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Twenty years ago, Janina Chmielewski wept tears of joy as she stood face to face with Pope John Paul II in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

In 1985, she was one of hundreds in the pews where her cries became so pronounced that she was brought up to the front of the altar to meet the Holy Father.

On Sunday, the 61-year-old South Ogden Street resident stood in the lobby of St. Stanislaus Catholic Church after the noon Mass and relived her fond memories with tears falling down her face.

"He shook my hands," Chmielewski recalled, her arms outstretched to demonstrate the pope's delicate touch.

"He blessed me. He was so kind, and he was so happy to see me. . . . He said, 'Don't cry. Don't cry.' "

John Paul's death Saturday after a 26-year reign sent Chmielewski into a deep mourning. Her grief was shared by 1.1 billion Catholics around the world, including more than 70,000 in the Diocese of Buffalo, as well as non-Catholics.

The Polish-born pontiff's ties to Western New York run deep. In 1969, he became the first Polish cardinal to visit this country when he made his first stop at St. Stanislaus, the mother church of Western New York's Catholic Polish-American community. On Sunday, hundreds of parishioners flocked to services in St. Stanislaus at 123 Townsend St., near Broadway and Fillmore Avenue, in the heart of Buffalo's East Side.

They included Betsy O'Donnell, a Polish-American who said the passing of the 84-year-old pontiff reignited memories of June 2002, when she and her husband were among dozens of newly married couples who received a personal blessing from the pope.

"I told him I loved him very much," said O'Donnell, a Buffalo native and member of St. Stanislaus who now lives in California. "He nodded his head and smiled. He touched my hand. Even now I still feel that warmth. It was an incredible experience."

O'Donnell said she most admired the pope's impact across the world as the most-traveled pontiff in history, the first pope to step into a mosque and the man who helped topple communism in Europe.

"I'm sad because I know there's no one else like him," she said. "He was the people's pope. . . . He genuinely liked people -- young people, old people and people of different cultures and ethnicities."

At St. Aloysius Gonzaga Catholic Church at 157 Cleveland Drive in Cheektowaga, Doug Stanley and Tom Nadrowski shared their thoughts on the pope as they left the 5 p.m. Sunday Mass.

"He broke down a lot of barriers," Stanley said. "He set foot in communist Cuba when he didn't believe in communism. It was not only a religious move, but a political move."

"It's going to be tough to fill his shoes," Nadrowski added. "He even visited some countries where it was illegal to be Catholic. This is a big loss for Catholics across the world."

Roman Szeglowski of West Seneca saw the pope on three occasions -- once in New York City and twice in Toronto -- while standing in crowds.

"I feel very sad . . . very, very sad. I just feel terrible," said Szeglowski, clad in a black suit. "He was like my father. He was born in the same year as my mother, 1920, and my older cousin went to school with him (in Poland)."

Mary Cisar never met the pope but said she felt a special connection to him from afar.

"When he could walk, he kissed the ground in every country that he visited. I would get the chills. It was just so meaningful," the Lancaster resident said. "We're proud because he's Polish, but that wasn't it. We're also proud because he brought in a new era of the Catholic Church."

Two decades ago, upon meeting the pope, Chmielewski had been so overcome by tears and a flood of emotions that she was urged to seek hospital treatment. But she did not need medical help. She simply was overwhelmed by the encounter.

Sunday, as she tried to cope with the loss of the pontiff, her feelings were reminiscent of that memorable day.

"I've been crying so much," she said, dabbing away more tears. "My dream is to see him again, and now he's dead. . . . I'm so very upset."


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