Among Maryland's devout, tears mingle with prayers

Many recollect joyful images of pope's visit

End Of A Papacy

April 02, 2005|By William Wan and Lynn Anderson | William Wan and Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

As Pope John Paul II clung to life at his Vatican apartment in Rome, his followers in Maryland waited and watched for word of his passing. It was a roller-coaster ride for many, who cried, prayed and rejoiced as they listened to news updates and shared fond memories of the pontiff.

Churches across Baltimore held services. Residents dug out old photos and souvenirs from his visit a decade ago. And the region's devout Catholics joined millions around the world in prayer.

Especially anxious was Baltimore's Polish community, whose members feel a close tie to the Polish-born pontiff. Many spent the day at the Polish National Alliance's lounge on Eastern Avenue, where the television was tuned to cable news for the latest updates on the pope's fate.

At one point in the early afternoon, when some Italian newsmedia incorrectly reported that the pope had died, the mood at the lounge turned to open grief.

"He's gone up to heaven," said Theresa Giza, 71, who began weeping.

"He's an angel," said her husband, John Giza, 74. "It's like losing a member of the family."

When they heard the pope was still living, the group at the lounge quietly resumed their vigil.

"I know you're not supposed to cry, but you do," Theresa Giza said, her eyes still red from the scare. "You do because you don't want to lose that person."

Theresa Ferraro, 76, an Italian-American Catholic who lives in senior apartments above the lounge, remembered when the pope was first selected.

"All of a sudden there were murmurs in the office and I heard people say, `He's Polish. He's Polish.'"

Others remembered the pope as a man who did great things for their homeland. They credited him with empowering Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement in the 1980s and helping end communism in Europe.

Cardinal William H. Keeler, leader of the Baltimore Archdiocese, spoke briefly to reporters before walking inside the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen to celebrate Mass.

"I feel personally touched and involved because of his friendship. He is certainly one of the great figures of our day," said Keeler.

When asked how he is receiving information about the pope's health, Keeler responded: "Right now, it's through CNN."

Throughout the region, residents also remained close to their televisions, radios and computers yesterday, waiting for the latest bulletins.

At Polish Treasures store, owner David Frederick checked the CNN Web site every few minutes to get updates for his customers.

On most days, the grocery store in Upper Fells Point offers its Polish-American customers flavors of the homeland like pirogues. But mostly yesterday, it offered comfort.

Customers streamed in, not always to buy anything, but just to talk to others about the condition of their spiritual leader.

"Everyone is praying," Frederick said. "I just had an older gentleman go out in tears."

In Carroll County, many parishioners visited St. John's Catholic Church in Westminster to pray. The church's youth minister, Scott Link, 23, said the church's teens had been calling him almost nonstop to express their feelings.

"They're pretty broken up about it," he said. "He's the only pope they've known in their lifetime."

John Hollis, 17, spent his day working at the reception desk and praying for a man he loved. The pontiff had made efforts to reach out to young people, Hollis said.

"He used to say we are his strength, we are the strength of the church," Hollis said. "But he's my strength. ... It's a tough day."

The pope had earned much love in Baltimore and throughout the world because he showed his affection by visiting and meeting his followers, said the Rev. Joe Muth of St. Matthew Roman Catholic Church. The Northeast Baltimore parish includes many immigrants from Africa and the West Indies.

"Pope John Paul visited most of their countries," said Muth. "Because he's traveled so much, they feel a connection, of him understanding their plight. ... It was an unbelievable way of saying, `I'm the pastor of the world.'"

In many ways, the large outpouring of grief in the region yesterday was born from history. Throughout its past, Maryland, the birthplace of American Catholicism, has cherished its link to Rome.

Marylanders elected the first American bishop, formed the first diocese and archdiocese and built the first North American cathedral.

The relationship reached a peak in 1995, when Pope John Paul II made the first-ever visit of a pontiff to Maryland.

About 250,000 people flocked into downtown Baltimore to welcome him. Camden Yards was packed with a congregation of 50,000, many of whom left their homes at dawn to attend the papal Mass.

As Marylanders prayed for the pope yesterday, many reminisced about that whirlwind visit.

William Schroeder Jr., a grocery store owner in Westminster, kept the tickets he won in a lottery to attend the papal Mass. They still sit on a plaque atop his fireplace beside the statue of the Virgin Mary and Jesus.

Schroeder, 47, has prayed for the pontiff every day since he heard of the pope's failing health a few weeks ago. He prayed when he woke up yesterday to urgent news reports from Rome. He prayed as he left for work, as he rang up customers, as he stocked his store.

"I've been thinking about what he did," he said. "And I've realized that we must carry on what he stood for. We can't let his work slip away even as he slips away."

Sun staff writers Gus G. Sentementes, Jill Rosen, Kelly Brewington, Gina Davis, Ellie Baublitz and Anica Butler contributed to this article.

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