50 years ago today, the future St. John Paul II made his first visit to Hamtramck

Even before he was pope, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla captivated the hearts and minds of Metro Detroit's Catholics

HAMTRAMCK — Fifty years ago this month, a youthful Catholic cardinal from Poland embarked on a 14-city tour of the United States. He came to express his country’s deep gratitude for the American communities that were financially and spiritually supporting the Polish Church, which was facing great hardship under Soviet communist rule.

It was no coincidence that Hamtramck was hand-selected as one of the cities to receive a visit. In 1969, close to 90% of the residents living in this Metro Detroit city were of Polish descent and Catholic. The Hamtramck community made sure to roll out the proverbial red carpet for this “homegrown” cardinal.

The cardinal’s name was Karol Wojtyla, who less than a decade later became Pope John Paul II. And once he became pope, he honored Hamtramck with another historic visit in 1987.

A Detroit Free Press article details Cardinal Karol Wojtyla’s first visit to Hamtramck on Sept. 22, 1969.

Several days before he visited for the first time, Hamtramck’s mayor declared that the upcoming Monday and Tuesday were “Karol Cardinal Wojtyla Days.” The festivities truly began on Sept. 22, 1969, the very moment Cardinal Wojtyla’s plane landed on the tarmac at the Metro Airport in Detroit. Five hundred Polish-Americans from southeast Michigan greeted the archbishop of Krakow on the runway. School children presented colorful bouquets of flowers to Cardinal Wojtyla, who was described in the Detroit Free Press as the “broad-shouldered, square-faced prelate,” and veterans groups cheered “Sto Lat, Sto Lat!”  

After sitting down for lunch with fellow cardinal and Detroit Archbishop John Dearden, Cardinal Wojtyla then briefly visited St. Ladislaus Church in Hamtramck, greeting and chatting in the afternoon with local priests, nuns and schoolchildren. The remainder of the night was spent at the neighboring parish of St. Florian. The Polish cardinal’s evening schedule was jam-packed. A press conference was held in the parish rectory at 4 p.m., which was reportedly televised on the local news stations. Cardinal Wojtyla then led a procession into St. Florian Church and concelebrated Mass with dozens of priests at 6 p.m. A ticketed banquet was then held at the Parish Activities Building. The night concluded with a reception open to the public. The next day was spent at Orchard Lake’s SS. Cyril and Methodius Seminary. 

St. Florian Parish in Hamtramck, where Cardinal Wojtyla visited in 1969, is pictured. (Photo by Joe Boggs)
The Mass vestments worn by Cardinal Wojtyla during his first visit to Hamtramck.

With the passage of 50 years, many of the words spoken by Cardinal Wojtyla that September day have been lost. Nonetheless, St. Florian still possesses an amazing artifact from this first visit to Hamtramck. Tucked away in its Eucharistic adoration chapel are the white and gold vestments worn by the Polish bishop during the evening Mass he concelebrated.

Another lesser known artifact that might exist from Cardinal Wojtyla’s brief stay at St. Florian is the actual bed he slept in. Oddly enough, it might be the bed that current parishioner, Halina Manka, has in her home. It’s a story that is hard to verify, but Manka states that when she immigrated from Poland to Hamtramck in 1981, she received what might have been a very special mattress. Her friend’s grandmother was the longtime housekeeper at St. Florian’s rectory and personally took care of the space where Cardinal Wojtyla stayed during his one-night visit. This housekeeper allegedly obtained the bed, and when Halina arrived in Hamtramck with very little, she was given this particular mattress. 

“I was told it is the real thing, but I have no way of proving it,” Manka admits.

Halina Manka, a St. Florian parishioner, might possess a historic piece of furniture from Cardinal Wojtyla’s first visit.

Less than 10 years after Cardinal Wojtyla visited Hamtramck for the first time, he was elected by the College of Cardinals in 1978 as the 264th pope in the history of the Catholic Church. He was the first non-Italian pontiff in 455 years, and the first Polish pope ever. To say the least, the Polish-American community of Hamtramck was ecstatic with the news. Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Arthur Krawczak predicted that “there would be dancing in the streets of Hamtramck tonight.”

Throughout his papacy, Pope John Paul II made a deliberate effort to travel to every corner of the world in hopes of sharing the Gospel message. He visited 129 countries — more than all other popes in history combined. Regardless of the location, massive crowds flocked to hear the youthful and charismatic pontiff. People of Polish descent were especially proud of Pope John Paul II, who not only helped their native country escape the grips of Soviet control but also epitomized the vibrancy of Poland’s Catholic faith.  

A Detroit Free Press article details the joyful reaction of the local Polish-American community once they gained word of Pope John Paul II’s election.

