NAPLES (Reuters) - An ordinary old armchair under a worn blanket in a three-room flat in Naples draws thousands of hopeful pilgrims. Pasted all over the walls around it are birth announcements: pink for girls, blue for boys.
Childless women from all over the world flock to the "miracle" chair -- close to Speranzella street whose name suggests hope -- in the picturesque Spanish Quarter of Naples. There they ask Saint Mary Frances of the Five Wounds of Jesus for a miracle.
With her "miracles" reported on Weblogs, the saint's shrine has become a main stop on the religious tourism circuit in Naples, a city which in Italy is almost as well known for veneration of saints as for the Camorra crime syndicate.
"The saint is waiting for you," Sister Elisa, an energetic 65-year-old nun from the order that has guarded the shrine for two centuries, tells hundreds of men and women of all ages gathered for morning prayer at the nearby church.
After the Mass, worshippers are led up a steep staircase and along a narrow corridor into the flat where the saint, born Anna Maria Rosa Nicoletta Gallo, spent half her life in chastity and mystical suffering until her death in 1791 at the age of 76.
Hair shirts and a whip hanging from the walls remind pilgrims of the grim "voluntary penance" the saint adopted after joining the strict order of Saint Peter of Alcantara.
As the religious name she took suggests, she was believed to carry the "stigmata" or wounds of Jesus. She was the first woman saint born in Naples, but there is no hint in her life story as to why her help is sought by childless women in particular.
"Are you married?" Sister Maria Giuliana whispers to a young woman sitting on the armchair, before touching the visitor's breast and belly with a "monstrance" or reliquary containing a vertebra and a lock of hair from the saint.
As the nun prays, the group waits in silence.
"I am here to pray for everybody's sake, not only for myself," one young woman, who declined to give her name, whispered to Reuters in the hushed room.
CITY OF CHURCHES
Later, Sister Elisa shows a picture of a 5-month-old baby and a letter from his parents.
"We came to Naples to visit Saint Mary Frances on January 21, 2006," reads the letter signed by Dejan and Jasmina Bogdanovic, a Serbian couple living in Germany.
Evidence of Saint Mary Frances' miracles is anecdotal, but the groundswell of devotion for the "saint of the family" -- who escaped a forced marriage and an oppressive father -- has spread by word of mouth and, more recently, through blogs like caffenews.wordpress.com.
Roman Catholic Italy is rich in relics, which may be all or part of a saint's body or a belonging such as clothing. The most famous example in Naples is a glass phial believed to contain the dried blood of Saint Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples who was beheaded by pagan Romans in 305 A.D.
Each year pilgrims crowd the cathedral to witness the "miracle" of Saint Gennaro's blood, whose liquefaction is seen as a good omen for the city. On his feast day, a statue of Saint Mary Frances is carried behind his along the streets of Naples.
But nobody appears to know exactly how many relics have been preserved over the centuries in the churches of Naples.
"It is not even possible to say how many churches there are in Naples," Don Luigi Merluzzo, head of public relations at the Archdiocese of Naples, told Reuters.
"There are 287 churches listed in our Archdiocese's website, but many others, which are either closed or privately owned, are still kept out of the public eye," he said.
BLESSED FROM AFAR
Back at Saint Mary Frances' shrine, when the morning visits are over the nuns spend few hours each day answering hundreds of letters from Italy and abroad.
"Hi, I'm Francesca Rosa Limongelli. I was born in London on January 22, 2007, but, even though we are far away, my mum and dad have been feeling the presence of Saint Mary Frances with them," reads a letter published on the congregation's brand new 2008 calendar.
"Even if we don't have an email address yet, we receive many prayer requests by mail or by phone," Sister Elisa said. "Our followers often send us an item of clothing asking us to intercede with the saint by placing their objects on the chair.
"We have a lot of work to do. But the saint has a prayer for everyone," she added in a reassuring tone.
In a city where saints play a role in everyday life for many believers, the saint's work goes beyond reproduction.
"Some days ago a man came to us," Sister Maria Aurora said. "He wanted a house, a job and children. We told him to be patient but, thanks to Saint Mary Frances, his prayers have been fulfilled."