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POPE'S TIES TO WNY WERE UNIQUE
ANN ODRE OF BLASDELL WAS SHOT AT SAME TIME AS PONTIFF

Pope John Paul II's connections to Buffalo extended beyond his travels here as a cardinal nearly 29 years ago.

The most dramatic link was to Ann Odre, the Blasdell woman struck by a bullet during Mehmet Ali Agca's 1981 attempt to assassinate the pope.

Both the pontiff and Odre were seriously wounded, and their injuries forever bonded them.

They met on three occasions after that fateful day in St. Peter's Square, greeting each other with hugs and chatting in Polish.

Odre recalled the ordeal in an interview with The Buffalo News seven months after the shooting: "I was having so much fun standing on a chair watching for the pope. But then I could hear the whizzing of the bullet and didn't know if it was the bullet or what that hit me. But it felt like a hot poker in my body."

Odre died in 1997.

Sister M. Tyburcia Szymczak met Karol Jozef Wojtyla years before he would help change the course of history, when he was still known to family and friends as "Lolek," a childhood nickname.

She and a teenage Wojtyla were students in 1938 at Jagiellonian University in Krakow.

"I happened to sit right by him," said Szymczak, then a young Felician sister sent with a few other nuns to Poland for language studies. "He noticed we weren't perfect in Polish."

Szymczak is now 90 and lives in Villa Maria Convent. She spoke about her recollections of Wojtyla during a 2003 interview.

She remembered a studious and sociable young man who had an affinity for the theater.

"He would say, 'Sisters, there's a good performance coming. I want you to see it,' " she said.

Though serious and ambitious, the young man didn't talk of becoming a priest. "If I would know that he would be the future pope, maybe I would pay more attention," said Szymczak.

She lost touch with Wojtyla after the last day of classes in June 1939. Germany's invasion of Poland later that year forced him to take his studies underground.

Szymczak wouldn't see him in person again until 43 years later -- when her former classmate was Pope John Paul II. One of thousands that day to see the pope in the Vatican, she was unable to get very close.

"Too bad I didn't yell, 'Your holiness, do you remember Professor Nitsche?' " she said.

Former Rep. John LaFalce maintains a vivid memory of the Holy Father's inaugural Mass in 1978.

"I look back on it as maybe the most memorable day of my career," said LaFalce.

At the Mass in St. Peter's Square, LaFalce was part of a U.S. delegation representing President Jimmy Carter. He recalled how seats were assigned at the event for nearly every nation.

"It made we realize the universality of the church in a way I hadn't before," he said. LaFalce met with the pope again during John Paul II's first visit to the White House.

Several Buffalo priests and a few Polish-American community lay leaders had unique ties to the pope, as well.

Monsignor Robert E. Zapfel, pastor of St. Leo the Great parish in Amherst, worked in the Vatican as part of the Congregation for Catholic Education and had several meetings with the pope.

The Rev. Daniel Bialkowski, administrator of St. John Gualbert parish in Cheektowaga, studied in Krakow, Poland, when the country was under martial law and once delivered private letters from the chancery there to the Vatican. As a reward, Bialkowski met privately with the pontiff.

A couple of Western New York surgeons, neither of them Catholic, also met with the pope, who more than any other pontiff focused on expanding the church's relationships with other faith groups.

Dr. Jeffrey Meilman, a plastic surgeon, and Dr. Amar Atwal, an eye surgeon, were among 20 people who had a 20-minute private audience with the pope in the Vatican in 1992, following their humanitarian visit to Poland.

Meilman is Jewish, and Atwal is a Sikh. The pope gave them a personal blessing in thanks for their free operations on Polish children and elderly patients.

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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