WADOWICE, Poland -- Pope John Paul II may have helped hasten the end of communism here, eased centuries of tensions between Catholics and Jews and campaigned for human rights.
But to the people of Wadowice, all that mattered yesterday was that he was first and foremost a son of their city.
Mayor Ewa Filipiak, signing the guestbook outside the church where Karol Wojtyla was baptized and received his first communion, tried to explain what the pope's death meant to this community of 20,000 people.
"For us, it meant the loss of a father, of a person who always cared for the people of this city," she said.
Residents of Wadowice say he never forgot them. During his 26-year papacy, a steady stream of pilgrims from this town in the hills about 40 miles southeast of Krakow met with the pope at the Vatican.
When his visitors would talk to him about Wadowice's achievements and setbacks, he would mention those events to the next hometown group. "He knew all about the current events here," Filipiak said.
Pope John Paul visited Wadowice three times during his papacy, most recently in 1999. During his final trip to Poland, in 2002, the helicopter carrying the ailing pontiff swooped low over the town while citizens waved to him with yellow handkerchiefs.
Among the last words he spoke in public, during an appearance in his Rome hospital window March 13, were: "Hello, Wadowice."
The town was the scene of much suffering for him. His mother died here when he was 8; his brother four years later, when Karol was 12.
Maria Chmura, 56, who owns a family farm outside town, was picked to be the second person to receive communion from Pope John Paul in 1978 after he was elevated to the papacy. She was visiting the Vatican with a tour group, she said, when someone told the new pope she was from Wadowice.
"The Holy Father didn't say anything," she recalled. "He just stood there, weeping. He remembered his hometown. And he probably missed it."
Chmura, her son and granddaughter -- Karol Chmura, 4, named after the pope because she was born on his name day -- lit a candle and laid a single red rose at the impromptu shrine under the plaque on his birthplace, at 7 Koscielna St.
The building is now a museum, and visitors lined up yesterday to enter. Over the course of the day, the several dozen candles under the plaque grew into hundreds.
For centuries, the church served as the anchor for Poland during successive occupations by foreign powers. Now, in small towns like Wadowice as well as the major cities, people are losing allegiance to their faith.
"You might ask why the Communists opened up to the Solidarity movement here, if Solidarity ultimately destroyed communism," said Jakub Gil, 66, the parish priest. "It's the same with modern Western culture. We in Poland have opened up to Western culture, and it is destroying the church.
"The Holy Father often said that people are living today as if there is no God. Poland is not an island; it is linked to other countries. So there is a great challenge for us, to withstand the onslaught of Western culture. The task may be too difficult for us alone, so we will have to ask the help of God."
The pope's death came during a Saturday night Mass. Gil, who presided, informed his parishioners by saying that the most famous son of Wadowice "had entered the Holy Gates." Members of the congregation froze in their seats. Many then burst into tears.
"It was absolutely moving," said Filipiak, the mayor. "There was total silence, and then we went numb. I couldn't believe it."
The thousands who came here yesterday strolled somberly through the old cobblestone streets, past lawns sprouting the buds of purple and white crocuses.
"I never gave up hope for his recovering," said Tadeus Swiatek, 52, a Wadowice school maintenance man. "I was hoping for a miracle to the very end."