: “Beauty, under the care of artists, has the ability to transform even the everyday lives of men and women. Beauty has the power to heal hearts and souls.”

The hearts and souls of the students certainly were touched as they told Pope Francis “We love you.” And he, in turn, replied, “I love you. Pray for me.”

The daring endeavor of traveling and performing in Italy coincides with the 55th anniversary of the Marian Center, a school for children and adults with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities. In October 1963, 11 Sisters of St. Joseph Benedict Cottolengo traveled from their convent in Turin, Italy, to Miami to establish the center. They were led by their mother superior, Sister Lucia Ceccotti, who directed the school for nearly 50 years, until her death in September 2013.

Marian Center hand bell musicians await the start of their performance at St. Peter's Square on April 4.

Photographer: COURTESY PHOTO

Marian Center hand bell musicians await the start of their performance at St. Peter's Square on April 4.

A photo in the Osservatore Romano April 5 features an image captured the moment Marian Center performers presented Pope Francis with the quilt the school's students had made.

Photographer: COURTESY PHOTO

A photo in the Osservatore Romano April 5 features an image captured the moment Marian Center performers presented Pope Francis with the quilt the school's students had made.

She had always hoped to visit Italy with the students. Decades later, Sister Filomena Mastrangelo put in the request in Rome to perform for the pope, and the wheels were set in motion.

“She quite literally took the baton and said forward,” said Vivianne Bailey, a volunteer at the Marian Center who accompanied the group on their trip.

In December, the Marian Center held a Christmas concert and pageant with the theme “Making Miracles Happen” to help raise funds. They also launched a “Let the Bells Ring” drive to aid with the costs of the trip: about $60,000 for transportation, accommodations, meals and more. Before the year ended they had reached the halfway point in fundraising.

“We have many donors that have been extremely generous,” said Barbara Psinakis, the hand bell choir director at the Marian Center. “They made it possible.”

Psinakis joked that when they initially announced the trip every person who heard about it wanted to come along. “That’s why we have 53 people in our group,” she said.

While rehearsing the musical repertoire was at the top of the 13 musicians’ to-do list, they also found other ways of preparing for the trip.

Bernadette Guillarte challenged herself to learn Italian. “I know ‘buongiorno’ is ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ is ‘ciao’,” said Guillarte.

“I’ve got a great one: ‘mamma mia,’” said Ashley Acocella.

“We might need that one when we get to the pizza place,” Psinakis told the giggling girls.

For Natasha Walker, the trip is a mother-daughter European adventure. No one else from their family is going, though many friends and family asked to come along as stowaways. Diane Wade, Walker’s mother, said that what she looked forward to the most was being able to enjoy every minute with her daughter as they immersed themselves in Italy’s culture, customs, and food.

“This feels like a privilege that the Lord has blessed me with,” said Wade. “All that he does is always at his own time. Everything has cleared up in my life. I even retired and this opportunity presented itself. The Lord has made it so that we can go.”

The trip itinerary will keep the group busy from the moment of departure in Miami April 1 to their return from Milan April 8. So far they have visited the Cottolengo house in Rome, toured the city, checked out St. Peter’s Square, seen the Vatican and Sistine Chapel, visited Turin and the Druento Spiritual Center of Cottolengo, visited the Little House of Divine Providence, seen the Superga Basilica, visited the Duomo of Turin and the Shroud, and more.

They had five scheduled performances: one for Pope Francis at St. Peter’s Square, one for the Cottolengo family in Rome, one for the Knights of Malta in Rome, and two at the Little House of Divine Providence.

No wonder the trip itinerary’s last line read, “Thanks be to God!” almost as a sigh of relief.

But the Marian Center group can also add “Deo gratias” (Latin for “thanks be to God”): for the experience, for Pope Francis, and for the music that brought them all together.

Correction: This article has been corrected since publication, to reflect the fact that 'Deo gratias' is a Latin, not Italian, expression.

A very excited Sister Filomena Mastrangelo greets Pope Francis during the general audience at St. Peter's Square April 4 as members of the Marian Center hand bell choir ring their bells and hold the quilt they presented to the pope.

Photographer: Servizio Fotografico L'Osservatore Romano

A very excited Sister Filomena Mastrangelo greets Pope Francis during the general audience at St. Peter's Square April 4 as members of the Marian Center hand bell choir ring their bells and hold the quilt they presented to the pope.


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