GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. — Poland native and Colorado resident Waclaw Topor didn’t need a camera to capture the 1972 visit of Blessed Pope John Paul II — then Cardinal Karol Josef Wojtyla — to his small Polish village, the day he was an altar boy for the soon-to-be saint. He says it was a day he’s not about to forget.
The picture lives on instant recall in the mind of 58-year-old Topor, a resident of the Centennial State for 23 years, as vivid as it was the day he experience it in person. Even more than 30 years before the saintly pope’s death, Topor remembers it was clear that John Paul had eclipsed the faith of the common man.
The village of 2,200 people, Szaflary, on the south side of Poland, had prepared for weeks, welcoming Cardinal Wojtyla with more than 1,800 horses in procession and countless homes decorated with flowers for the occasion.
“I was nervous — very nervous. Shaking,” Topor recalls. “Very close to a person like him, essentially, you can feel the power, you can feel the blessing from Karol Wojtyla. He was something different, something holy, something that gives you goose bumps just remembering. Somebody who was so close to Jesus, it’s hard to describe.”
Topor was an altar boy for 10 years at his Church of St. Andrew the Apostle, and he was a young teen when the man who would become pope in less than a decade visited.
“I am guessing there were at least 100 boys, and there were lines and lines of altar boys in the sacristy before the Mass,” he said. Cardinal Wojtyla blessed them each and allowed them to kiss the episcopal ring on his hand. “As he was saying the blessing to us, he would come to us and put his hands on our head. You could see his smile and the blessing — we felt this big blessing. We bowed to him. He was very like Jesus — in love with kids. He was so happy to see so many altar boys.”
“In the ’70s, we didn’t have any pictures,” said Topor, who says he’ll be looking for photos from that day in church the next time he makes the approximately 5,000-mile trip to his childhood hometown. “At that time, the camera was a big deal. Now, everybody’s got a smartphone; everybody’s got an iPhone; everybody’s got an iPod and is taking pictures. We didn’t have that.”
Still, the film of his memory is enough to bring fond recollections to the forefront. The procession that greeted then-Cardinal Wojtyla still reminds Topor of what Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, commemorated each Passion Sunday, was probably like.
“We were just farmers up there,” Topor said. “We were nothing big. For somebody like this to come to our village was huge. It was almost like a dream. When the Cardinal Wojtyla came to our town, it was almost like a welcome to Jesus.”
Today, Topor and his family run a branch of the hotel franchise Rodeway Inn, a safe haven for avid skiers rolling through town toward Vail, Aspen or Glenwood ski areas. He sees the X Games-goers each winter and those looking to escape into the cooler mountains in the heat of summers. Chatting genuinely with his patrons each morning, he makes connections with visiting Catholics over continental breakfasts, who are usually astounded that he had once been an altar boy for the soon-to-be saint.
It was in such a setting that he befriended a priest from Chicago, a native of Poland, who comes to Colorado to ski — as he did once with John Paul II.
“Right now, he’s going to the Vatican,” Topor said of the priest. “He used to carry [Wojtyla’s] backpack as they skied. Whenever he went to the Vatican, he would get private breakfasts with him, and he would spend a half hour with [the pope]. The cardinals would go up to this priest after and tell him, ‘We cardinals, he doesn’t talk to us as much as he talks to you.’”
Indeed, the friend, Father Francis Florczyk, was packing at 1pm on Tuesday to leave on a 3pm flight to Vatican City and was unavailable for this interview.
Bart Swidowski, 41, who is a parishioner of St. Joseph Polish Catholic Church in Denver, said many of the Polish Catholics who were closest to John Paul II and have come to live in the United States are in Chicago. However, they are often drawn to Colorado for living and visiting because of the bounty of outdoor recreational activities it offers, activities that John Paul II enjoyed fondly.
“He loved the mountains,” said Swidowski, an avid skier and native of Poland, who has lived in Denver now for more than 10 years. “Skiing, hiking, all of it for as long as he could, health-wise.”
Photographs at the former St. Malo Retreat Center, where John Paul II stayed during World Youth Day 1993, show the Holy Father beginning a hike near the base of the mountain. There’s a hiking trail named for him behind the area in Allenspark, Colo., about two hours north of Denver.
A recent fire that destroyed most of the event center did not touch any part of the room that the late pontiff stayed in, nor did it burn the nearby church he went to for photos and Mass.
From Confirmation to Canonization
Topor’s wife, Malgorzata Topor, 57, received the sacrament of confirmation from Blessed John Paul II in 1967 at her home church in Ludzmierz, Poland.
He would visit her church in the village of Ludmierz many more times as archbishop of Krakow.
The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Ludzmierz, declared a minor basilica in 2001, was the site where John Paul II also would say a Rosary in the rosary garden.
Topor fondly recalls how Cardinal Wojtyla was received in her hometown, replete with special processional horses and Polish Highlander costumes.
“He loved it,” she said. “He was one of us. He hiked in the mountains. Even when he was in Rome, we as a people would go dressed that way and visit that way in costume. He loved it because he was one of us.”
“When I was a little girl, we just really admired him. Nobody knew he was going to be a pope, but he was our leader.”
A few years ago, when the Polish Catholics of Glenwood Springs’ St. Stephen Catholic Church, including her and her husband, got together to purchase a bronzed statue of the soon-to-be saint made by an artist who also knew the pope, the group had left the inscription blank.
Now, at the canonization special celebration, the group will gather to think about what that statue will be inscribed with for the occasion of his canonization.
“We are going to engrave it in Polish,” Wazlaw Topor said. “We knew in our heart someday he’s going to be a saint, so we left an empty spot to engrave. We are going to decide the words, probably Sunday right, after he’s going to be announced as a saint. That’s going to stay forever.”
Register correspondent Anna Maria Basquez writes from Denver.