PHILADELPHIA – A Newville artist and her family whose Catholic faith includes weekly Mass, daily prayers and discussions about the lives of the saints, headed to Philadelphia Sunday morning with hundreds of Cumberland County pilgrims for the papal Mass outside the Philadelphia Art Museum.
Brenda Nippert, her husband, George, and four of their six children boarded buses at St. Patrick Catholic Church just outside Carlisle for the Mass, Pope Francis’ last big event during his six-day visit to the United States.
Before the Newville family boarded, they reflected on the popular Pope.
“Pope Francis not only talks the talk, he walks the walk,” said George Nippert. His wife called the pontiff “Catholic or universal because he includes everyone, and everyone loves him.”
The Mass, marking the closing of the World Meeting of Families 2015, attracted hundreds of thousands of people hoping for a blessing from and a glimpse of the pope who emphasizes God’s mercy and compassion.
After making their way to Philadelphia on crowded roads, the buses from Carlisle parked and discharged the Nipperts and hundreds of other passengers.
Some pilgrims walked more than four miles to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a mile-long boulevard beginning with the Philadelphia Art Museum (where movie boxer Rocky ran up the steps) and including the Franklin Institute, Rodin Museum, Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, Free Library of Philadelphia, Franklin Museum, a sculpture garden and more.
Others rode SEPTA buses, one of the few modes of transportation available to the masses in a city that closed down multiple roads.
The Nipperts then joined hundreds of thousands of people on the parkway waiting for the popular pope who has marched to the tune of his own drum since being elected leader of the Catholic Church in 2013.
“I love Pope Francis’ simplicity,” George Nippert said. “He connects to regular people.”
Pope Francis has insisted on living in a plain guest house at the Vatican, not an opulent apartment. He uses an older car for a Popemobile. He washed the feet of prisoners on Holy Thursday, hugs people with physical disabilities and champions the poor and homeless.
Pope Francis, Catholicism’s 266th pope and Time’s Person of the Year in 2013, famously said “Who am I to judge?” when speaking of gays in the Catholic Church.
“Pope Francis doesn’t judge, he forgives,” George Nippert said. “He includes everyone in God’s love. He has universal appeal because his message is God’s message, love.”
The Nipperts, who named one of their sons after Pope John Paul II (now St. John Paul II), called the chance to see a pope in person “a thrill of a lifetime.” This devout Catholic couple incorporates their faith in all aspects of their lives.
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“We were high school sweethearts when we were growing up in Beaver County,” Brenda Nippert said. “We met in American history class.”
When they got married 30 years ago, George Nippert wasn’t a Catholic.
“I began to ask a lot of questions about the Catholic faith and took classes,” he said. “I converted to Catholicism. Brenda was my sponsor.”
Over the years, the couple had four sons (George, James, Joseph and John Paul) and two daughters (Bernadette and Anna). Their children now range from 15 to 28 years old.
The Nipperts lived in Maine, Connecticut and Virginia while George Nippert spent six years in the Navy and 14 years working in the IBM Defense Division. They also owned a Catholic store in Hampton, Virginia.
“But we wanted to come back to Pennsylvania,” Brenda Nippert said. “We drove through Newville and fell in love with it because it was like Mayberry.”
The couple moved to the Midstate and founded Catholic Artworks. They write and illustrate Catholic children’s books, create and sell visual educational material for Catholic schools and families and produce software to print educational projects.
They also keep their Catholic faith front and center in their lives.
“We tell our kids that the Catholic faith is not just rules and rituals,” Brenda Nippert said. “It’s about kindness and love. It’s up to us to set the example, just as Pope Francis does. We tell our kids that they are on the front line.”
The Nipperts pray together before each meal under a painting of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. They discuss the lives of saints. They use an Advent wreath each December.
“I told my daughters that when they curl their hair with the curling iron, say a Hail Mary, then take the curling iron out,” Brenda Nippert said. “When we hear the Life Lion fly overhead, we say a Hail Mary.”
When the Nipperts heard that Pope Francis was coming to Philadelphia, they knew they had to go and see him.
“Pope Francis is Christ on earth, our Holy Father,” George Nippert said. “We are so excited to see him.”