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It was a familiar scene for Pope John Paul II.

Wherever he went, children joyfully wrapped their arms around him, as if a favorite uncle had arrived for a visit.

It happened here, too, years before Karol Wojtyla started his epic papacy.

John Paul II never visited Western New York during his tenure as pontiff; his closest stop was Toronto, on two separate occasions.

But as archbishop of Krakow, Cardinal Wojtyla made memorable journeys to Buffalo in 1969 and again in 1976.

Awestruck children welcomed him both times.

"It was a huge event at the time," Kathleen Hoffman, who was 7 years old when she greeted Wojtyla in September 1969 at the Peace Bridge, said recently. "He was the biggest thing that was in the area as far as the Catholic church was concerned."

No one anticipated then exactly how big he would become.

Wojtyla, a youthful and healthy 49 at the time, was feted with flowers and welcoming banners, as well as Polish dancing by students from the Polish Millennium School.

Hoffman remembered a smiling, enthusiastic cardinal who quickly warmed to the children.

Wojtyla celebrated Mass for more than 1,000 people in St. Stanislaus Church. He also presented the church's pastor, Monsignor Peter J. Adamski, a special gift -- relics of St. Stanislaus, the patron saint of Poland -- as "an expression of the ties which exist between American Polonia and Poland," he said.

The cardinal returned to Buffalo in 1976, 26 months before he became pope.

Again, a group of children welcomed Wojtyla at Greater Buffalo International Airport, singing "Sto Lat," a Polish tune wishing him 100 years of life.

He celebrated Mass in St. Casimir's Church, another largely Polish-American Buffalo parish, and visited St. Francis High School in Athol Springs.

Buffalo nearly received another visit. The city was one of three finalists to play host to the pontiff's World Youth Day in 1993, only to be edged out by Denver.

The man who revolutionized the papacy with his extensive travels made his final trip to North America in 2002, captivating hundreds of thousands at World Youth Day in Toronto.

Several hundred from Buffalo joined the throngs.

For nearly a week, teens and twentysomethings sang the pope's praises. They embraced him with their chants, "JP Two, we love you."

And John Paul II hugged back, in his inimitable way.

Stooped and shaking noticeably, he struggled with the ravages of Parkinson's disease to complete his homily.

"You are young, and the pope is old," he told them during a Mass, "82 or 83 years of life is not the same as 22 or 23."

"But the pope," he continued, "still fully identifies with your hopes and aspirations."


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