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A room with a view to the past and ties to a saint

The bare, pine-paneled bedroom in St. Casimir’s rectory remains frozen in time, to an August day and two nights in 1976.

A plain white spread covers the bed. A cross hangs on the wall next to a picture of Madonna and child. Long drapes touch the floor, parted and offering a view of the tall pines that stand between St. Casimir’s rectory and the neighborhood.

The bedroom is where Cardinal Karol Wojtyla slept two nights when he visited Buffalo 38 years ago.

Much has changed in the world since then. Poland is no longer under communist rule. The cardinal became Pope John Paul II, and Pope John Paul II now has become a saint in the Roman Catholic Church.

But the bedroom at St. Casimir’s in Buffalo’s Kaisertown stays the same. It has become like a museum, soon to open.

Many Buffalo Catholics feel especially close to John Paul II, in part because of his Polish birth and the large Polish population of this community, and also because of his visit to Buffalo. So the faithful have saved and preserved their connections to him and now want to share that with others.

That is why St. Casimir’s is offering to visitors and pilgrims public viewing of the bedroom suite where he once slept.

In addition, St. Stanislaus Church on the East Side has a certified relic, a drop of John Paul’s blood on a bit of cloth now at the center of a golden cross.

The bedroom suite at St. Casimir’s now includes a “Papal Post-It Prayer Room,” which opens today. Brightly colored Post-Its are present for people to write their prayers and stick them to the wall next to a life-size photo of Karol Wojtyla as a cardinal in red robes.

“Saint John Paul II, protect our diocese ...” read a single yellow paper on the wall last week.

Bishop Richard Malone, who was invited to post the first prayer, penned it.

The Rev. Czeslaw Krysa, St. Casimir’s rector, explained why the parish is opening the room.

“He came to us. Now we want to introduce him to others,” the Niagara Falls native explained. “He left a little bit of himself.”

Wojtyla stayed at St. Casimir’s rectory because the former pastor, the late Monsignor Ed Kazmierczak, was president of the Polish-American Priests Association.

The International Eucharistic Congress was held that summer in Philadelphia, and the priests’ organization arranged for the Polish visitors to tour cities like Detroit, Chicago and Buffalo, which held large concentrations of Polish-Americans.

Krysa said he was a young seminarian when Wojtyla and 18 visiting bishops stopped to sightsee at the falls. Krysa was standing by the observation tower at the falls when he approached the cardinal and kissed his ring.

“Then he came back to me, grabbed me by the arm and said, ‘What kind of community is this?’ ”

He remembers telling the cardinal that there were Polish Masses and traditions were kept.

“He was very impressed,” recalled Krysa, who has led St. Casimir for the last three years.

Krysa and parishioners began fixing up the bedroom suite last fall for the anniversary of Wojtyla’s election to the papacy. “He lives on with us,” Krysa said. “Now being a saint, he also can help us.”

Believers can petition St. John Paul II for help with requests like health, job searches, safe travels and for his specialty of dealing with Parkinson’s, a disease the pope had.

At St. Stanislaus, the Rev. Thaddeus “Ted” Bocianowski three years ago obtained a snip of bloodied cloth the size of a pencil eraser tip after asking the pope’s former secretary for something that belonged to John Paul II.

Bocianowski said he got to know Wojtyla in Poland when Bocianowski was going to seminary in the 1960s. At that time, Wojtyla was archbishop of Krakow and a professor who went to student theological conferences.

“I grew up with him,” said Bocianowski, in Polish-accented English.

In 2000, when Bocianowski made a trip to the Vatican and spoke with John Paul II, the pope made a point of fondly mentioning Bocianowski’s adopted American home.

“I remember Buffalo,” John Paul II said as he grabbed Bocianowski’s hands. “Say, ‘hello’ to them. And I pray for them.”

While he’s been keeping the relic in a locked altar box, he wants to add a spot for it at the base of a glistening statue of John Paul set closer to the pews.

“You can pray to him for many graces,” Bocianowski said. “It’s easier if I have something from him.”

On an afternoon last week, one of St. Casimir’s longtime parishioners stepped through the second-floor pastor’s rooms, the private quarters where the cardinal had slept, and recalled his visit long ago.

Pat Mazurek had stood across the street on her porch when Wojtyla and the bishops headed to church in procession on that August day 38 years ago.

She remembers the details of the day. Everybody who was anybody in the Polish community was there. Her mother, now 101, stood on the porch beside her, ecstatic.

The cardinal smiled, waved and stopped to talk. St. Casimir was filled for his Mass. Mazurek didn’t go in, but from her spot behind the porch rail, she had an excellent view.

“He was the kind you’d want to take and just hug him and say, ‘Let us help you,’ ” Mazurek said.

As she stood last week in the bedroom where he slept, she thought the room suited him.

“It’s plain and simple, the way the pope appeared to be,” she said. “...You can just picture him in here.”