When the pope visited Detroit

Pope John Paul II arrives at Detroit’s Metro Airport Friday, Sept. 18, 1987.

“I have longed to come to you.” With this quote from St. Paul, Pope John Paul II greeted his followers in Hamtramck Saturday morning, Sept. 19, 1987, as he began his visit to the Detroit area.

He was not originally scheduled to visit here. The National Council of Catholic Bishops had insisted his route be confined to the South and West, areas he had missed on his visit to the U.S. in 1979.

Detroit Mayor Coleman Young and Archbishop Edmund Szoka greet the pope at Metro Airport.


It was partly due to the efforts of then Archbishop Edmund Szoka that he finally arrived in Detroit. Szoka went over the heads of the Council, traveled to Rome and pushed for Detroit while having dinner with the Pope.

In January of 1986, a mix up in the Pope’s schedule led to a day being added at the end of his trip. John Paul himself decided he would use the extra time to visit Detroit.

This was not his first time in the Detroit area. Prior to becoming pope he visited Hamtramck in 1969 and in 1976 he visited SS. Cyril and Methodius, the only Polish Catholic seminary in North America. He was Archbishop Karol Wojtyla at the time. He became pope in 1978.

When he arrived at Detroit Metro Airport in 1987 on his TWA Boeing 727, it was the first time a pope had ever visited Michigan. For the duration of his American travels, the plane was dubbed “Shepherd I”.

Carol Gnyp was scheduled to leave for Chicago and was hoping her flight would be delayed so she could see the pope come in. Pauline Darr of Detroit got to the airport early to pick up her husband. “I probably won’t be able to see anything from here,” she said “But even if I can see his shape I’ll be happy.”

John Paul was met at the airport by Sen. Carl Levin, Gov. James Blanchard, Hamtramck Mayor Robert Kozaren and Detroit Mayor Coleman Young. He was then whisked by helicopter to Sacred Heart Seminary where he met with young seminarians.

From there he was taken to the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament and greeted by Archbishop Szoka, whose voice broke with emotion as he welcomed the pope. John Paul spoke to l,400 invited guests, telling them he came as successor of St. Peter but emphasized that his ministry “is a great gift of God’s grace and not the result of any human merit. The church is more than a community of shared beliefs and practices,” he said, “it is an instrument of redemption.”

The pope addresses 1,500 Catholic deacons, the largest such gathering in history, at Ford Auditorium.


The Pope spent the night at Archbishop Szoka’s residence while his entourage was housed at the Hotel St. Regis. Celeste Bowman of Livonia who volunteered to serve as hostess at the St. Regis vividly recalls watching on TV in the hotel lobby as the entourage left Blessed Sacrament Cathedral.

“His entourage left with police escort, sirens blaring. As they faded from the TV screen, the motorcycles were pulling up in front of the hotel and in came the Vatican cardinals and bishops.”

Hundreds gathered around the cathedral, hoping to get a glimpse of the pope. Aaron and Vi Piper who live near the archbishop, were excited. “It’s an event”, Aaron said.”This is great. Since he is in our neighborhood we thought it would be nice to see him. He is one of the most powerful, influential people in the world.”

As he slept, people were gathering during the night in Hamtramck to greet him the next morning. One vendor complained that the people weren’t coming here to buy, “they just want to see him.”

Even Crown’s Bar had turned off the baseball game to watch the Pope’s arrival.

At midnight, hundreds lined the streets where John Paul would speak the following day. Diane Krywy of Warren, came with chairs, TV, two cots, sleeping bags, wine, snacks, and a deck of cards. Some of the restaurants stayed open all night. Hamtramck, which is 50 percent Polish and 75 percent Catholic, was festooned with U.S. and Polish flags and Vatican banners. For many Polish Catholics, hearing the pope in their native tongue would be an emotional event.

As he approached on Saturday morning, a Polish phrase quick swept the through the crowd: “Juz nadjezdza (he’s coming!)”. More than 50,000 cheered and waved as his motorcade moved down Jos. Campau. He told the people of Hamtramck, many of them children of Poland: “Solidarity must take precedence over conflict.” And “From the beginning,” he said, “I have known Hamtramck.”

