With prayers, processions and Polish food, Roman Catholics in Baltimore joined millions of other church members worldwide Sunday in celebrating the life of the late Pope John Paul II — the only pontiff to have visited the city — as he moved a step closer to sainthood.
Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien, head of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, presided over a Mass at the Basilica of the Assumption marking the Sunday after Easter as well as the beatification in Rome of John Paul II. Then, after the Mass, the archbishop led a procession around the block to a "peace" garden dedicated to the late pope for an outdoor prayer service there.
"It's an ancient custom of ours — processions, pilgrimages," O'Brien explained afterward. "We're on a journey, and it won't be over until we get to where John Paul is."
About a million and a half people had gathered at the Vatican earlier Sunday to hear Pope Benedict XV proclaim his predecessor "blessed," a preliminary step before being declared a saint.
In Baltimore, attendance swelled at Masses held at two places touched by the late pope — the basilica downtown and Holy Rosary Church, a spiritual magnet for Polish Catholics in Upper Fells Point. About 800 turned out for each service, archdiocese representatives estimated.
Pope John Paul II had prayed at the basilica, America's first cathedral, during his two-day visit in 1995 to the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the oldest diocese in the United States. And in 1976, two years before becoming pope, Polish-born Cardinal Karol Wojtyla had led a delegation of Polish bishops on a visit to Holy Rosary.
"I wanted to come to honor John Paul II," Julie Sawyer, 70, of Lutherville said after the garden prayer service. She said the late pope's "intercession" had helped members of her family.
Pope John Paul's beatification came six years after his death, which O'Brien acknowledged was unusually early under Vatican rules for considering anyone for sainthood. But he noted that millions had turned out for the pope's funeral six years ago and had called for his instant elevation, prompting Pope Benedict to waive its rules.
O'Brien said he hoped Sunday's prayer service would draw more people to the garden, which was created next to the basilica on the site of the old Rochambeau Hotel.
"It's a very peaceful surrounding in the midst of a lot of sirens and horns," he said.
The event did draw at least one passe-rby — Steven Michael, 49, of New York, who was downtown with his family while on a visit to Baltimore.
"Just coming to this spot is a beautiful feeling," Michael said. "We ended our vacation on a nice note."
Across town at Holy Rosary, the mass was delivered in English and Polish celebrating the late pope and "Divine Mercy," a miraculous healing reported there in 1995 of a parish priest. A statue of Pope John Paul stands at the front of the sanctuary.
"Rejoice, America! Rejoice, Poland!" declared the Rev. Zdzislaw Nawrocki, "Because we have Divine Mercy and John Paul's blessing of Divine Mercy."
In the parish hall, cook Alicja Krajewski, 62, of Rosedale worked with other women to prepare a feast of pierogies, pastries and other Polish treats for the crowd still at Mass.
"It's a lot of work," she said, but added, "it's spiritual." She said she's been a member of the church since 1969, shortly after arriving in Baltimore from Poland, and her family has celebrated marriages and baptisms there since.
Longtime parishioners spoke with pride of the first pope to come from their homeland, but they said his appeal is universal.
"He was the people's pope," said Terese Choinski, 61, who lives near Bel Air. "All the people, not just Polish. Everybody."
She said she and her two sons had attended the outdoor Mass that Pope John Paul held at Oriole Park at Camden Yards during his Baltimore visit, and had waved to him as he rode in a motorcade through town. Five years ago, she said, she made a pilgrimage to the late pope's hometown and the churches he had served.
"Paul brings us, not only for Poland, hope for everyone," Choinski added. "Don't be afraid,'' she added, quoting an oft-heard phrase Sunday. "That's what he taught us."