Buffalo in the ’70s: Saint John Paul II visits Buffalo

By Steve Cichon

On Buffalo’s biggest Polish holiday, BN Chronicles looks back on Buffalo’s connections to the most influential Pole in recent memory: Pope Saint John Paul II.

As the cardinal of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla — later Pope Saint John Paul II — visited Buffalo twice. That first visit was in 1969 as he toured the United States and Canada, thanking North Americans for their help in helping Poland and the Polish church rebound after the devastation of World War II.

Buffalo News archives

Described as “solidly-built, handsome man” in The News, Cardinal Wojtyla stayed at St. Stanislaus Church and visited, among other Catholic institutions, St. Adalbert’s Church (above) and Hilbert College (below.)

Buffalo Stories archives

At a reception for Wojtyla at the Statler Hilton, the future pontiff spoke of his admiration for Buffalo and Buffalo’s Polish community in fluent English.

“Remember that your fathers and grandfathers brought Polish souls to this country, and you are continuing in their spirit,” Wojtyla said. He added, after receiving the key to city from Mayor Frank Sedita, “I will always remember Buffalo and take your good wishes back to the Mother Country. And now that I have the keys to the city, I may come back and open it.”

He made good on that promise in 1976 — only two years before being elected pope.

As Krakow’s Cardinal Wojtyla left the Buffalo Airport for St. Casimir’s Church in 1976, the children assembled sang “Sto lat,” the traditional song for birthdays wishing that the honoree might live a hundred years.

Buffalo News archives

This time, he stayed at the rectory of St. Casimir’s in Kaisertown, where 900 people attended a Mass concelebrated by Cardinal Wojtyla and 19 other bishops.

Msgr. Edward Kazmierczak, pastor of St. Casimir, hosted Cardinal Karol Wojtyla in 1976. (Buffalo News archives)

The Polish saint made no widely known pronouncements on Dyngus Day or any of the other similarly themed happenings on Easter Monday in Poland. But even though the water-throwing and pussy-willow-slapping celebration may have been squashed by Nazi occupation during his formative years, it’s nearly certain that a young Karol Wojtyla would have had some Śmigus-Dyngus experience as a boy growing up in Poland.

In fact, over the last several years, in John Paul’s hometown of Wadowice, the fountain in the town square — which has been renamed in memory of the pope and saint — has been the site of Dyngus Day pranks involving turning the water into suds to fill the square.

There’s also one of Saint John Paul II’s more famous quotes that leads one to believe the first Polish pontiff would have felt at home at many of the parties happening around Western New York this Easter Monday.

“I have a sweet tooth for song and music,” Pope Saint John Paul II once said. “This is my Polish sin.”