A blessed day in Baltimore

It was nearly 10 years ago -- Oct. 8, 1995 -- that Pope John Paul II landed in Baltimore. Yet even as he drew his last breaths, the memories of his brief visit remained vibrant in the minds of those he touched.

Whether they were among the many at the Mass in Camden Yards or part of a more intimate gathering for lunch at a downtown soup kitchen, those who saw and met the pope then, while saddened by his death, recall the compassion he radiated, the wisdom he imparted and the gentle manner that defined him.

During his 10-hour stay that Sunday -- the only time a sitting pope has visited the city -- Pope John Paul was ushered around by dignitaries but made a point of seeking out the common man.

And while he stirred the masses, hundreds of thousands of whom watched as he cruised down Pratt Street in the "popemobile," he struck deep chords with those he met with individually, as well.


Justin Farinelli, clutching a bouquet of black-eyed Susans, was one of the first to greet the pope when he arrived at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Farinelli, then 9, and Melissa Brent of Columbia, then 7, had been chosen from area Catholic churches to present the pope with bouquets of the state flower.

"I cried for three days when they called and asked," said his mother, Cathy Farinelli of Pasadena, who still attends the same Catholic church, St. Jane Frances de Chantal.

Justin, who will turn 19 in August, is now a freshman at Salisbury University.

"I was in the fourth grade then, but I remember it pretty well," he said. "We showed up at the airport and met the governor and the mayor, and we all went out to where the plane was going to taxi in."

"The plane was late, but when it got there, all the cardinals came out and lined up, and then the pope came down. ... I remember being in complete amazement watching Cardinal Keeler kneel and kiss his ring."

The pope then hugged the children - a moment captured in a photograph that still hangs on the wall of the family home. It looks awkward in the photograph, but it wasn't, Justin said.

"I was holding this huge bouquet of flowers, and I was afraid I was going to drop them, but it wasn't awkward at all, it was just, wow, I couldn't believe this was happening. I was completely awestruck.

"I couldn't wait to tell my friends, and back in school, all my teachers wanted to talk about it. It was like my 15 minutes of fame right there," said Farinelli. "As time has gone on, and I've really thought about it, it just gets more unbelievable."

The pope gave both of the children a rosary, in a case with his signature.

"We've always been a practicing Catholic family, but this was like seeing the reality of your faith," Cathy Farinelli said. "It has been something to hold onto."


At 3 a.m. on the morning of the Mass at Camden Yards, choir director George Miller and about 80 students from the chapel choir at Loyola College headed toward the stadium.

"We had to be on the field for sound checks at some ungodly hour like 5:30 a.m.," he recalled. "But for those students, it was a once-in-a-lifetime event."

That day, choirs from Loyola and Morgan State University represented the young adults that Pope John Paul II held so dear.

The choir helped provide music for two hours leading up to the Mass ("We sang right before Boyz II Men - pretty hot stuff at the time"), then were given "very nice seats in the stands where we could chill and enjoy the spectacle of it all," Miller recalled.

When the pope entered the stadium, he drove around the field several times in the white popemobile.

"The kids were still on the periphery of the field, so everyone could see him pretty well," Miller says. "It was an extraordinary day. The fact that my students were so enthusiastic, so generous, so giving just made me feel like the proud papa."


Gino DeSimone isn't a gambler, but the chance to receive a sacrament from the pope seemed too good to pass up.

When the church he and his wife, Robin, and Alex, their newborn son, attended in Richmond announced that they would hold a drawing for two tickets to the pope's appearance at Camden Yards, "We said what the heck. We put our names on pieces of paper and said let's see what happens."

DeSimone, a sales director who lives in Midlothian, Va., and Robin, a preschool teacher, won the lottery and received Communion from the pope, who stood at an altar surrounded by outfield grass.

"You're usually not hit with spirituality at the ballpark," DeSimone said, "but it was really dramatic. It was incredible."

"The pope has a warmth and a genuineness and a peacefulness about him," he added. "He's a bridge to God."


What Sister Marilyn Spellman remembers most are the waves of people lined up three and four deep on downtown sidewalks as the pope took part in a parade after the Mass.

"It was the city and the state coming out, people of all faiths and persuasions," she recalled.

That, she says, will be Pope John Paul's legacy: his willingness and eagerness to take to the streets, to meet the faithful and unfaithful alike.

Sister Marilyn of the Holy Union Sisters coordinated Catholic Relief Services' participation in the visit, supervising everything from the ordering of commemorative T-shirts to finding volunteers to carry flags during the pre-Mass festivities at Camden Yards.

Now 71, she got to shake hands with the pope just before he boarded a helicopter for his next stop. A photograph of that moment still hangs on her office wall.


George Thompson was an 80-year-old volunteer at Our Daily Bread the day the pope stopped in. He's a 90-year-old volunteer there now.

"I cooked for him," Thompson said, reciting the menu. "We decided on chicken casserole. And I had mixed vegetables. And a salad and a dessert. Ice cream and cake."

Thompson worked for 30 years in Washington, D.C., as a bartender at the Republican Club and the President's Club on Capitol Hill. Having attended to the beverage needs of every Republican president from Eisenhower to the elder George Bush, serving a celebrity was nothing new.

