Margaret Gowaty guided a visitor upstairs from a recent Friday fish fry in the basement of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Polish Hill, into the hushed, incense-fragrant air of the soaring domed sanctuary built by past generations of immigrant workers. She paused at a side altar with a statue of the late pope, John Paul II, clad in white and gold robes.
"Papa's awesome," she said. "Papa's awesome. I miss him."
He's soon to be known as St. John Paul II, but Ms. Gowaty hasn't hesitated since his death in 2005 to call him a saint and to ask for his prayers.
Even as Christians mark Easter today, Ms. Gowaty and many other Catholics are also preparing for a major celebration next Sunday, when Pope Francis presides at the canonization of John Paul II and another predecessor, John XXIII.
The Vatican is bracing for massive crowds, including a delegation from the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Closer to home that day, worshipers at Immaculate Heart of Mary will dedicate a relic of John Paul -- a piece of his blood-stained robe from the 1981 assassination attempt during an audience at St. Peter's Square.
The upcoming events are prompting many from southwestern Pennsylvania to recall their personal encounters with John Paul II. While far fewer people have direct memories of John XXIII, who died in 1963, many older local Catholics recall that pope's profound influence on their lives and faith through his warm demeanor, his ringing calls for peace and justice, and his launching of the reformist Second Vatican Council of the 1960s.
For John Paul II, the memories are more direct. Some people joined the throngs who saw the relatively young, still-vigorous pope in Rome or on his U.S. visits. Others recalled up-close encounters such as private audiences, dinners or Masses through his final, most frail years.
Ms. Gowaty won't be making the trip to Rome, but as she joins her parish commemoration of the event, it will be the latest milestone dating back to when she was a third-grader in McKeesport, seeing the new, first-ever Polish pope on TV -- fueling the pride of Polish-Americans such as herself. She told her family she would meet this pope someday, and she did.
She saw him while attending five World Youth Day events in such cities as Manila, Denver and Paris, and she met him in person in Rome in a private audience with fellow students at a summer program she was taking in 1998 at the John Paul II Polish Home in Rome.
"God blessed him with talents including being able to communicate whether to large crowds or one on one. Even in a large crowd, it felt like it was just you," said Ms. Gowaty, 45, now of East McKeesport.
At Immaculate Heart of Mary, some of the most vivid memories are not of John Paul himself but of his election.
William Krystopolsky, 70, still recalls sitting in his Polish Hill home and telling his wife, "They'll never elect a Polish pope."
When they did, the church bells and car horns rang out.
"You'd have thought it was Super Bowl Sunday and the Steelers had won," recalled parishioner Sylvia Tully, 79. "I've still got the chills just talking about it."
Driving Cardinal Wojtyla
Sister Bernice Fiedor, retired administrator at St. Anne Home in Greensburg, spent many years at the Rome house of her Felician religious order, whose roots are in John Paul's native Poland. Before Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow became pope, she and another sister would regularly drive him to appointments during his visits to Rome.
"He didn't talk a lot" during the drives, she said. "He would open his prayer book and he would pray in the car."
But he would say Mass at the Felician house and would join the sisters at their meals.
"He was easy to be with and talk to," she said. When he encountered her in unexpected places -- whether showing visitors some lesser-known precincts of the Vatican or greeting him on a U.S. visit -- he would chuckle and say, "What are you doing here?"
Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik said that when he dined with the pope, John Paul was relaxed like "sitting down with some of best buddies," he said. But during worship in the papal chapel, "there was something mystical," Bishop Zubik said. "He was in such deep prayer. He was very human, but he took the whole call to holiness seriously."
For the Rev. James Farnan, pastor of St. Thomas More Church in Bethel Park, an encounter with John Paul helped clinch his decision to become a priest.
He chaperoned students attending World Youth Day -- a massive gathering headlined by John Paul in Denver in 1993 -- and saw the impact on the kids from John Paul's "witness to the Gospel and his adherence to truth and the shared love of Christ."
Attending seminary in Rome, he regularly attended papal-led rosary prayers. After he was ordained a deacon in Rome, Rev. Farnan was invited to read the Gospel during a Mass led by John Paul at the papal chapel. Given the opportunity to preach to the pope, he pondered it for about 10 seconds, "took a deep breath and sat down," Rev. Farnan said.
The Rev. Jerome Vereb of Pittsburgh, who worked at the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity under John Paul, said one of his most enduring memories was of witnessing a meeting between the pope and an American woman after both were wounded by John Paul's would-be assassin in 1981.
"She was a courageous woman and he was a courageous man, and they comforted each other," Father Vereb said. "That was for me a very poignant, teachable moment."
The canonization also brings to mind direct connections between John Paul and Pittsburgh. Before he became pope, then-Cardinal Wojtyla visited various sites in the Steel City in 1969. He said Mass at St. Paul Cathedral and blessed a plaque at the University of Pittsburgh in honor of an earlier visit by scientist -- and fellow Pole -- Marie Curie.
That was his only visit here, but in 2004, the city virtually came to him. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and a delegation of community leaders went to him in Rome for a concert honoring his quarter-century as pope.
Rhian Kenny, principal piccolo player for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, was determined to make the 2004 trip even while traveling with her month-old infant and two older daughters.
"There was no way I was staying home, because he was my pope," Ms. Kenny said. She arranged to get a seat as close as possible to the pope. "I was afraid to make eye contact," she added, but "I was just so happy to be in the same place."
John XXIII's personal warmth
It's rare to find people today who knew John XXIII personally, but many recall the wide-ranging reforms in liturgy, lay leadership and other areas he set in motion by calling the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
They also recall John XXIII's personal warmth.
Bishop Zubik recalled that even at age 9, he was struck by the image of the "roly-poly, smiling" John XXIII in contrast to his more stately predecessor.
Sister Janice Fulmer, who has been a member of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth for 53 years, recalled that in her years living in Rome, she used to see a regular stream of devoted pilgrims filing by the tomb of John XXIII.
She shared their admiration.
"I was a young sister then at the time but very enthused about his openness and wanting to bring the church into the modern times," she said.
She also greatly admired John Paul II, whom she saw numerous times from early in his papacy to his last years, which overlapped with her time in Rome as superior general of her order.
"My heart just broke at seeing his fragility and yet his desire" to be there for people, she said.
Peter Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.