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A GUEST WHO BECAME POPE

As Pope John Paul II was laid to rest last week, Leonard and Anne Szczesny recalled the day he stopped by their Cheektowaga home for dinner.

It was 1969, when he was still Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, archbishop of Krakow, making a visit to Buffalo.

Anne's father, Marion Strzelczyk, lived upstairs from the couple. "Father Edward Kazmierczak and a bishop from Poland are coming by," he told his daughter. "Can you organize some kind of dinner?"

The Szczesnys (pronounced SHEZ-nee) didn't know the man coming to dinner, and thought nothing of it.

Anne's father, a lawyer and judge back in Poland, was well known in Buffalo's Polish community. The couple's Alaska Street home was opened for many Polish dignitaries passing through the region.

Their guest arrived and sat down at the Szczesny dining room table for a traditional Polish meal -- probably something like pork loin and red cabbage and boiled potatoes. They sipped on cognac.

As hosts, the Szczesnys' job was to make sure there was enough food and drink on the table. Their elders, meanwhile, ate and conversed in Polish about world events, communism and the political situation in their homeland.

What the Szczesnys remember, though, is how Wojtyla -- then youthful and healthy at 49 -- took an interest in everyone around the table. He would ask them questions.

When did you come to Buffalo?

What do you do for work?

Was it difficult adjusting to life in Buffalo?

"You didn't feel like you were lesser than him in his presence," said Anne while retelling the story last week. "I think that's why he was so much loved."

The dinner ended after a couple of hours, and the Szczesnys' guest from Poland left.

The Szczesnys would be among the many who greeted Wojtyla when he came to Buffalo again in 1976. More than two years later, he was appointed pope.

The Szczesnys were stunned.

Of course, if they could have known that day what the future had in store they would have asked their dinner guest so many more questions, or at least taken a picture.

Over the years, Leonard, now 73 and retired from Ford Motor Co., and Anne, 63 and retired from teaching, would only see Pope John Paul II from a distance among the throngs of supporters and well-wishers.

Actually, through the years, they hadn't thought much about that dinner -- at least until recently. "We didn't really remember anything awe-inspiring," Anne said. "He was just a nice person to spend an evening with," Leonard said.

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com

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