BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) - The church gates opened at midnight and Noris Lencina struggled on her knees up to the statue of the patron saint of prosperity.

She'd been waiting since June 6, because she wanted to be the first person inside the church on Aug. 7, the Roman Catholic feast of St. Gaetano, to give thanks that her husband had a job.

Most of the men and women in the line stretching along 20 city blocks were not so lucky: They were among the nearly 3 million unemployed _ 9 percent of the country's 33 million people.

They had come Thursday, as thousands do every year, to pray for jobs at the church of St. Gaetano, whom Argentines call San Cayetano.

Wrapped in blankets, they endured, as usual, some of the southern hemisphere winter's coldest days, with nighttime temperatures just above freezing.

``The waiting is hard,'' Clara Lopez said. ``You need an unshakeable faith to do this.''

Lopez is unemployed, and so are her husband and their three teen-age sons.

Parish priest Fernando Maletti said, ``We don't know whether there were more people this year or last year. All we know is there are a lot.''

Argentine news agencies estimated that up to 1 million people filed past the statue of the saint during the day.

``Most of them come to pray for jobs, bread and dignity in their lives,'' Father Maletti said.

Gaetano de Thiene, a 15th-century Italian priest, created a bank to fight usury and a fund to help widows and orphans in Naples.

Legend says that in 1656, when the city was ravaged by the plague, people prayed to Gaetano and the epidemic ceased on Aug. 7, the date of his death.

He was named patron saint of prosperity and of the city of Naples by Pope Clement X in 1671.