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Pilgrims to Sleep at Fitness Club for Pope Visit

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    Marielle Segarra / WHYY

    Many people coming to Philadelphia for Pope Francis' visit are skipping luxury accommodations to sleep on the cheap. For some, that decision is about more than saving money.

    In Center City, Weston Fitness will host 150 pilgrims from Erie, Pennsylvania, during the pope's visit. The fitness club will move all the exercise machines so people can sleep on mats and in sleeping bags on the floors.

    "There's probably close to 20,000 pounds of weight that we're looking at," said Michael Smith, director at Weston Fitness. "So that's going to be our workout for that day."

    The visitors are staying at the gym as part of a package through APilgrimsJourney.com, a company that organizes pilgrimages around the world. The cost for three nights is $300 and also includes bus transportation and meals.

    Other cost-conscious pilgrims are paying about that to sleep on museum floors, at churches and even in bunk beds on the Battleship New Jersey docked in Camden.

    That's a pittance compared to what they might pay elsewhere. Hotels are charging several hundred dollars per night for lodging alone. And residents are trying to rent out their homes for thousands of dollars.

    Wally Zapotoczny, 26, from Altoona, Pennsylvania, will be one of the pilgrims roughing it on the floor of a Philadelphia fitness club. The humble accommodations don't bother him, he said. "I'd sleep anywhere on the floor to be in that vicinity of the Holy Father," he said. "Even sleeping on the floor, it's still an honor. Even if I had to sleep on dirt."

    The cheap lodging is actually in keeping with the Catholic tradition of a pilgrimage, said Belinda Held, director of APilgrimsJourney.com. A pilgrimage, after all, is a spiritual journey — not a luxury vacation. "There should be some difficulty," Held said. "It's part of the whole nature of it. So if we have to wait, if we have to walk, you know, it's OK."

    For a small price, the Aquinas Center at St. Thomas Aquinas parish in South Philadelphia will provide rooms with bunk beds to about 47 migrant workers from Mobile, Alabama. Sister Janet Santibañez, who ministers to the Hispanic community at the center, said the purpose of a pilgrimage is to encounter God.

    "As a tourist, you are going to visit places just to see the beauty," Santibañez said. "But as a pilgrim, you are going to see not just the beauty but the holy place, [which will] remind you of the faith and the love of God."

    Santibañez knows many of the soon-to-be pilgrims personally. She said they consider it a miracle that they'll get to see the pope — the leader of the Catholic Church and central in their lives of faith. And they'll be too busy celebrating that to even notice where they sleep.