FAITH: Believers state-wide travel to The Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, for a pilgrimage to the holy Sitka icon.

Normally, seclusion is just a part of life at The Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration.

But not on Wednesday.

That day, the Ellwood City cloister was packed with pilgrims who had come to see the Sitka icon, "Mother of God."

To nonbelievers, the icon is just another picture. To the Orthodox Christian faithful, though, the 19th century work of art is a symbol that is said to heal.

"I'm here because I have two different kinds of cancer from Agent Orange from the Vietnam War," said Tom Robes of Beaver County. "I also brought my family from Pittsburgh with me. I feel so much better after kissing the icon."

Robes wasn't the only person looking for a miracle. Hundreds of vehicles were sandwiched tightly across the grounds, each belonging to someone who had come to draw hope from the icon.

"I came to see the icon for special intentions for my family," Renee Zamary of Hermitage said. "In this day and age you need to reconfirm your faith. The icon had a very peaceful effect."

The portrait of Mary and a young Jesus originates in Russia, attributed to painter Vladimir Borokovski. It was commissioned by the first ruling bishop in North America, St. Innocent Veniaminov.

The Sitka was touring monasteries throughout the United States from its home in Alaska. It made its last stop yesterday in Canton, Ohio.

Pilgrims of all ages and denominations could be seen walking to and from the building where the icon was displayed, weeping humbly.

"Tens of thousands of people have made a pilgrimage here to venerate the icon," said a sister of the monastery who asked not to be named. "It does wonder workings through prayer for many people."

Procession lines snaked out the doorway and along the sidewalk approaching the chapel. Roughly 350 people stood or sat, some in wheelchairs, others with walkers or canes, filling the elaborately adorned room.

A Mass was celebrated as patrons made their way up to pray before the icon, to kiss or to offer candles for their requests.

Around noon, the chapel was filled with pilgrims, priests and nuns, all trying to get a glimpse of the icon. The crowd sang softly, waiting to receive communion.

Despite the number of worshippers, the experience was said to be a personal and spiritual one.

"It was refreshment to my soul," said a Mrs. Anderson of New Castle, who declined to give her first name. "When I was standing at the icon I didn't even know other people were there."

Indeed, the monastery seemed to provide a retreat from the stress and animosity of everyday life. The kinship between strangers was apparent and soothing.

Their common goal, to become closer to their faith, connected them.

"I came because I needed to feel the blessing of God and straighten my faith," Michael Hart of Volant said from his wheelchair.

"I'm not looking for anything spectacular, just some grace. I was electrified when I kissed the icon."

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