During a 1976 visit to Buffalo and Niagara Falls, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, celebrated Mass in only one local church – St. Casimir. Now with John Paul’s imminent canonization, the Kaisertown church is dedicating a chapel to the only Polish pope in Catholic history.
The chasuble and chalice used by the future pope during Mass at St. Casimir’s now rest in a display window in a chapel to the right of the main altar. The chasuble belonged to the parish, while the ceramic chalice belonged to Cardinal Wojtyla himself, making it a second-class relic. Cardinal Wojtyla gave it to Msgr. Edward L. Kazmierczak, pastor at the time. The monsignor passed it on to his sister when he died. She in turn passed it on to a member of St. Casimir’s, who presented it to Father Czeslaw M. Krysa, current pastor, when he came to the church in 2010.
Father Krysa added a 1976 photo of Cardinal Wojtyla wearing the chasuble to the display, along with a rosary he received from Pope John Paul II while studying in Rome.
“He had a practice of – anybody who came to a private audience with him, or when he met individuals, he would give them a rosary,” Father Krysa said.
Cardinal Wojtyla gave the parish a reproduction of the Our Lady of Czestochowa icon as a personal gift. That print now hangs in another chapel at St. Casimir’s.
Cardinal Wojtyla had come to the U.S. during August of 1976, accompanied by 21 other bishops and archbishops from Poland, to participate in the 41st Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia. They then toured various Polish-centric parishes throughout the States. During a stop in Buffalo, Cardinal Wojtyla and two other archbishops stayed at St. Casimir’s, while the other visiting bishops stayed at other area churches.
At the time, Father Krysa was at home, preparing to enter SS. Cyril & Methodius Seminary in Orchard Lake, Mich. His pastor at Holy Trinity Parish, Niagara Falls, told him to grab his cassock and join in the procession with the bishop staying at his parish. He ended up at St. Casimir’s rectory, watching the future pope walk down the stairs. The following day, when the whole delegation came to visit Niagara Falls, Father Krysa officially met and spoke with the cardinal.
“I went over, kissed his ring, introduced myself, and he just walked over with all the reporters. He comes back and grabs my arm and says, “Where are you from?’ ‘Niagara Falls.’ ‘What are the parishes like here?’ I told him what we celebrate and the challenges. We must have talked for 15 minutes. The one memory I had that first meeting, he seemed like he had nothing on his mind other than talking to this seminarian. That was neat.”
The display may grow to include excerpts from the pope’s many encyclicals. Father Krysa wants people to get to know Blessed John Paul II through his works and writings.
“We want to be able to say, ‘We want to introduce you to him, if you never met him; because we did,’” he said. “I really feel we have a certain responsibility to be true to what he would really wish, and that’s letting people really get to know Jesus through him, Mary and through the words of hope that he spread. When people come here, (make them) feel like they met him, because we met him.”
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