This story was originally published in Newsday on October 8, 2006.
In the late 1800s, parishioners who had committed the most egregious sins would come to the hidden back door of the church of the French priest Jean-Marie Baptiste Vianney to confess.
Yesterday, hundreds of the faithful lined up outside the front door of Curé of Ars church in Merrick to bow their heads at the altar and venerate the heart of that same priest, who is now a French saint.
They stood in a line that stretched out the church's door to the sidewalk along Merrick Avenue for much of the morning. A sobbing young priest and a teenager who took a quick photo of Vianney's heart with his cell phone camera were among those who gathered to glimpse a relic that is in the United States for the first time.
Margo Almeida, 45, knelt at the altar, her eyes welling with tears. She said she wanted to be close to a saint revered for hearing confessions for up to 16 hours a day. "I could feel that love," Almeida said of her reaction to the relic.
Three priests were on hand to take confession, including one in a trailer in the church parking lot. Many who came said they experienced a spiritual connection to the saint. Vianney's body was exhumed as the church was preparing to beatify him in 1905. His heart was found to be intact and has been stored in a glass box since.
"It was very peaceful," said Madeline Baloyo, 50, of Flushing, of her moments kneeling at the altar.
Others were at the church for another reason yesterday. Donna Boland and Tom Wilbert were married in an afternoon ceremony there.
"It's very touching," the bride said of the heart's display as she waited in a white Rolls-Royce outside. "I feel honored."
Beatrice Cameron, 75, came from Amityville to see it. She said she was moved by the experience and amazed at the heart's condition. "It awesome to think that the heart is just incorrupt," she said. "It's almost like a miracle. Why would that happenn"
The Rev. Charles Mangano described feeling overwhelmed and said he slept with it in his bedroom Friday night. "It was surreal," he said.
Other opportunities for the general public to view the heart are Tuesday from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Wednesday from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Only members of the parish are permitted today, and the display is open only to members of the clergy tomorrow.