City's Polish community mourns

Bond: The pontiff's death was deeply felt by those who shared his heritage.

Pope John Paul Ii : 1920 - 2005

April 03, 2005|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Kneeling before a framed photo of Pope John Paul II draped with black ribbon, Sophia and Elizabeth Para wept as they prayed yesterday at Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Church in Baltimore.

The mother and daughter, like much of Polonia - the greater Polish community worldwide - mourned the death of a man who became the leader of the Catholic Church but never forgot the Central European nation where he was born and raised, and where he started his religious work.

"I am from the area where the pope was from," said Sophia Para, 51, her face streaked with tears. "I was confirmed by him when I was a girl. I was 14 years old. I will never forget that day."

As a girl growing up in Zakopane in southern Poland, Sophia Para said she often saw the young priest - whose name was Karol Wojtyla - walking through her hometown, a guitar under his arm and a passel of Catholic youth trailing him. She said the future pope came to Zakopane, which is located in the Tatra mountain range, to hike or ski and that he often brought along youth groups.

"He always had the youth with him," Sophia Para recalled. "They were always singing. He was so full of life. It is hard to imagine him in any other way."

Elizabeth Para, 20, who was born in the United States but speaks fluent Polish, said she has heard many stories about the pope and her family's geographic connection to him. She said when she saw her father bawling while watching news reports at their Timonium home, she was struck by the pontiff's popularity.

"He wasn't just part of some hierarchy," Elizabeth Para said. "He put a human face on the church. He wanted to bring people together. In peace. In love."

The Paras, who operate a European and Polish deli at a stand at the Broadway Market, said that many of their customers were upset yesterday. As shoppers picked out cheese and sausage, they also talked about the priest from Wadowice, a town outside Krakow, who survived an assassination attempt and kept a rigorous public schedule until recently.

"It really troubled everyone," said Sophia Para. "It was an unhappy day, and the rain only made it worse. It was so sad."

At a 5 p.m. Mass at Holy Rosary yesterday, the Rev. Richard Philiposki reassured those who had gathered that the pope would not want them to mourn his death. But he said that they should check the Baltimore Archdiocese's Web site for information about the appropriate way to mark the pope's death.

Members of the congregation said they plan to hang black bunting outside the church today.

The church, located in Upper Fells Point, has served Baltimore's Polish community for decades. Its interior walls are decorated with the Stations of the Cross with Polish titles. Polish hymnals sit on a table near the door.

During Mass, Philiposki asked the congregation to "pray for the repose of the soul of Pope John Paul II. May God lift him into eternal life and happiness."

Outside the church, those who attended the Mass said it gave them a sense of peace and calm.

"We will miss him," said Doris Gierczak, 62, of Perry Hall. "He was a good man to all people."

Two Ursuline nuns from Canfield, Ohio, who were in Baltimore for a visit said they felt lucky to be able to attend Mass at a church with a Polish congregation.

"This is a Polish parish, and the pope was very Polish," said Sister Mary Ann Diersing, 65. "It was special to be here on this day."

Not far away, at the Polish National Alliance on Eastern Avenue, the lounge was empty yesterday. Jim Mislak, president of the local council, said that once news of the pope's death spread, many people headed to church.

Mislak said he interrupted a baby shower in the hall to tell the group that the pope had died.

A birthday party was scheduled for the evening, but Mislak said he wasn't sure it would happen, adding: "You will find that for the natives of Poland, this will be an extremely strong thing."

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