PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of Roman Catholics are making the pilgrimage to Philadelphia to see Pope Francis on the last leg of his first-ever visit to the United States, where they hoped to catch a glimpse of the popular pontiff at some point during his packed schedule — or even receive a blessing or healing touch. Some of their stories:
EX-REFUGEE: FRANCIS HELPING CHURCH 'RISE FROM THE DEAD'
Juwli Roberts-Karluah ran past dead bodies and burned babies while fleeing with her children from war-torn Liberia in 1997. Now a nursing assistant outside Philadelphia, Roberts-Karluah was in the city Saturday for Pope Francis's visit.
Francis has urged a more welcoming attitude toward migrants everywhere in the world amid the worst refugee crisis since World War II.
Roberts-Karluah knows that refugees now arriving in Europe have a difficult road ahead, but she believes they can make it through faith and hope. "You can't give up. I have experienced it," the mother of two said.
She's active in her church encouraging Liberian immigrants to return to their Catholic faith.
"The pope's message resonates so deeply — he is trying to bring us back together," she said. "I think his coming will help the church to rise from the dead."
DREAMING OF THE POPE
The dream came to Leslie Herring one night in July: Pope Francis picked her profoundly disabled daughter out of a crowd, hoisted her out of her wheelchair and blessed her.
And she was healed.
"The first thing she did was talk," recalled Herring, 35, of Pottsville. "And then she got up and walked."
Herring woke up from her dream in a cold sweat — and decided on the spot to make the trip to Philadelphia, about 75 miles (121 kilometers) away.
Her daughter, Debianne, who turned 7 on Friday, has suffered from cerebral palsy and epilepsy since infancy. She cannot walk or communicate except to blink her eyes yes and shake her head no.
The pair, along with Herring's mother, were heading to a papal event at Independence Hall on Saturday and will be on a special viewing platform for disabled people at Sunday's outdoor Mass. Herring, who was raised Roman Catholic but does not attend church regularly, is praying her dream will become reality, knowing it would be nothing short of miraculous.
"That's how I felt when I woke up — that this is the miracle he will perform," she said.
DOING THINGS ON THE CHEAP
The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecelia from Nashville, Tennessee, are primarily a teaching order. They felt it was important to travel to Philadelphia to see the pope so they could share the experience with their students.
But they were doing things on a strict budget.
More than 100 of them drove up to Philadelphia, about an 800-mile (1287-kilometer) trip.
They are staying with volunteer families. And they are watching what they spend on food; some eateries raised their prices for the weekend.
"Peanut butter and jelly," said Sister Anna Grace Neenan, waving the remains of her flattened sandwich on white bread as the sisters clustered near barricades.
It's all worth it, they said.
"People see his goodness and are attracted to it, Catholic and non-Catholic, rich and poor. His message is one of love for all people," she said. "It's so beautiful to see the American people so welcoming. The holy father has so much love."
DIVORCED, REMARRIED AND BACK IN CHURCH
Kate Maloney-West said her heart swelled when she heard of Pope Francis' outreach to divorced Roman Catholics.
Maloney-West didn't go to church for three years after her own divorce. She got the marriage annulled and later had her second marriage blessed by the church.
"I've never been angry with the church. We're all sinners. I just keep trying to find my way back," said Maloney-West, 50, of Aldan. The legal secretary was volunteering at Independence Hall for the papal visit Saturday.
Pope Francis has speeded up the process for annulling marriages and opened debate on whether divorced and civilly remarried Catholics can receive Communion.
When Francis called for a more merciful approach to divorce, "my heart swelled," she said. "This pope is going to bring the church along where it needs to be."
Penitents formed a short line near the Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Saturday to confess their sins to a priest seated beneath "The Thinker" sculpture outside the Rodin Museum.
Jack and Sandy Ellis of Turnersville, New Jersey, took part in the Roman Catholic sacrament, while attending the Vatican-sponsored Festival of Families ahead of Pope Francis' appearance on the parkway Saturday night.
Confession renews their faith, Jack Ellis said. Their faith, in turn, sustained them after the loss of their 2-year-old daughter, Sarah, who died in 2013 after going into cardiac arrest. She was born with half a heart, Sandy Ellis said.
The couple said their daughter used to attend Mass and was enthusiastic about it. "Sarah used to say: 'Bless you, Mommy. Bless you, Daddy,'" Sandy Ellis said. "We have our saint in heaven."
PASSING ON A TRADITION
Jean and Jayson Ladines, both 33, of Toronto, had their hands full getting to Philadelphia to see the pope during the Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families.
First there was the eight-hour drive to Pennsylvania with their 4-year-old daughter, Mikayla, and infant son, Raphiel.
Then there was their daily 90-minute commute. They were saying at a hotel in Allentown, driving 50 miles (80 kilometers) and then taking a train 20 miles (32 kilometers) into Philadelphia.
The Ladineses are part of a lay group called Couples for Christ, which has its roots in World Youth Day 1995 in Manila.
Jean Ladines said she attended then as a teen. Now she feels as if she's passing on a tradition to her children.
"Now it's deeper. It's more generational," she said. "It's more meaningful to me than then."
Tony Coletta, a 62-year-old surgeon and CEO of a health care company outside Philadelphia, helped raise money to fund the World Meeting of Families and papal visit. He nabbed an aisle seat at the cathedral where Francis was celebrating Mass on Saturday.
He said he and his wife, Karen, are "Francis groupies." She brought rosaries and medals in hopes of a papal blessing.
"The church has had tough times. Our city has had tough times. This is an opportunity for everybody to come together around an incredible man," Coletta said.
"I believe that he's going to bring the Catholic Church back in America in a way that nobody's ever seen before. His message resonates. It's much more of an all-encompassing one. And the small things that he does, spending time with the poor, it's more than just symbolic," he said. "He's been doing it his whole life."
Associated Press writers Michael Rubinkam, Michael R. Sisak and Natalie Pompilio contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show Juwli Roberts-Karluah fled war-torn Liberia with her children, not a single child.