Memories of The Papal Visit

Memories of The Papal Visit

A brief moment in time captured for a lifetime; a baby’s calm demeanor among thousands of people who had gathered for Mass in 1984

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Many people in this province have memories of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Newfoundland in September 1984. Few likely have a keepsake as precious as the one that has often been a conversation piece in Eleanor Dawson’s home.

A Quick kiss

Pope John Paul II gives his blessing to a fleet of fishing boats in Flatrock Nfld., Wednesday Sept. 12, 1984.

The photo is of the Pope in front of a crowd of people gathered near Quidi Vidi Lake where he would be celebrating Mass. Dawson is at the front of the crowd. She holds her 13-month-old daughter, Monica Walsh, towards the Pope as he passes in front of the crowd. The Pontiff places his hand on the baby’s head and gives her a quick kiss.

A brief moment in time captured for a lifetime; a baby’s calm demeanor among thousands of people who had gathered for the Mass. Dawson went to see the Pope on the spur of the moment. She was home with her daughter and three-year-old son, Brendan, at the time.

“I walked down to the (Memorial) Stadium… People had been there for hours but, when they saw me with the children, they directed me right up to the front. We were all pushed forward and someone put Brendan up on their shoulders.”

Her baby was oblivious to what was happening, Dawson said, and was contentedly eating a bagel. The picture has become a family heirloom, she said.

“My relatives all wanted a copy. They really liked the picture. I remember giving it to some of them for Christmas. It’s been wonderful to have that memory of such a beautiful visit that was so positive for the community,” Dawson recalled.

Monica Walsh has heard the story behind the picture many times over the years. “I used to get teased a little growing up because I was more concerned about eating my bagel when everyone around me was very concerned about the Pope. But I felt like I was very special because I was kissed by the Pope.”

Historical significance

As she got older, she said, she began to appreciate the photo for its historical significance.

“For years people would talk about the Pope’s visit in ’84. And I’d say, ‘Yes, I was one of the babies that he kissed.’”

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John’s estimates that 80,000 people participated in the Mass at Quidi Vidi Lake. With over 100 priests, 1,000 communion ministers and a choir and 60-piece orchestra, the Mass was the largest ever celebrated in Newfoundland. 

The late – and great – Larry Dohey was director of programming and public engagement at the Rooms Corporation in St. John’s. (The province is now mourning his sudden death on Aug. 28).

On his website Archival Moments (archivalmoments.ca) he noted that the Pope’s visit was to help celebrate the 200th Anniversary of the establishment of the Catholic Church in Newfoundland. 

The Pope’s schedule included the Blessing of the Fishing Fleet at Flatrock, meeting with people with disabilities at Memorial Stadium in St. John’s, celebrating Mass at Pleasantville near Quidi Vidi Lake and meeting youth at Memorial University and catholic educators at the Basilica Cathedral.

John Paul II died on April 2, 2005. He was 84 years old. 

Dohey wrote that the Pope is remembered as a champion of human freedom, a tireless advocate of peace and a man with a wonderful sense of humour who was easy to talk to. Dohey had first hand-experience of just how easy the Pope was to talk to. He was among a group of altar servers at the Mass in Pleasantville.

Canonized a saint

“Breaking with protocol, the Pope broke away from the formal procession to the altar to the chagrin of security to greet those who were serving the Mass. We chatted for a very short time,” he wrote.

On May 1, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI beatified the late Pope John Paul II. Beatification means that a person’s life has displayed certain qualities that are worthy of imitation by other Christians. He was canonized a saint in the church on April 24, 2014. 

“I can now say that I spoke and shook hands with a saint,” Dohey wrote.

Dohey shared his comments for this story in an e-mail on Aug. 19.

He recalled the excitement around the visit and the Mass that put him close to his Holiness. The world knew the Pope as an athlete, an actor, an enemy of communism, a world traveller, a polyglot and he was here in Newfoundland and Labrador, Dohey recalled.

Dohey was the cross-bearer for the Mass (the person appointed to carry the church’s processional cross) at Quidi Vidi. It was a very cold day, he said. “The staff was metal, really cold on the hands,” he recalled.

All of those serving the Mass were a bit nervous, Dohey said.

Broadcast nationally

“We were especially anxious about timing. We were told that this Mass was going to be broadcast nationally and every step had to be coordinated.”

The servers were also told that the Pope’s schedule would not allow him to meet with those that were serving the Mass.

“But he spotted the group of us – all dressed (in) matching cassock and surplice – and started to approach us. We quickly formed a line and he greeted each of us individually, giving us a small box containing rosary beads. We all had a photo taken with him. Mother hung them ever so proudly on her living room wall.” 

We offer sincere condolences to Larry Dohey’s husband Ian Martin as well as his other family and friends.

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