Devotion to Padre Pio began with a missed Mass

Al Beletz was 16 years old in August 1945, hanging out at a Standard Oil gas station across Big Bend Road from his home in the Old Orchard area of Webster Groves.

The war in Europe was over, and his older brother, Frank, was on his way home on a 30-day leave.

Al listened to Frank's stories, including one in which his squadron bombed his parents' place of birth, Maribor, Slovenia. He learned later that his cousin had been napping in the house once owned by their parents when one of the bombs exploded in the road in front of the house, causing cracks in the ceiling.

But the story that really stuck with Al was from January 1945 when Frank, then serving in Italy, heard that Padre Pio was celebrating a Mass in Slovenia only a few hours' drive away. He knew about now-St. Padre Pio and his stigmata and was looking forward to attending. However, as flight chief over eight B-24 bombers, he had to stay behind.

Frank's friends went, including the squadron photographer, and told Frank about the "Miracle of the Bleeding Hands Mass." The missed Mass began Frank's lifelong devotion to St. Padre Pio, continued today by Al, who wrote a booklet about the experiences of Frank's 736th U.S. Army Bomb Squadron and their visit to see St. Padre Pio.

Al was encouraged to take up his brother's cause after visiting a friend at St Joseph's Apartments in Shrewsbury in 2014. He was given a letter that had been delivered to another resident, Father Harold Voelker, from Anthony Stonkus, who was in the squadron and described the experience at the Mass in 1945 as a feeling of being with one very close to God. "Seeing him (St. Padre Pio) and being in his presence was the most moving thing in my life," Stonkus wrote.

Al's devotion to St. Padre Pio is just one aspect of the friendly, knowledgeable gentleman. He often rides a recumbent tricycle made by his brother, Sylvester, perfect for an older person who loses balance. Sylvester, who died last year at age 98, was a tool-and-dye maker and an artist. Frank was an inspector for McDonnell Aircraft.

Al, 88, was a social worker, dug ditches, a tree-trimmer, a salesman and more.

He sold a national Catholic magazine, "The Voice of St. Jude," door-to-door. He had a brain tumor and prayed to St. Jude. He recovered, believes the prayers were an important part of his recovery, and still says the prayer every night.

Al played minor league baseball in the Alabama State League, a low Class D team affiliated with the Washington Senators. He also played Class B for short time. He was hit on the bone in his hand early in the game. He played the whole game and made a couple errors on the infield that day.

His 1947 team at Webster Groves High School defeated Southwest High School for the district championship. Nine players on the team signed contracts to play professional baseball. A guy Beletz thought was least likely to succeed in pro ball, John Wilson, had a growth spurt and became a good pitcher, playing for the Detriot Tigers in spring training and making it to the upper minor leagues. Al now is writing a booklet on baseball as a way to get to heaven.

Al worked as a social worker with the Wellston School District, operating a clothing and food program. He also represented the school district in court, getting students into special education courses.

A Korean War veteran, he served in the third division, combat engineering unit. He carried two balls and two gloves in his duffel bag and played catch with whomever was willing. One of the guys he played with was a Korean soldier who was a decorated athlete. Al regrets losing his address and not keeping contact with him.

In 1951, Al thought a Chinese combatant was approaching from an area off limits to the men on his side. Al held fire and was glad he did because it wasn't a combatant but was a Korean man coming to visit a friend. Al later met a conscientious objector working at a supply tent, and listened to the arguments the man made, finding that they made sense. "Fortunately I didn't have to shoot anyone," Al said.

Al and his nine siblings grew up in St. Mary Magdalen Parish in Brentwood and St. Michael Parish in Shrewsbury. He was been a parishioner at Immaculate Conception Parish in Maplewood since 1950.

He's known at the parish as passionate supporter of various causes, especially devotion to St. Padre Pio. 

St. Padre Pio

May 25, 1987 Francesco Forgione was born at 5:00 p.m. in Pietrelcina, Italy, to Grazio and Maria Giuseppa Forgione.

1903 At age 15, he entered the Capuchin Novitiate in Morcone, Italy.

1903 Investiture into the Capuchin Order taking the Franciscan habit and the name "Brother Pio".

1910 At twenty-three years old, he was ordained a priest by Archbishop Paolo Schinosi in the Cathedral in Benevento, Italy.

1910 Celebrated his first Mass at "Our Lady of the Angels" parish in Pietrelcina.

1910 Received the temporary or invisible stigmata at the family farm in Piana Romana. The painful wounds would appear and disappear.

1915 Drafted into the Italian Army. On Dec. 6, he was assigned to the 10th Medical Corps in Naples. Due to poor health, he was continually discharged and recalled until March 16, 1918, when he was declared unfit for military service.

1916 Transferred to "Our Lady of Grace" Monastery in San Giovanni Rotondo.

1918 Transverberation of his heart, causing a visible wound on his side.

1918 Received the visible stigmata while praying before a crucifix in the monastery church of "Our Lady of Grace." He became the first priest in the history of the Catholic Church to bear the stigmata.

1919 His Superiors call for first medical examination of stigmata by Dr. Romanelli. On July 26, 1919, he is examined by Dr. Bignami and on October 9, 1919, by Dr. Festa.

1956 Inauguration of his hospital, "Home for the Relief of Suffering."

1968 His Prayer Groups are given official recognition by the Vatican.

Sept. 23, 1968, Padre Pio died. The Father Guardian of the Monastery stated that ten minutes after Padre Pio's death, all traces of the stigmata on his hands, feet and side had disappeared.

1998 The scientifically unexplainable healing of Mrs. Consiglia De Martino of Salerno, Italy, needed miracle for beatification, is approved by Congregation for the Cause of Saints.

1999 Beatified by Pope John Paul II

2000 The scientifically unexplainable healing of 7-year-old Matteo Collela of San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy, needed miracle for canonization, is approved by Congregation for the Cause of the Saints.

2002 Canonized by Pope John Paul II

Sept. 23 Feast Day

Patron of Civil Defense Workers Every year, eight million pilgrims visit the monastery of "Our Lady of Grace" in San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy, to pray at the tomb of St. Pio Pietrelcina. As a place of pilgrimage, St. Pio's shrine is second only to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, in its number of annual visitors. 

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