Philadelphia boasts a large and colorful cast of characters painted on buildings across the city — and now Pope Francis will join the crowd.
Officials announced Thursday that hundreds of residents and visitors will help create a mural honoring families and the pontiff, who is scheduled to visit the city for the World Meeting of Families in September.
The multigenerational portrait, titled "The Sacred Now: Faith and Family in the 21st Century," will show the pope with his arm around a youngster and surrounded by a diverse group of parents and children. Flowers and grapevines will border the triptych, which will span more than 4,000 square feet over three sections of the future St. Malachy school.
"It looks nice," seventh-grader Frederick Thompson said. "I'm looking forward to help paint it and make it shine, make it so everybody can admire it."
The city's Mural Arts Program, which began as an anti-graffiti initiative 30 years ago, has created thousands of murals depicting a range of themes and faces, from neighborhood children and grandmothers to "Three Stooges" star Larry Fine and basketball great Julius Erving.
"They help us, as a city, tell our stories," Mural Arts executive director Jane Golden said at a news conference. "They encourage us to never forget. They remind us of our heroes. The represent our struggles, they lift up our triumphs and aspirations. They give expression to our lives."
The murals have become a popular attraction, with guides leading about 18,000 tourists annually by foot and trolley.
Over the coming months, community members and World Meeting participants will paint portions of the image on cloth panels. Artists will then use adhesive to assemble the mural on the three-story walls of the former William Harrison Elementary School in struggling north Philadelphia.
Harrison, which closed in 2012, is being refurbished to become the new home of St. Malachy School. The Roman Catholic elementary school now serves about 200 children in a smaller building about a block away.
Lead artist Cesar Viveros showed a rendering of the image to hundreds of children from St. Malachy and St. Veronica schools on Thursday. The mural won't be his largest work, though Viveros said it's likely the one that will give him the biggest exposure.
"More important, it will give me the opportunity to connect with more people, because that's what keeps me moving — connection, living, interacting with people, being part of their life," he said.
St. Malachy will host the first mural paint day for students next week. Mural officials hope to unveil and dedicate the finished piece in November, after the papal visit.
"I predict it will become a very important spot for people to come and visit ... and maybe take a selfie or two in front of it," said Donna Crilley Farrell, executive director of the local World Meeting organizing committee.
The triennial World Meeting of Families — an international gathering for Catholics — offers seminars and workshops focused on strengthening family bonds. It runs Sept. 22-25.
The pope plans to attend the closing festival of the conference on Sept. 26. The next day, he will celebrate an outdoor Mass. More than 1.5 million pilgrims are expected to converge on the city.
Before Philadelphia, he will visit Washington and New York.