Dozens of people pray outside on the grounds of the Basilica of the National Shrine to Saint Ann in West on Wednesday, July 21, 2021.

SCRANTON – After watching the Solemn Novena to Saint Ann on television last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Carol Nowacki of Taylor was thrilled to return to the Basilica of the National Shrine to Saint Ann for in-person Masses and devotions this year.

“I can’t be without it. It is so special,” she said. “The first day back, I sat down and I said, ‘This is good!’”

Nowacki plans to attend the Novena each day from July 17-26. She jokes she has been coming to the Novena since before she was born since her mother attended the religious pilgrimage in West Scranton while pregnant.

“When you come here, there’s a feeling. I can’t describe it other than to say, I just have a feeling in my heart, in my chest, of having arms wrapped around me,” she explained.

Nearly 50 years ago, Nowacki convinced her husband, Jack, to attend the Novena with her and they have been going together ever since.

“It’s relaxing. It is a nice, quiet time. You can reflect,” Jack Nowacki said about attending the revered summertime devotion, which is now marking its 97th year.

The theme for this year’s Novena is “Lift High the Cross.” The guest preachers for this year’s event are Passionist Fathers Robert Joerger and Robert Carbonneau.

“Everybody needs a little bit of help and sometimes you don’t even realize it,” Jack Nowacki said of the spiritual rejuvenation he feels after attending the Novena. “Just hearing the different speakers, they bring something up where you just look at things differently.”

For many, attending the Novena to Saint Ann, the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary and grandmother of Jesus, is a family affair.

Diane Helbing of Archbald attended the 11:45 a.m. Daily Mass on Wednesday, July 21, with her husband, two grandchildren and sister-in-law. Sitting on lawn chairs outside the Basilica, they were thankful to avoid passing rain showers that threatened to soak the faithful outside.

When asked why she makes the pilgrimage to West Scranton, Helbing responded, “It’s a feeling deep within that I don’t find in many places. It’s a feeling of peace, a feeling of love and acceptance.”

Helbing says she has brought numerous intentions to Saint Ann over the years.

“Any question that I’ve had, I’ve had answered. It’s amazing,” she said. “It’s very uplifting. I had a question a couple years ago that I was really struggling with and while here at Saint Ann’s saying prayers, without even thinking of the intention at the time, I heard the answer. It was as clear as if you spoke it and that has happened over and over.”

While acknowledging the pandemic is still a reality, Helbing is glad this year’s Novena is 90-percent back to normal.

“We still follow the mandates but it’s a feeling of relief, a feeling of freedom to be able to come back here and be with other people that feel the same way,” she added.

Barbara Werts of West Pittston has been attending the Novena for the last decade with her sister and feels the same way.

“I enjoy it very much. I feel it is very calming, very enlightening and rewarding. It gives you a good feeling,” Werts said.