Papal Visit (10-4-1979)

In 1976 a cardinal of the Catholic Church named Karol Wojtyla visited Chicago.  That was minor news.  But when he returned three years later, on this date, the whole city knew he was in town.

By 1979 Wojtyla had become John Paul II, the first Polish pope.  At age 59 he was young for a pope—a dynamic, charismatic figure, a one-time actor who still did downhill skiing.  Now he was making his first papal visit to the United States.

Waiting for the Pope along Milwaukee Avenue

John Paul arrived at O’Hare on the evening of October 4.  Thousands of spectators lined the motorcade route, waiting hours to catch a glimpse of the smiling, waving figure standing in the open-top limo.  He settled in for the night at Cardinal Cody’s residence on State Parkway.

The next morning the pope was up early for a visit to Providence of God church, a mostly-Mexican parish in Pilsen.  From there he moved on to Five Holy Martyrs church in Polish Brighton Park.  That was followed by a meeting with seminarians at Quigley South.

The climax of the day was an open-air afternoon Mass in Grant Park.  The Chicago Public Schools had closed to give students and teachers a chance to attend the service.  When some citizens raised concerns about the separation of church and state, the school superintendent deftly sidestepped the issue by declaring the pope’s visit a “historic event.”

There he goes—under the “D” in “DISCOUNT!”

An estimated 1.2 million people gathered in the park for the two-hour-long Mass. The weather remained sunny and seasonable.  Afterward many in the crowd chanted “John Paul Two, We Love You!” The pope responded with “John Paul Two, He Loves You!”

That evening, John Paul attended a Chicago Symphony Orchestra performance at Holy Name Cathedral.  The next day he was gone, after 40 busy hours.

John Paul II was pope for nearly 27 years, until his death in 2005.  Nine years later, he was officially canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church.  Though rumors persisted that he would again visit heavily-Polish Chicago, he never returned.  Today the most visible reminder of his whirlwind tour is a section of what used to be 43rd Street, between Western and Kedzie Avenues.

Here the street signs read “Pope John Paul II Drive.”



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