He took time at the end of the parade route to kiss babies and shake hands. Tigers manager Sparky Anderson was one of those he greeted (In Sparky’s words, “the man is a heavyweight”.) before leaving for downtown Detroit for a meeting with Catholic deacons.

A children’s choir prepares to greet the pope at Hart Plaza.


Later that afternoon, the Pope spent an hour at Ford Auditorium with the deacons, reiterating their importance to the church. Jim Brown of the Lansing diocese said: “He reassured us, gave us a pat on the back. Sometimes, this is a thankless job and the higher-ups haven’t always been so supportive of us. But he is, and he let everybody know that.”

Al Sandoval of Denver said it was the experience of a lifetime for the deacons. “It’s the first time we’ve been publicly acknowledged”.

Meanwhile, a crowd of more than 70,000 had gathered to hear him speak at Hart Plaza. One family, Sonia and Paul Hitt and their young daughter drove down from Green Bay, Wis. They celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary by spending the night under a street light near the City County Building.

They had originally planned to stay at a motel but decided to camp out on the street where they’d have a good view of the Pope. Canadians across the river watched, too, with high powered telescopes.

As the pope mounted the podium, silence fell over the plaza. He spoke about the effect of new technology on human beings, a topic appropriate to Detroit ‘s auto workers.

Sonia Hitt’s eyes filled with tears as the pope prayed before leaving Hart Plaza. “He gives one strength. To me, the pope is closest to God,” she said.

Thousands listen to the pope at Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit.


From there he was taken by helicopter to the Silverdome where more than 90,000 waited. He spoke again of the people who work, each a “human being not a mere instrument of production. Central to the church’s teaching is the conviction that people are more important than things,” he said. The pope himself was a former factory worker.

Said Ross Perot, “Here’s a man of God, housed in the Vatican in Rome, talking more business sense than you’ll hear in the Harvard business school.” Doug Fraser, former UAW president, said “He shows great sensitivity to the worker. It’s an eloquent statement of workers’ rights. And how appropriate to say it in Detroit.”

Many had arrived at the Silverdome early. George O’Connor of Royal Oak said, “I wanted to arrive early enough to get the flavor of this once-in-a-lifetime event.”

Steve and Sarah Chetcuti of St. Clair Shores and their three children arrived at least five hours early. Said Steve, “I think it’s great to have someone like the pope who sticks to the book, someone who can really guide your life.”

Several music groups entertained the thousands gathered before Mass, among them was RhFactor rock band, invited by Fr. Tom Johnson. The drummer commented, “It’s a great honor to be even considered for something like this.”

The St. James adult choir sings for the pope at Hart Plaza.


The pope followed a huge liturgical procession to the top of the altar for mass; as a l,200 voice choir sang. The choir was made up of representatives of the 345 parishes in the Detroit area. The Papal mass, a 2 l/2 hour service rich in ceremony and splendor, was delivered by l00 high-ranking clergy.

Thousands received communion; about l00 from John Paul himself, the rest by 693 cardinals, bishops, priests and lay ministers. It was an emotional experience for people like Dorothy Brighton who received communion from the pope.

“I’ve been receiving communion for 37 years and it’s never been like that,” she said as she wept.

At the end of the mass, the pope blessed the people and gave an impromptu speeche: “My brothers and sisters, during at least two centuries so many immigrants from different countries and nations found here in Detroit, Michigan, a great hospitality.”

He expressed his gratitute for the hospitality shown him and hoped “this hospitality will bring deeper unity to the church of the Christian people of the United States. I hope and I wish that this visit will be spiritually fruitful. Thank you very much.”

Before taking off for Edmonton, Alberta, he met briefly with Vice President George Bush and spoke one last time to the people of Michigan: “Mr. Vice President, dear friends, dear people of America. Once again God has given me the joy of making a pastoral visit to your country, the United States of America. I’m filled with gratitude to Him and to you.”

One month later, a spokesman for the archdiocese said the benefits of the pope’s two-day visit were “immeasurable.” He told of one priest who said lapsed Catholics “were coming out of the woodwork,” anxious to get back in the church.”

“The attraction was essential goodness. John Paul II, a son of hardship who grew up to bear the title Vicar of Christ, was in Detroit to be seen, heard and touched by people.”

The pope addresses the Hart Plaza crowd behind a bullet-proof shield.


By Kay Houston / The Detroit News