Easter Sunday marked the final time the Felician Sisters would bake one of Pope John Paul II's favorite desserts, "sernik," a Polish cheese cake, specifically for the pontiff. By that point, he already was gravely ill and likely couldn't eat the treat, which he had enjoyed for many years on holidays and other special occasions, courtesy of the sisters.
The sernik and other baked goods were part of a decades-old special relationship between the pope and the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Felix of Cantalice, an order of nuns prominent in Buffalo and currently led by Buffalo native Sister Raymond Kasprzak.
The depth of their affection for the pontiff was highlighted during his final hours and death on Saturday.
The sisters stood for five hours in St. Peter's Square, praying the rosary that night in their traditional dark brown habits. After the pope died, some sisters waited in long lines more than once to pay their respects.
In the foyer of their hilltop residence, they kept a tall candle burning in honor of the pontiff and surrounded his portrait with baskets of fresh white and pink azaleas.
Sisters unable to attend the viewing stopped periodically in a house office for live footage broadcast by Vatican television, and the Polish sisters gathered to watch a satellite feed of a special Mass in Poland honoring the pope.
Many of the sisters have roots in heavily Catholic Poland, where the pope is an especially beloved figure. But the pontiff's heritage only explains a portion of his enduring popularity with Polish people, said Sister Marta Zielinska, who entered the congregation in 1979, less than a year after Pope John Paul II's investiture ceremony.
"He was always strong in faith. He always lived what he preached. Always," said Zielinska.
The pope's friendship with the sisters goes way back.
As a young man more than 65 years ago at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, he studied with Sister M. Tyburcia Szymczak, a Felician who lives in Villa Maria Convent in Buffalo. Szymczak has built up a sizable collection of papal memorabilia on display in a special room of the convent.
Prior to his papacy, as archbishop of Krakow, he championed the cause for sainthood of Mary Angela Truszkowska, the foundress of the congregation, and in 1993, he beatified her, a pivotal step in the canonization process. The beatification came after the Vatican determined Dunkirk resident Lillian Halsinski's prayers for Truszkowska's intervention in alleviating her diabetic neuropathy resulted in a miraculous cure. Zielinska continues her work as "postulator," primary organizer and researcher, for the process of Truszkowska's sainthood. The sisters said they would continue to press the cause with the next pope.
While still an archbishop, Karol Wojtyla, the pope's birth name, stayed overnight more than once in the sisters' residence, including a visit prior to his participation in the Second Vatican Council. In 1986, he visited their home on Via del Casaletto, 20 minutes by car from the Vatican, spending time with the sisters and signing a papal blessing.
Two sisters, including Sister Richardine Baranski, a former principal at Cheektowaga's St. Josaphat Parish school, work in the Vatican's office of the secretary of state, which was headed until the pope's death by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, one of the pontiff's closest advisers. Two other Felicians worked in the office of the governor, Cardinal Edmund Casimir Szoka of Detroit.
The office staff are sworn to secrecy about their work, although Baranski and the other Felician on staff, Sister Anita Taddonio of Livonia, Mich., will continue that work until the completion of five-year commitments. Many of the 26 sisters living here had met the pope in a more private setting than the usual huge papal audience and consider their connection with the "people's pope" intensely personal and spiritual.
The Felician Sisters, founded in Poland 150 years ago, continue to be the largest congregation of nuns in the Diocese of Buffalo. They've had a presence with a generalate office in Rome since 1953. Kasprzak was elected minister general from 1988 to 1994 and is in the middle of another six-year term that began in 2000.