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House displays thousands of gifts to pope from Poles everywhere

ROME—A residence in Rome for Polish pilgrims visiting the Vatican, bought in part with money donated by American Catholics, has become a showcase for thousands of gifts to Pope John Paul II from proud Poles around the world.

Inside are paintings, tapestries, sculptures, bowls, wood carvings, blown glass, metal works, medals and statues that depict the first Polish pontiff and Polish reflections on struggle, hardship and faith.

There's artwork fashioned by children and professional artisans. There are sculptures carved from salt and coal harvested from Polish mines. There are personal treasures from Poles who conquered tragedy: a miniature rosary made from hardened bread crumbs by an Auschwitz concentration-camp survivor and a wooden cross whittled by a Pole exiled to Siberia during Poland's communist domination. There's a New York Fire Department helmet worn by a Polish-American firefighter who survived Sept. 11.

Among the more than 10,000 items—not all are on display—is a mosaic of Our Lady of Czestochowa, the black Madonna venerated by many Poles, created with seeds, grains and natural fibers. Polish pilgrims brought the mosaic to St. Peter's on May 13, 1981, in anticipation of a papal audience. But as they waited, the pope was shot in the square in an assassination attempt. The stunned pilgrims placed the mosaic on the empty papal chair and prayed for his recovery.

Helena Kupiszewska, an art historian from Warsaw, has spent 20 years inventorying the bounty, donated by the pope during his 26-year reign.

She said she had no favorites, but she can tell stories about nearly every showcased item. It helps to know Polish, because the descriptive tags speak only one language.

"Some are beautiful. Some are less beautiful. ... But they are all gifts to the pope from the heart," Kupiszewska said. "In all these gifts are the stories of our country."

There are posters entwining Roman Catholic themes with the Solidarity labor movement in Poland, which upended communist rule beginning in the 1980s. The second-floor walls are lined with paintings of Mary, the mother of Jesus, by Polish artists. The chapel, where nine resident Polish-born nuns pray daily, features stained-glass windows of Poles whom Pope John Paul II canonized as saints.

Dom Polski, which means "Polish House," is a modern, five-story building once used as an Italian convent. It was purchased in 1981 for the equivalent of $1 million, said the Rev. Jan Machniak, the director. It also houses some 20,000 books about the pope and many of his published documents.

On a wall-size golden plaque, the initial donors are listed from several countries. Contributions came from individuals, Polish organizations and parishes.

"This was bought by Polish people from around the world," Machniak said.

Operated by the nonprofit John Paul II Foundation, the Dom Polski initially was intended to provide affordable housing for Poles visiting the Vatican at a time when the Catholic Church's first Polish pontiff was an inspiration to Poles living under communist hardship.

Academics and historians visit to use the collection of papal documents and books. For travelers, it's an economical retreat and an unheralded artistic gem, just 12 miles from the Vatican.

Cardinal Edmund Szoka, a Polish-American who runs Vatican City, said the gifts at the Dom Polski were a small fraction of what the pope had received over the years.

"We've got a special warehouse for the gifts. The Holy Father was not a man attached to material things. He gave some of the gifts away for special occasions," Szoka said Tuesday.

While the Dom Polski is intended for use primarily by Poles, it's open to non-Polish pilgrims. The house is at Via Cassia 1200 in Rome, about a 25-minute taxi ride from the Vatican. Nightly costs range from $26 to $51 (20-40 euros). The phone number is 011-39-06-3036-5181.

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(Montemurri reports for the Detroit Free Press.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): RELIG-POPE-HOUSE

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