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BUFFALO'S WARM LINKS TO ROME HELP COVER THE STORY

When Buffalo News reporter Jay Tokasz arrived at his lodgings in Rome, he wasn't handed a key to the hotel mini-bar. But he did get a personalized welcome sign on his room door -- and his own rosary.

That's because Tokasz, who is in Rome to cover Pope John Paul II's funeral and the installation of a new pontiff, is staying at a convent, thanks to a group of Felician nuns who have strong ties to the Buffalo area.

Two weeks ago, as the pope's health started deteriorating rapidly, Tokasz began scrambling for a place to stay in Rome. On the recommendation of another reporter, he got in touch with Sister Raymond Kasprzak, a Buffalo native who leads the order in Rome. He intended only to ask her about places to stay.

"She said the sisters had room, so I took her up on the offer," Tokasz says. Their convent on Via del Casaletto is in a beautiful hilltop setting about a 20-minute drive from the Vatican.

Soon after his arrival, the small world of Buffalo-Rome connections began to kick in.

It turned out that one of the Felician nuns in Rome, Sister Richardine, had been Tokasz's grade-school principal at St. Josaphat school in Cheektowaga.

"I met her at dinner the second night I was here and thought she looked and sounded awfully familiar," Tokasz said. Soon, they made the Cheektowaga connection. Sister Richardine now works for the Vatican.

"The Felicians have been unbelievably gracious and generous hosts and they've provided invaluable insight about getting around Rome," Tokasz told me in an e-mail.

They are not, however, what you'd call night owls.

"Most sisters are asleep by 10 p.m., when most of the lights go out, their German shepherd guard dog, Star, gets let out, and the security alarm gets turned on. That means I have to be back to the generalate by 9 p.m. or so."

These sensible hours -- not to mention the no-doubt calming presence of his old school principal -- give Tokasz time to recuperate from some exhausting days of reporting.

He spent his initial time in Rome standing in line for nine hours, over the course of two days, getting his reporter's accreditation. After that, it's been a non-stop flurry of reporting and writing stories, most of which have appeared on The News' front page.

In Friday's afternoon editions, for example, Tokasz's byline not only appeared on the story chronicling the dramatic funeral and burial, but also on a sidebar about a Buffalo priest, Father Ronald Sciera, who shared a close friendship with the pope that began decades ago in Poland.

"I want to put Buffalo readers at the scene and also show how Buffalo was and is connected to the pope and the Vatican in very tangible ways," Tokasz said.

Tokasz, a Cheektowaga native and graduate of Ithaca College, came to The News three years ago after a reporting stint at the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. His work is characterized by graceful, well-structured writing and solid reporting.

"Jay brings insight and clarity to religion reporting, and an understanding of the importance of religion in people's lives," says Deputy Managing Editor Stan Evans, who heads The News' local news staff.

Evans also notes that the Rome assignment is a difficult one since Tokasz does not know Polish or Italian, both important languages for this story.

"He's basically parachuted into a very chaotic situation and immediately started writing important stories," Evans notes. "That's an incredible challenge."

Now that the pontiff has been laid to rest, Tokasz will take a short breather and then get back to work as a new pontiff is chosen and installed.

Thanks to the Felician sisters, he still has a place to stay.