Padre Pio: Making business personal

By Teresa Mahoney and Michael Wilner

San Rafaelle Articoli Religiosi souvenir shop was one of the first to open 45 years ago in front of the old church in San Gioavanni Rotondo. It moved down to its current storefront down the street and competes with nearly two dozen other vendors. | Photo by Teresa Mahoney.

San Rafaelle Articoli Religiosi souvenir shop was one of the first to open 45 years ago in front of the old church in San Gioavanni Rotondo. It moved down to its current storefront down the street and competes with nearly two dozen other vendors. | Photo by Teresa Mahoney.

The legacy of a saint has inspired the founding of a hospital with over a thousand beds, the construction of a mega church with over 6,500 seats and a flurry of new residential developments that have together expanded San Giovanni Rotondo. But Padre Pio of Pietrelcina also created a new faith-fueled economy in this small town in southern Italy, which though home to only 26,000 inhabitants, has become the pilgrimage site for over four million believers each year.

Rodolfo San Raffaele has seen this evolution since his family opened a small souvenir shop in 1967. Originally from Africa, his father moved to Rome after the Second World War, where he crossed paths with the budding saint. His father was originally skeptical of Pio as he was unfamiliar with Catholic customs. But on a business trip to San Giovanni Rotondo several years later, Pio greeted him with a kiss on the hand. Somehow, Pio remembered who he was from their original encounter.

They remained friends until the day Rodolfo’s father died.

“Padre Pio put his hand on my head and said to me, ‘Worry not for your father, because your father is in heaven with God,’” San Raffaele said of his most powerful moment with the venerable priest. After his father’s death, he looked to Pio for guidance. “This makes me grande happy. Grande happy.”

Rodolfo San Rafaelle (right) and his wife (left) at their small souvenir shop in San Giovanni Rotondo. | Photo by Teresa Mahoney.

Rodolfo San Rafaelle (right) and his wife (left) at their small souvenir shop in San Giovanni Rotondo. | Photo by Teresa Mahoney.

In the 45 years since, Rodolfo has continued to run the Chiosco San Raffaele Articoli Religiosi shop alongside his wife, selling Italian-crafted rosaries, Padre Pio sculptures, photo frames, pendants, necklaces, bracelets, talismans, icons and other trinkets. The store used to be right across the town’s main square from its original church, but in 1968, the year San Raffaele’s mother and Padre Pio died, the store relocated down the street, where it has since been in competition with an increasing number of vendors.

“There were only three or four shops back then,” he says. “Now it is difficult.”

Over two-dozen shops within a one-block radius alone have capitalized on Pio’s stature since his death and canonization in 2004, selling many similar souvenirs that have challenged San Raffaele to stay competitive.

San Raffaele, brushing back his silvered hair, says, “I’m not young anymore,” explaining the physical exhaustion of running the shop. “Maybe next year we’ll close.”

 

Check out this video of Rodolfo San Raffaele, speaking about his first-hand encounters with Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, after his parents died. (Produced by Teresa Mahoney.)

 

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