Although Pope John Paul II touched the entire world, it’s tough to top the special bond between the late pontiff and those who share his Polish roots.
According to Gen Beers, sentiment ran high during an evening memorial Mass held at Bradford’s St. Stanislaus Church April 5, three days after the pope’s death. “I sang a Polish song at the end, ‘Witaj Krolowo Nieba’ (Welcome Queen of Heaven), that’s often used at cemeteries. Oh, my God, I had people crying,” said Beers, whose parents were among the immigrants from Poland who founded the central Steuben County parish.
St. Casimir’s in Elmira held its memorial Mass for the pope on April 4. On the church’s side altar, Polish and papal flags were placed near a portrait of the pope and adorned with flowers; the display had been put up after John Paul II became gravely ill. Father Eugene Dobosz, administrator of the St. Casimir/St. Charles Borromeo cluster, said the items were to stay up through April 17, which marked the end of a nine-day novena honoring the pope.
“All the Polish people felt like he was our father. Many times I’ve heard he was the greatest man from Poland to ever grace the world,” said Father Dobosz, a native of Poland who has served in the United States since 1993.
At St. Francis of Assisi in Catatonk, parishioners have joined in numerous memorial services for the pope being observed in all six faith communities of the Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick’s parishes of Tioga County. Frances Shady, whose parents were born in Poland and worshipped for many years at St. Francis, said news of the pope’s death moved her deeply.
“I was very upset, although it wasn’t really a shock,” Shady said, adding that she spent many hours watching television coverage of the pope’s death and funeral.
St. Francis, which was established in 1930, St. Casimir in 1890, and St. Stanislaus in 1926, represent the three Southern Tier parishes of the Rochester Diocese that were founded as Polish communities. Many early parishioners came directly from Poland, others from mining towns in Pennsylvania. Although the percentage of Poles has lessened in recent years, several descendants of early parishioners still populate these parishes, and some traditions are upheld, such as the Polish hymns that are still sung at St. Casimir during Sunday Masses. Meanwhile, both Beers and Shady have remained in their childhood parishes where their immigrant parents settled and acquired farms in the early 1900s.
Beers recalled that news of John Paul II’s election as pope in 1978 was joyfully received by her mother, Apolonia Sleve, who was a native of Krakow where the future pope — then better known as Karol Wojtyla — had been installed as archbishop in 1964.
“My mother was so pleased. I’m so glad she was still living when he was elected. She felt she was on a cloud,” said Beers, noting that her mother died in 2000 at the age of 103.
Archbishop Wojtyla’s appointment as cardinal in 1967 sparked elation for Shady’s mother and father, who grew up near Krakow. “I know my parents were really happy. They thought that he might become pope some day,” said Shady, whose maiden name is Slozenski.
Father Dobosz has even closer links to the pope, having enjoyed two brief meetings with him while a seminarian in Poland. They occurred in 1979 and 1983, during John Paul II’s first two trips back to his homeland after becoming pontiff. During the latter meeting, Father Dobosz recalled, “Straight from the bishop’s limousine he came to me. I knelt and kissed his ring, and shook his hand. He asked me my name. I said, ‘I am a seminarian’ and he wished me good luck on my way to the priesthood.”
Father Dobosz, who was ordained in 1985, noted the pope’s extraordinary efforts toward fueling the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. Before then, he said, communist oppression hampered efforts of Poles to openly practice their Catholicism.
“He was the one who broke that Iron Curtain and gave us the strength to fight,” Father Dobosz said.
Beers added that John Paul II is revered by her ethnic group because “the Polish people really stick to their guns when it comes to their religion.”
Yet she also noted that this pope connected with all kinds of folks, as evidenced by the many parishes and ethnic backgrounds represented at St. Stanislaus’ memorial Mass.
“We had a nice turnout. I was surprised,” she said, adding, “I just think that it’s going to take a lot to fill his shoes. I think the man just did so much — he was so outgoing with the children, the younger generation. It didn’t matter who they were, he just reached out to everybody. He was a great, great man.”