He was awestruck nevertheless.

"He was very stately when he came in, a beautiful type of person," Thompson said. "You don't expect what you see. You expect something greater than me walking as a man. That's just the way it is. There's just a normal person there, but you take him as untouchable."


Tom and Judy Mulrenin were among a group of 19 people who had lunch with pope during his Baltimore visit at Our Daily Bread, a soup kitchen.

Sitting at a large table, the group - all people who had been served by local Catholic social services programs - ate creamed chicken casserole, after which the pope spoke briefly.

Before he left, Judy Mulrenin said, the pope took her left hand in his, stroked her right cheek and said, "So you're the mother of adopted children. God bless you."

The Annapolis couple have, in addition to a birth child, two children they adopted from Korea through a Catholic Charities international adoption program. Judy Mulrenin said they were invited to the lunch by a social worker to represent adoptive families. Others at the lunch included an unwed mother, a homeless person, a recovering drug addict and a man with Down syndrome.

"It was a wonderful experience for us to have," she said. "It was an honor and something I wouldn't trade."

Both of the children - Kaitlin, now 18, is a high school senior; Connor, now 15, is a sophomore - have come to realize the importance of the day, if they didn't at the time.

In middle school, both included their meeting with the pope in timelines of their lives. Connor illustrated his with a picture of the pope kissing him.

The Mulrenins were given a rosary and an Italian-made plate, blessed by the pope, commemorating the visit. They saved newspaper articles, and they have a photo of Tom shaking hands with the pope hanging in their home.

"I was struck most by his gentle manner," said Tom Mulrenin, an attorney in Annapolis. "When he came into the soup kitchen, I'm sure he was exhausted. He'd been up since very early, had a Mass in Newark, then another one in Camden Yards. But the first thing he wanted to do, instead of sitting down to eat, was to meet each of the kitchen staff who had cooked and were going to serve him the meal.

"What struck me was, here was a very powerful, very holy man, but it just felt in his presence that he was very much a common man," Mulrenin added.

"It was an unforgettable experience. I think it renewed my faith, absolutely," Mulrenin said.


Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, was among the invited guests at an ecumenical prayer service with the pope, held after the luncheon.

The pope spoke "about how to come together to solve problems when we know we may have different points of views on different issues," Hrabowski said of the service, held in the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.

The UMBC president stood close to where the pope made his way down the aisle of the cathedral, decorated with ferns and yellow chrysanthemums. "He stopped and shook some hands," Hrabowski said. "I was just struck by his wanting to touch people and connect."


There is a Bible story about Zacchaeus the tax collector, who had to climb a tree to get a glimpse of Jesus in a crowd. "He couldn't see him for the press," says one translation of the story.

It was just like that for Theresa Wiseman, who, as Theresa Giardina, helped the Archdiocese Of Baltimore manage reporters during the pope's visit in 1995.

"I remember we were in the Basilica of the Assumption in one of the media areas, and I was pushing reporters so they could be closer to him. I caught a glimpse of him, but I thought that would be it," said Wiseman, now director of media relations for the College of Notre Dame in Baltimore.

But to her surprise and delight she was taken with some other workers to meet the pope on the tarmac at BWI Airport just before he boarded his plane and departed.

"It was something I didn't expect or anticipate," Wiseman said. "It is a highlight of my life, if not the highlight."


Pope John Paul's big day in Baltimore was also a moment in the sun for Father Dennis Diehl, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi church in Howard County. Diehl participated in television coverage of the visit, providing commentary for the prayer service at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen as well as the Mass at Camden Yards.

Diehl had met the pontiff several years earlier in Rome, but remembers feeling thrilled that he was visiting. He also recalls that, though Pope John Paul's health was frail even then, it didn't prevent him from making some last-minute schedule adjustments.

"The pope was supposed to simply drive by St. Mary's Seminary, which was the first seminary in the United States, then get on the helicopter and go to the airport where Vice President [Al] Gore was waiting to say goodbye.

"But when he got to the seminary, he decided he wanted to go in and pray. So they pulled the popemobile up to the chapel. Even though the vice president was waiting, he was going to do what he wanted to do."


The Rev. Michael White, an assistant to Cardinal Keeler at the time, was in charge of logistics for the visit to Baltimore. He spent the entire day in the pope's company, including the Mass, the parade and his arrival and departure at BWI.

But what sprang to mind as he recalled that day was a humbler memory of a more private moment.

The day promised to be so overwhelming, White said, that he scheduled some time after lunch for the pope to rest in a room in Cardinal Keeler's residence.

White arranged for refreshments - a pitcher of water, a fruit basket and other fare - to be left on a side table in the room. He led his guest upstairs, watched him enter the room, and waited outside.

After a little while, the door opened and the pope's secretary emerged.

"[The pope] wants to know if it's all right if we eat some of that food," the secretary inquired.

"That story says it all about the guy," said White, now a pastor at the Church of the Holy Nativity in Timonium. "He was a simple man and a holy one. He was the real deal."

Sun staff writers Joe Burris, Tom Dunkel, Jonathan Pitts, Susan Reimer, Carl Schoettler, Stephanie Shapiro and Linell Smith contributed to this article.