WNY memories of “The People’s Saint”

BUFFALO, NY (WIVB) – In my 36 years here at News 4, I have been privileged to cover stories that link Buffalo to world-changing events. And on rare occasions, I even got to meet the leaders who make them happen.

One of those times was in the streets of Torun, Poland in 1999, when I met Pope John Paul II. As the world reflects on his rise to sainthood, take a look back with me.

Even 15 years ago, there were those in our Western New York delegation who believed when we met Pope John Paul II, we were in the presence of a saint. His body was frail, but he greeted us with all the spiritual energy he could muster.

Voices cried out, “Buffalo! Buffalo your Holiness!” to him as the “Popemobile” made its way toward us. Suddenly the aging pontiff was drawn to the name of a city he had visited, and to the people with whom he had connected over the years.

One of the delegation’s organizers, Dick Solecki, recalls that he had “that twinkle in his eye. I remember yelling, screaming ‘Buffalo New York, Buffalo New York!’ He did stop and did spend some time with us.”

He would spend a lot of time, slowly and with great effort, stepping down to street level and then blessing each and every Western New Yorker who had traveled half the world to be in his presence.

Moments after the late Michele Musial and her family received the pontiff’s blessings, she said she found the experience “overwhelming, just overwhelming. He’s a holy man and he will be a saint. I’m humbled that I’m here to see him and to greet him. I’m very humbled.”

John Paul II’s ties to Western New York go back before his reign as Pope. When he was Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, he would be escorted arm-in-arm by Western New Yorkers during a trip to Niagara Falls in August of 1976. It was a day filled with “gentle conversation, laughter, vibrancy and fun,” wrote Bill Gallagher, who was a Niagara Falls City Councilmember back then.

In September of 1969, Buffalonians Edward Posluszny and his late wife Alice threw a reception for the Cardinal at the Statler. He signed an invitation for them. Edward treasures his memories and pictures from the occasion.

“Amazing,” he exclaimed to me a few days ago. “Just to think that the person you talked to and walked with and ate with, he will be a saint. Wow!”

The chalice the Polish Cardinal used to celebrate Mass at Buffalo’s Saint Stanislaus Church during that September visit is a treasured relic to Buffalo’s Mother Church of Poland. Pastor Ted Bocianowski had been one of his students in Poland.

Recalling his time with the man, he said, “He was our leader and I could follow him, follow him to be [a] joyful member of the Earth.”

Delegations from Buffalo would continue to follow John Paul II and even be close to him at the Vatican when he became Pope. Allen Costantini, a News 4 anchor and reporter who was documenting the installation in Rome, had captured one of the most moving moments of that day. It was filmed by Hall of Fame News 4 photographer Mike Mombrea, Sr.

John Paul II had refused to allow his mentor to kneel before him.

Costantini’s observed, “Cardinal Wyszynski asked the Pope for the Apostolic Blessing of all of Poland. The Pontiff is embracing him. Some tears, and the answer is obvious.”

The late Buffalo Bishop Edward Head was featured in that special report. He had spoken with the new Pope.

“I said, ‘The people in Buffalo, because of their closeness to you, feel you will be very much in their prayers and in every one of the masses that we say,'” said Bishop Head.

As Pope, John Paul II would personally meet Western New Yorkers on many occasions. In 1985, I was with a delegation that had just visited Poland, witnessing first hand, Solidarity’s struggle to resist Communism.

We walked through a firestorm of club wielding police officers who were arresting Solidarity demonstrators on the fifth anniversary of the Gdansk Accords. News 4 photographer Don Yearke, who never shied away from a breaking story, was cautioned by “friendly forces” that if he pointed our camera toward the demonstration, our tapes and equipment were likely to be confiscated and that we might be detained, at the very least. We never shot a frame of that awful scene, but the images will never leave us.

In the days that followed, we were granted an extraordinary audience with the pontiff at Costel Gondolfo. He welcomed us by saying, “You have just come from a visit to my homeland. It is with a genuine feeling of appreciation then that I welcome you today.”

As I attempted to ask the Pope a question, one of the security guards confiscated my microphone. The Pope could read the disappointment in my eyes. At that moment he put his arm around me and took me aside and looked deeply into my eyes.

“Without Solidarity,” he told me off camera, “there can be no peace.”

Ed Rutkowski was there, too. He was the Erie County Executive back then and a former Buffalo Bills player during the Jack Kemp era. He had given the Pope a Bills team jersey, while making a “playful” request of the pontiff.

“I said I’d like to make you an honorary Buffalo Bill because we need a man of God on our team, because next week we are playing the New Orleans Saints!”

Ed told me the pontiff got a laugh out of that.

Now, the late Pope, who was destined for sainthood, remains in the hearts and minds of those Western New Yorkers who got more than a glimpse of a remarkable man of the spirit.

Brian Rusk had organized 17 meetings between the Pope and Western New Yorkers, including doctors who had donated their services to help Polish children and patients from all over the world recover from sometimes catastrophic circumstances.

I asked him now if he thought Pope John Paul II would ever become a saint. Brian responded by saying, “I thought from the first time I met him in the early 80s that he had a direct link with God. I felt when I was with him it was almost like a heavenly experience, and I always felt I was with a saint.”

So when it was time for the world to say goodbye to this giant of a man, Buffalo’s heart was in St. Peter’s Square. I covered his funeral with News 4 Chief Photographer Mike Mombrea, Jr., who will some day will follow his father into the Buffalo Broadcasters Hall of Fame. Miraculously, we found Buffalo connections everywhere.

Therese Ivers, a former Carmelite Nun in Buffalo told me, “I believe Pope John Paul the Great is a saint, so I’m not praying for him, I’m praying to him.”

Mombrea and I put together an hour documentary on the life and times of Pope John Paul II. Former News 4 General Manager Chris Musial, whose late wife was overcome with emotion during those special moments in Turon, was our producer. We called our television special “The People’s Pope.”

Just days ago, while I was interviewing Saint Stanislaus Pastor Bocianowski, he reflected that Pope John Paul II, “Didn’t like distance to the people. He was very close.”

And then he declared: “The Saint of the People! Please believe me. He will be “The Saint of the People.”

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