Polish-Americans Remember Pope

As thousands of Poles gathered for mass at St. Anne's Cathedral in Warsaw Sunday to remember Pope John Paul II (search), Polish expatriates joined in at Restaurant Pyza in Greenpoint, a mostly Polish area of Brooklyn, N.Y.

"It's a dark despair," said a man named Janek, 50, who has visited Wadowice, John Paul's hometown. His friend, Krzysztof, 33, nodded in agreement as they ate their dinners and joined in the prayers on TV.

The death of the Polish-born pope sent shockwaves through many Polish communities in the United States, including Greenpoint. According to the 2000 census, the largest population of Poles in the U.S. can be found in New York state.

"I love this man a lot. It's such a great shock," said Zygmunt Sawicki, 69, who emigrated from Poland 26 years ago. "He showed us how to leave life in peace."

Bogumila Bielawiec, 43, who heard the news while shopping for groceries, cried so hard that she woke up with puffy eyes Sunday.

"Everyone was so quiet when they heard the news at the store," she said. "It's the kind of shock beyond description."

"When I heard the news, I sat in silence for a couple of hours," said Andrzej Luczkowski, 50, who came to the United States in 2002. "It was such a shock. He was a great human being."

Many said they felt John Paul II, who became the first Polish pope on Oct. 16, 1978, represented more than just the Polish population.

"He united the whole world. He's not here and we're all praying," said Boleslaw Jerzak, 64, who visits United States with his wife, Lucyna, every couple of years. "All of the churches are filled."

The 264th pope also served as an inspiration to the young.

"He was a good guy who did a lot of good," said Simon Scibek, 15, of Queens, N.Y. "He lived how Jesus wanted people to live."

Lucyna Jerzak added that her 14-year-old grandson could not fall asleep when he learned the pope had died. "Young people loved him," she said.

John Paul II was the most-traveled pope, visiting almost 130 countries, but many young and old traveled great distances to see him, too.

In 1996, Czeslawa Aptazy, 66, traveled more than 600 miles to Rome, where she had the opportunity to shake hands with the pontiff.

"It sent shivers through my spine. It was remarkable," she said. "He livened up the crowd."

Malgorzata, 28, agreed. She saw the pope in 1997 when he came to visit Poland. "He told us a joke that made the whole crowd laugh," she said.

The cashier at Polonia Ksiegarnia (search), a well-known bookstore in Greenpoint, said not only Polish customers are emptying the shelves of books about the pontiff. The store has had to order more books to keep up with the demand.

The pope's popularity will not die with him, especially because of his influential visit to Poland in 1979, which drew millions of people and inspired Poles to challenge their communist government.

"The pope was right to get involved in breaking down communism," said Sawicki. " He's our religious leader and fellow countryman."

"He was an everyday man and someone from beyond," said Luczkowski. "He behaved like a normal human being, yet he wasn't afraid to reach out to any person, healthy or sick, and to hug every child. He wasn't afraid to die."

"My kids told me that when he was dying, he said, 'Amen.' He knew," added Bielawiec. "I'm sure he'll be buried in the Vatican, but his heart will return to Poland."