The Woman Behind the Pope’s Visit

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Class of ’86 | Every now and then, Donna Crilley Farrell C’86 has been known to sneak the Pope into her hometown in the Philadelphia suburbs. Well, not the Pope, but a cardboard cutout of him. The pop-up pontiff—one of about a dozen life-sized figures that have shown up everywhere from the Barnes Foundation to the Irish Pub to a farmer’s market in Wilmington, Delaware—is a herald of the real visit to Philadelphia by the real Pope Francis.

His arrival on September 26 will be the culmination of the weeklong World Meeting of Families (WMOF). As WMOF’s executive director, Crilley Farrell is in charge of pulling off the whole thing—a Herculean task.

“The popularity of this pope and the open-air setting promises to make this the biggest event ever on the East Coast,” she explains. “That’s the greatest challenge for everyone involved—the scope. It lends itself to incredible complexity—and we don’t have a playbook, since WMOF has never been held in the United States.”

About 20,000 delegates from across the country will attend the WMOF Congress at the Pennsylvania Convention Center from September 22-25. This triennial event, first convened in 1994, is overseen by the Pontifical Council for the Family, which is part of the Holy See. The Meeting aims to strengthen families around the globe by addressing the many challenges that they face and reaffirming the core values that unite them. When Pope Francis arrives for the weekend, an estimated 1.5 million people will converge on the city to take part in the WMOF’s closing events, which include the Festival of Families on Saturday and the Closing Mass on Sunday, both held on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Along with stops at Independence Hall and Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philly, the Pope will make appearances in New York and Washington.

During what’s shaping up to be a crazy weekend, 10,000 busses bringing pilgrims from across the country will roll into town, while an estimated 8,000 members of the global media will set up shop. As these vehicles clog the streets, much of Center City will be closed to regular traffic, and public transportation will be severely curtailed.

“Transportation is definitely a prime issue,” Crilley Farrell says, “and so are housing visitors, and coordinating as many as 10,000 volunteers.” Of chief concern is “security, security, security. We’re talking to the Secret Service every single day.” All told, WMOF has established 15 committees to make sure everything runs smoothly and everyone has a good time.

Is it all too much? “No, and I’ll tell you why,” says this bubbly mother of 11-year-old twins, laughing slightly at her own enthusiasm. “I’m definitely not the same person I was when I came here in January 2014. Experiences like working with Sister Mary Scullion [head of Project Home, the nationally recognized homeless-relief effort] to turn this visit into a lasting legacy—and then actually meeting Pope Francis—have made their mark on me.”

Beyond the personal thrill, the event should be a windfall for her hometown, she adds. “This is a moment of incredible grace for the entire country—and Philadelphia is going to be the host. Plus, we’re estimating more than $400 million in economic impact for the region.”

For the City of Brotherly Love, the occasion marks the first papal visit since 1979 when Pope John Paul II held mass on the Parkway. Crilley Farrell was there, as a 15-year-old volunteer usher. Raised in a Catholic household—where Sunday mass and evening prayers were the norm—the experience crystalized the importance of her faith to her.

“It was an amazing day,” she says, “but I never dreamed I’d see the likes of it again.”

At Penn, Crilley Farrell majored in communications; met her husband, lawyer Michael T. Farrell C’84—their first date was a game at Franklin Field—and interned for Nancy Glass’s Evening Magazine television program.Moving to New York “literally three hours after I graduated” for a job as a page at NBC, she was soon promoted to production assistant. Next she found herself at an NBC affiliate in Binghamton, New York, where she did “everything—typing with one hand and sweeping the floor with the other. Within three months I was on the air, and six months after that I was an anchor. It was that kind of a station.”

Crilley Farrell spent another 10 years interviewing celebrities and reporting hard news, then landed a communications position at the Philadelphia Diocese, where she stayed for more than a decade. At first, this self-confessed “adrenaline junkie” worried that things might be too slow. But by the time she was leading the department in 2005, she was occupying one very hot seat. First came the death of the beloved Pope John Paul II—Crilley Farrell set up 40 interviews in one week for then-Cardinal Justin Rigali—and then a grand-jury report that documented sex abuses by priests in the Diocese. “The scandal never really went away,” says Crilley Farrell.

By the end of her tenure (she left in 2013 to handle corporate communications for Independence Blue Cross), a second grand jury report had been released, Diocesan schools were being restructured and threatened with closure, Catholic high school teachers went on strike, the Diocese’s chief financial officer was arrested for embezzlement, and Charles J. Chaput was appointed (and remains) archbishop.

“I loved working with Archbishop Chaput—and I still do,” Crilley Farrell says. “He’s a visionary leader and things are much better today—but that period was very trying.”

Now she’s back—and hasn’t come up for air. “The pace has been absolutely breakneck and will continue to be right up to the start of the Meeting,” she says. After the event and papal visit are over, Crilley Farrell will stay on for a few months, partly to wrap up post-production on books and videos documenting the historic week. “Then,” she says, “I’ll take a break before heading in what will no doubt be a new direction.

“This will always be a very special time in my life,” she concludes, “and I’m so grateful for the amazing opportunity to change the face of this Diocese. People will be talking about this as an uplifting and inspiring moment for a very long time.”

—JoAnn Greco

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