One day in 1969, the pastor at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, made an announcement to his parishioners. A cardinal from Poland, the archbishop of Krakow, was coming to say Mass.
Stella Gryziec, a beautician, brimmed with excitement. Krakow was not far from her hometown. ”So I strayed for a day from work,” Ms. Gryziec recalled Friday. ”I wanted to see him. Very much.”
Ms. Gryziec, now retired but still quite excitable, is pretty sure she was the first lay person in Greenpoint to see the 49-year-old cardinal, because she pushed her way onto his bus before he took his first step in Brooklyn.
”All the priests were coming off the bus and I just walked past them,” she said. ”They didn’t expect it.” She snapped a photo that sits on the dining room table in her house on Lorimer Street. It shows a handsome man in a priestly robe standing at the front of a bus and looking a little bit surprised.
Thus began Cardinal Karol Wojtyla’s brief stay in Greenpoint, then as now home to the largest Polish community in the city. For those who were there, the memories are still fresh.
Outside the church, Ms. Gryziec (pronounced GRIH-zhets), approached the cardinal again. ”I had the guts to ask, ‘Can I have a picture with your Holiness?’ The pastor said, ‘Stella, how can you pester a cardinal for a picture?’ But the cardinal said, ‘Why not?”’
Cardinal Wojtyla put his arm around Ms. Gryziec’s shoulder.
”Oh, he was strong,” she said. ”Young and strong and very friendly. People were petrified to touch him, but he said, ‘Come on, I’m one of you.”’
After the cardinal’s Mass at St. Stanislaus, an ornate white-and-blue church on Humboldt Street, there was a reception for him at the parish school where he charmed the women some more, said Estelle Jones, 71, now a parish trustee.
”When I got up to meet him, I was with my mom,” Ms. Jones said. ”He asked me in Polish, ‘Are you a good practicing Catholic?’ I said, ‘Yes.”’
The cardinal shot a sly look at her mother. ”Is she?” he asked. Ms. Jones’s mother vouched for her. The cardinal turned back to Ms. Jones, smiling, and said, ”And do you listen to your mother?”
”He was very funny and warm,” Ms. Jones said. ”When he was talking to me he was holding onto my hand, and I was the only person in the room, that’s how it felt. He never was looking around; he looked directly at you.”
Skip ahead nine years. Ms. Gryziec had just returned from a vacation in Poland when she heard the news on the radio. Cardinal Wojtyla was now Pope John Paul II.
She bought a ticket to Rome, then told her boss at the beauty salon that she was going to see the new pope celebrate his first Mass.
”My boss said: ‘Impossible. You’re not going. You just got back from vacation. If you go, you’re fired.’ I said, ‘I’m going, I don’t care; I’ll find another job.”’
Once in Rome, Ms. Gryziec, with three cameras around her neck, bluffed her way after Mass into a private reception for the pope.
”The security asked me, ‘Where’s your ID? Who do you represent?’ I said ‘I’m representing St. Stan’s in Brooklyn.’ When that did not work, she said that she worked for a major American newspaper, that she was a beautician who helped out at the paper at night.
”It’s not nice to tell lie stories,” Ms. Gryziec said, ”but I lied.” (Ms. Gryziec’s job at the salon was waiting for her back in Brooklyn, by the way. ”My boss couldn’t fire me,” she said. ”I was too good of a beautician.”)
In 1996, St. Stan’s celebrated its 100th birthday. The church sent a delegation to the Vatican to give the pope a gift, a model of the church. Estelle Jones presented it to him.
”I got to kiss his ring,” she said. ”That just blew me away. After that, I was worth nothing. I was sobbing by that time.” Over the years, Ms. Gryziec kissed the pope’s ring four times. Tonight, as the pope lies in state, she will get on a plane bound for Rome one more time.
”I have to go,” she said yesterday. ”I want to finish the circle.”
By: ANDY NEWMAN, NY YORK TIMES