On a Saturday more than 30 years ago, thousands of Catholics from near and far converged on the Motor City for an unprecedented weekend visit by the vicar of Christ. The date was September 19, 1987, and Pope John Paul II, the living embodiment of the New Evangelization, was finishing his historic 10-day tour of the United States in the Detroit area.
The future saint first visited Hamtramck in the early-morning hours, where throngs of Polish Americans lined the streets to cheer on their “homegrown” pontiff. Later that morning in Downtown Detroit’s Hart Plaza, he delivered a prophetic speech about poverty, immigration, abortion and other social justice issues that still challenge American consciences today. That afternoon, an exuberant, faith-filled audience of at least 90,000 worshipped with the pope at the Pontiac Silverdome as he concelebrated Mass with local bishops, priests and deacons. The DetroitFree Pressreported that “scarcely a seat was empty” at the former home of the Detroit Lions and Detroit Pistons.
Following the conclusion of Mass, Pope John Paul II thanked the Detroit faithful for their enduring faith and generous hospitality. His Popemobile then sped out of the Silverdome, pulled up to a waiting helicopter, and with the churning of the chopper’s rotor blades, the pope was gone.
The whirlwind day was full of raw emotion, soaring pageantry and the undeniable presence of the Holy Spirit. Balloons were released, tears of joy were wept, and round after round of applause reddened the hands of Metro Detroiters.
The memories of that incredible day still are fresh in the minds of many local Catholics.
A day of ‘pride and emotion’
Theresa Skwara, now the director of faith formation at St. Regis in Bloomfield Hills and a parishioner at St. Margaret in St. Clair Shores, was then an 11-year-old student at St. Florian’s in Hamtramck. Like many Detroit-area Catholics of Polish descent, she grew up watching the pope on television as he celebrated Mass in Rome.
Theresa remembers her hometown and parish buzzing with excitement in the days leading to the historic visit. Wall-to-wall coverage of the pope’s arrival at the Detroit airport only sent the Hamtramck community into a deeper frenzy. Theresa went to her grandma’s house the night before and recalls being “glued” to the television. Theresa took several short strolls with her Aunt Lorraine down Hamtramck’s main thoroughfare, Joseph Campau. With each successive stroll, the crowd grew larger and larger. “[It was] so amazing to see so many people awaiting the arrival of the Holy Father, staying up all night in the city,” remembers Theresa.
The next morning, Theresa woke up to the “heavenly” sound of “angels singing” at 7 a.m. It turned out to be the Polish choir warming up at the pavilion where Pope John Paul II would deliver his speech later that morning. Theresa’s father, Edwin, had already left to serve breakfast in the basement of St. Florian’s. The church graciously fed the local and national members they’d allowed to camp out there. Theresa subsequently headed down to Joseph Campau with family members and secured a spot along the Popemobile’s route. As the vehicle approached her position, Theresa and the future saint seemingly locked eyes. “I felt as if he waved and looked directly at me,” Theresa recalls.
Theresa’s lifelong friend and fellow St. Florian schoolmate, Lisa Zebrowski, had a very different perspective of John Paul II’s visit. While Theresa was watching the pope from street level, Lisa was being escorted up to the stage where the papal address would be given. A year earlier, she had entered a writing contest sponsored by the Archdiocese of Detroit. The winner would greet the pope on stage and give a brief speech. Of 1,800 applicants, Lisa was selected. It was a whirlwind day for the teen, starting with waking up at 4:30 a.m. to be interviewed by a Cincinnati newspaper reporter.
When the pope finally took the stage at the corner of Hewitt and Campau, the future saint was greeted not only by Lisa but also by her grandmother, who presented the pontiff with a loaf of bread. “Her pride and emotion that day was one like I never saw again,” Lisa remembers.
The pope’s call to action
When he spoke, the pope addressed the people of Hamtramck as if they were long-lost friends. “I have longed to come to you,” he said. “I have greatly desired to be with you in this important moment. … I see it as a meeting with the entire American Polonia, with every American man and woman whose origin is drawn from the old country on the Vistula.”
He continued by emphasizing the Solidarity movement in Poland and its broader implications for people of good will everywhere. “Solidarity must take precedence over conflict. Only then can humanity survive, can each nation survive and develop within the great human family,” Pope John Paul II declared.
There was hardly a dry eye in the crowd, says Lisa, who was overcome with emotion herself. “Happy tears” were being shed everywhere that day in Hamtramck. Reflecting on her “15 minutes of fame,” Lisa regrets that she did not fully recognize “the magnitude of that experience” as a youngster.
After the pope’s memorable visit to Hamtramck, the papal motorcade headed toward Downtown Detroit. It arrived at Hart Plaza around 11:30 a.m., where a crowd of 35,000 enthusiastically welcomed the Holy Father.
Speaking near the banks of the Detroit River, in the shadow of the iconic monument of Joe Louis’ fist, Pope John Paul II issued a challenge to those present: “By virtue of your unique position, as citizens of this nation, you are placed before a choice and you must choose. You may choose to close in on yourselves, to enjoy the fruits of your own progress and try to forget about the rest of the world. Or, as you become more and more aware of your gifts and capacity to serve, you may choose to live up to the responsibilities that your own history and accomplishments place on your shoulder.”
Put simply, the Pope declared that Americans had the opportunity to devote themselves to serving others or serving themselves.
A mass unlike any other
The pope’s visit concluded that day at the Silverdome. More than 90,000 Detroit-area faithful packed the Silverdome for a Mass like no other. Father Terrance Kerner, currently pastor of St. Kateri Tekakwitha in Dearborn, was the vicar of the Monroe County Vicariate in 1987. He was honored to be one of a handful of local priests asked to concelebrate with Pope John Paul II. The priests were provided the Pistons’ locker room to prepare for Mass, and Father Kerner was assigned to the locker of basketball great Isiah Thomas.
Meanwhile, seminarians from Sacred Heart Major Seminary were drying off their sweaty palms, as they were about to shake hands and meet the Holy Father just prior to Mass. One of those seminarians happened to be William Tindall, who now is the pastor at St. Michael in Livonia and was recently given the honorary title of monsignor by Pope Francis. Monsignor Tindall does not recall any of the conversation that took place. “We were all a bit awestruck,” he says. “He had a very commanding presence about him. You could sense you were in the presence of a great person.”
After the Mass at the Silverdome had concluded, Pope John Paul II used his very last moments in Detroit to touch one final person in a profound way. As he was preparing to board his flight out of the US, the Pope met Jimmy DeMuth, a 51-year-old Ohio man with cerebral palsy who had been confined to a bed for his entire life. The meeting was arranged by Fr. Kerner and DeMuth’s friends Mike and Joan Allor who brought him on a stretcher to the Detroit Metro Airport. The Allors, parishioners at St. John the Baptist in Monroe, recall the quick meeting as a moving one. The future saint kissed their paralyzed friend on the head and proclaimed “God loves you.” They then proceeded to have a five-minute conversation. Joan remembers Jim moving around like he had never before. “He was so excited, I thought he was going to roll off that stretcher.” The Pope finished his visit by giving Jimmy and Joan a blessed rosary. Mike noted that “Just being in the Pope’s presence encouraged you to become a better person.”
Although Pope John Paul II’s historic visit was a short one, he made a lasting impact on those who witnessed it.