SAN GIOVANNI ROTONDO, Italy (Reuters) - Pilgrims gathered to pray on Wednesday in a small town in southern Italy abuzz with anticipation for the moment when the exhumed body of a revered mystic monk would be put on display.
The body of the friar, who died in 1968 and was said to have had the stigmata -- the wounds of Jesus's crucifixion on his hands and feet -- will be placed in a glass coffin in San Giovanni Rotondo on Thursday.
"I knew Padre Pio, he saved my life from a terrible disease," said an elderly Italian woman dressed in the same dark shade of brown that the bearded Capuchin monk wore for most of his life.
"I worked as a maid in the north and moved here after I was cured and would sometimes walk 20 km with him to Monte Sant' Angelo (an area shrine)," said the local woman, who declined to give her name and age or specify the disease from which she had suffered.
Covering her head with a brown wool scarf against the wind, she urged a reporter to "go to Mass and pray to Padre Pio instead of talking to me."
Padre Pio's body was exhumed from a crypt on March 3 and found to be in "fair condition" after 40 years. Since then a team of medical examiners and biochemists has been hard at work preserving and reconstructing the body for display.
Its condition at the end of their work has been a closely guarded secret. Monks who have seen it were under orders not to talk to the media before it goes on display on Thursday at about 1 p.m. (7:00 a.m. EDT) after an outdoor Mass expected to be attended by at least 15,000 people.
About 750,000 people from around the world, mostly from Italy, have made reservations to view the body up to the end of December, according to church officials. About 7,200 people a day will file past the glass coffin.
A poll in 2006 by Catholic magazine Famiglia Cristiana found that more Italian Catholics prayed to Padre Pio than to any other icon, including the Virgin Mary or Jesus.
There are about 3,000 "Padre Pio Prayer Groups" around the world, with a total membership of 3 million.
Among the stories that surround the monk, who was born Francesco Forgione and died at the age of 81, is one that he wrestled with the devil one night in his monastery cell.
Some believers also say Padre Pio was able to predict future events, was seen in two places at once and could tell people their sins before they confessed them to him.
Pope John Paul II made him a saint in 2002 at a ceremony attended by one of the biggest crowds ever in the Vatican after the Church said it had found evidence that the miraculous cure of a sick woman was the result of intercession by the dead monk.
However, he was dogged during his life and after his death by accusations that he was a fraud.
A new book last year suggested he was a self-harming man who might have used carbolic acid to cause wounds in his hands mimicking those of Jesus when he was nailed to the cross.
Church officials have denied that he was a fake.
Editing by Andrew Dobbie