Polish Catholics mourn countryman
Beneath a statue of Mary -- the Mother of God he loved so much -- sat a portrait of Pope John Paul II in St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, the heart of Rochester's Polish Catholic community.
Hundreds of worshipers packed the church, and knelt to pray a chaplet of the Divine Mercy, to celebrate the feast day of the same name, a feast day instituted by the pope whose April 2 passing the worshipers mourned.
An usher preparing to hand out bulletins at the conclusion of the 11 a.m. Polish-language Mass April 3 teared up when asked what he thought about the pope.
"We lost the greatest man in the world," he said, waving off any more questions, noting he was unable to speak.
If the world felt the loss of Pope John Paul II keenly, few felt it more deeply than the world's Poles, including those at St. Stanislaus, where parishioners noted their special affinity with the church's only Polish pope. Several credited him with inspiring the Solidarity movement that eventually toppled Poland's communist regime and that sparked the peaceful revolution that ended communism throughout Eastern Europe.
Margaret and Slavek Zdzieszynski, a couple that emigrated from Poland to the United States in 1986, said they both felt a profound emptiness now that the pope was dead. The pope gave Poles courage to stand up to communism, and was a man of the people, they said.
"He was the one who stepped out of the big pope throne," Margaret said. "He gave people a lot of hope and warmth."
Her friend, Regina Mydlarz, also a Polish immigrant, met the pontiff in 1979 when he visited Poland. She recalls singing all night long with other Polish pilgrims who had arrived in Wroclaw, where she met her famous countryman during his visit there. She added that when she learned of his election the year before, she first reacted with disbelief, then began "crying like a baby."
"And so we're crying today," her friend Margaret added, as both women broke into tears.
Father Adam Ogorzaly, pastor of St. Stanislaus, recalled fond memories of the pope's election in 1978 as well.
"For me, starting my first year in the seminary, as well for all the people in Poland and probably for all the Poles around the world, it was a very exceptional and miraculous day," he said. "Cardinal (Karol) Wojtyla was well known in Poland and in the world by his charisma and way of leading the local church in Krakow. He was the shepherd to everyone; he had a gift for teaching that made him able to reach people, whether in the pulpit, at the university or just talking with individuals."
Like Mydlarz, Father Ogorzaly noted he had the privilege of personally meeting the pope.
"The first time I met Holy Father in the year 1979, when he visited Poland after his election to the papacy, I saw a true man of God." the pastor said. "He was a man who dedicated his whole life towards caring and defending the spirituality of all human kind. He was a man who set his mission to safeguard the sanctity of the human life and freedom for all people."
Kathy Urbanic, a St. Stanislaus parishioner who is also a historian of the local Polish community, noted that her fellow parishioners had been mourning the pope at services throughout the weekend.
"For those of us who are of Polish descent, it is almost impossible to put into words our feelings about Pope John Paul II," she said. "His attachment to his homeland is deeply touching to us, and we see him through the lens of Poland's history. His incredible faith, his devotion to Mary, his empathy for those who suffer, his understanding of the Holocaust and outreach to the Jews, his great regard for tradition, his love of life -- all these and more have roots in his experience in Poland."
Deacon James Witulski of St. Stanislaus and his wife, Mary, a lector and extraordinary minister of holy Communion, also noted their affection for the late pope.
"John Paul II was our pope…our Holy Father," the deacon said. "In a certain sense, he personified Poland. In a contemporary culture that desires to discard the helpless, from the unborn to the disabled, Pope John Paul II embraced his suffering. He suffered with dignity, as Poland had suffered for years under foreign occupation."
An elderly Polish couple, Anna and Gregory Wojicki, noted that the pope was good for both Poland and people worldwide. That sentiment was shared by Jim Gallagher, whose wife, Bozena, is from Poland. Gallagher, 46, said he was a teenager when saw the pope at Yankee Stadium during his first visit to the United States.
"He had a tremendous effect," Gallagher said. "I don't think there's going to be another pope like him ... I think he's hall-of-fame material."