The pilgrims who arrived before sunrise Sunday at the Vatican for the canonization of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II didn’t get close to St. Peter’s Square. But they left with historical memories and sudden friendships with strangers.

Early morning crowds in streets near St. Peter's Square

Throngs of the visitors who walked in darkness to the Square arrived to the streets already full. Thousands camped out in chilly temperatures and then stood with little to no room to maneuver.

Joan Nelson and Kate Dube of Las Cruces, New Mexico arrived about 4 a.m. They’ve been in Rome since Holy Week and celebrated Easter Mass at the Square.

“We have felt  totally blessed on this trip,” said Nelson, unfazed that they were suddenly landlocked by other pilgrims.

“We knew we wanted to be here because having two popes canonized on the same day isn't likely to happen again,” Dube said.

Kate Dube and Joan Nelson of Las Cruces, New Mexico pray before the canonization Mass.

The woman’s friendship began two years ago on another pilgrimage to Rome. Since then they try to attend daily Mass together. On Sunday, they quickly made new friends, including an Italian son and his mother who sometimes scolded pushing pilgrims.

Greg Muro of Birmingham, Alabama, whose family is from Italy, also reminded pilgrims that shoving in front of others literally got them nowhere.

Once the celebration began the pilgrims calmed and watched Mass on the large screens set outside the Square.

“Only about two percent of Alabama’s residents are Catholics so it is nice to see the universal Church here,” Muro said.

He ended up helping his fellow pilgrim, Cil Diehl, to paramedics after she got weak from standing five hours waiting for the ceremony to begin.

Diehl saw Pope John Paul in New Orleans in 1987 and felt a connection to him.

“The pope made sure he spent time and visited kids when he was in New Orleans,” she said before she fell ill. “I knew I wanted to be here today.”

Several pilgrims passed the time before the Mass saying the Rosary and getting to know the person in front or besides them.

“I have to admit the crowd at first overwhelmed me,” said Lou Lopez, who traveled from Los Angeles. “But then a woman next to me offered my young niece a piece of candy and we visited for the next four hours. I just met her, yet I feel she was me friend today.”

She also felt grateful for the Italian residents who helped her find her way to her nearby hotel when she lost the address.

“Both popes loved people and, in turn, I felt people loved each other today in memory of them,” Lopez said.

Cindy Brovsky writes from Rome, where she is traveling on pilgrimage with the Archdiocese of Denver.