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In Pope John Paul II's hometown, people mourn and remember

WADOWICE, Poland—They came from all over Poland on Saturday—the faithful and the sorrowful—to pray for Pope John Paul II in his hometown church.

They had been crowding day and night into the basilica, the regular parishioners and visiting pilgrims alike, hoping to ease the pope's suffering with their prayers.

But they knew what was coming, of course, and a tearful local woman said, "All of us in Wadowice will soon feel like orphans."

TV crews and tour buses pushed into Wadowice (vah-doe-VEET-say) on Saturday, and although the town was crowded, it had a quiet, somber air about it. The bells in the steeple of the Basilica of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary didn't exactly ring; it was more like they clanged.

Later in the evening, the bells sounded again, dolefully signaling the death of the 84-year-old pope.

Saturday afternoon had arrived cool, bright and breezy in Wadowice, and a pair of newlyweds squeezed through the basilica crowds to pray.

Plenty of well-mannered children were seated in the wooden pews. A number of people in wheelchairs entered the church using a ramp built for the ailing pontiff when he last visited Wadowice three years ago.

Peter Czarnota, his head bowed in prayer outside the church, planned to use the ramp later in the afternoon when the crowds inside thinned out. When he was paralyzed in a car accident three years ago, Czarnota thought his life was over.

"Inside, I felt nothing," said the 23-year-old college student. "But soon after my accident the pope came to Poland. I saw he was sick and suffering, and somehow that made me understand that I could work, too. He made me mentally stronger.

"I'm powerless, of course," he said with a bit of a shrug, ""but I knew I had to come to the church today to pray. That's all I can do. I hope it helps him."

Czarnota sat and prayed right where the future pope, little Karol Wojtyla, a rascal nicknamed Lolek, once raced through Wadowice's narrow cobbled streets with his pals. He caught trout in the Skawa River, hiked the surrounding hills in the summer and skied the same hills in the winter.

Dagmara Yastrzembska works in a clothing shop in Wadowice, a rural town of 20,000, mostly farmers, traders and coal miners. But she couldn't work, couldn't concentrate, because she was glued to the shop radio listening for bulletins about the pope.

Finally, late on Saturday afternoon, just hours before the pontiff died, she grabbed her son David and they went to Mass.

"The Masses are always very emotional here," said Yastrzembska, 30, wiping her eyes as she left the basilica. ""It's so sad now because we know the pope is suffering. We hope his death will end his pain."

Yastrzembska was in primary school when Karol Wojtyla made his first return to his hometown as pope. At the time she didn't understand why all her teachers were crying over his arrival. It was, of course, the same reason she herself was crying on Saturday.

"It was so emotional for them. Now I understand. Soon, all of us in Wadowice will feel like orphans."

Earlier in the day, there was only a small clutch of visitors at his boyhood home, a tiny upstairs apartment where he was born in a back bedroom on May 18, 1920. Just around the corner from the basilica, the house is now a tasteful museum, run by local nuns.

Nearby, in a Catholic souvenir shop, special vanilla-scented prayer candles were the best-selling item. With the pope's portrait on one side and a picture of the basilica on the other, the candles cost 7 zlotys each, about $2.25.

Stanislawa Bulan wept throughout the afternoon Mass, which was celebrated in English by a visiting Irish priest, and she pulled her granddaughter close as they prayed for their pope.

"I brought Camilla with me so she'll remember this moment for the rest of her life," said Bulan, 74.

Bulan was exactly Camilla's age, 12 years old, when she was sent off to the Petrowice concentration camp during World War II. She has plenty of reasons to be bitter and irreligious.

"But the pope changed my life, just as he changed the world with his papacy," she said, wiping away tears that wouldn't stop. "He loved all people, the whole world. He was a totally unique pope. He has lived a wonderful life."

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

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