Then, almost exactly 18 years after his first visit, Hamtramck’s faithful were honored with another. As Pope John Paul II, his final visit to Hamtramck was certainly more high-profile, including heightened security and greater fanfare. Several hundred camped out on the streets of the Polish-American city overnight, hoping to secure the ideal spot to catch a glimpse of the pontiff and perhaps even a handshake. Nonetheless, Secret Service — tasked with keeping the pope safe — implemented very tough restrictions that significantly reduced the estimated size of the crowds. Among several safety measures, authorities halted all vehicular traffic in Hamtramck at 6 p.m. the night before.  

Still, crowds lined Joseph Campau Avenue in the early morning of Sept. 19, 1987, for the historic visit. Local storefronts and vendors offered a variety of papal memorabilia, ranging from posters and figurines. 

Joan Bittner, owner of the Polish Art Center in Hamtramck, recalls the busy days before the pope’s visit in 1987.

Joan Bittner, the longtime owner of the Polish Art Center in downtown Hamtramck, recalls the days leading up to the pope’s visit as a “whirlwind.” Besides renting out her house to the Archdiocese of Detroit, Bittner also said they “spent weeks preparing the store for the event.” All of the Polish Art Center's papal souvenirs were quickly sold out. 

Perhaps the most creative item sold, according to Hamtramck Historical Museum director and local historian Greg Kowalski, was a periscope-looking device made out of cardboard. The Hamtramck Historical Museum still possesses one of these original inventions. “The man who made it thought the crowds were going to be so jam-packed that they would need it to see the pope,” Kowalski noted. Very few of these “papal periscopes” were actually sold.

Greg Kowalski, director of the Hamtramck Historical Museum, poses with one of the remaining “papal periscopes” from Pope John Paul II’s 1987 visit.

The pope’s motorcade began its route through the main streets of Hamtramck at 8 a.m. One particular spot where the crowd gathered was at the corner of Belmont and Joseph Campau, where a towering bronze statue of Pope John Paul II had been erected a few years before. A couple dozen dancing children “in beribboned Polish costumes” hoped to entice the pontiff to make an unscheduled stop at this location. One individual positioned there was Joseph Johnson, a local photographer who grew up in Hamtramck. “With the statue here, everyone just kind of assumed he would stop,” Johnson noted.

Photographer Joseph Johnson holds up his press pass at the site where he set up his camera during the pope’s 1987 visit.

Unfortunately, they were disappointed. The vehicle carrying the pope zoomed by the street corner, and Johnson was only able to get a hasty photograph of the pontiff. Indeed, the majority of the crowds lining Joseph Campau were disappointed by the speed of the papal motorcade. One local stated, “He went by so fast, he was just a flash.” Perhaps part of the reason for the speeding nature of the motorcade was the fact that there were serious concerns about the pope’s safety that day. Secret Service agents arrested a man with a fake gun along the route just as the pope’s vehicle started its way down Joseph Campau. The man was admitted into a mental health facility later in the day.

The photograph captured by Joseph Johnson as the pope’s motorcade sped past his position. (Photo courtesy of Joseph Johnson)

The motorcade procession ended at the corner of Campau and Hewitt, where the pope left his vehicle and greeted the waiting crowds near a pavilion that was constructed for the papal visit. He then gave a 35-minute address from a platform 15 feet above ground that stirred the hearts of those in attendance, especially the numerous Polish-Americans present.

The homegrown pope spoke as if the people of Hamtramck were long-lost friends. 

“I have longed to come to you,” he said. “I have greatly desired to be with you in this important moment. ... I see it as a meeting with the entire American Polonia, with every American man and woman whose origin is drawn from the old country on the Vistula.” He continued by emphasizing the Solidarity movement in Poland and its broader implications for people of good will everywhere. “Solidarity must take precedence over conflict. Only then can humanity survive, can each nation survive and develop within the great human family. ... Solidarity means a way of existing ... in unity with respect for differences, for all the diversity that exists among people.”

Following this historic visit, many Hamtramck residents expressed a tremendous sense of gratitude toward the Polish pontiff. One in particular was immensely thankful for both the 1969 and 1987 visit to her hometown. Pamela Sierzan reported to the Free Press that when she was an infant in 1969, she was afflicted with a rare form of cancer. Pope John Paul made a special blessing over her at St. Florian, and she eventually recovered. The teen made sure to be in the crowd to witness his second visit. Roman Rewald, a Polish-American attorney also from Hamtramck, praised the pope for his words of support toward those fleeing hardship in their native countries. “He understands the tears and difficulties and troubles any wave of immigrants face,” Rewald noted to the Free Press.  

A view from the crowd of the pavilion built for the pope’s visit to Hamtramck. (Photo courtesy of Joseph Johnson)

Much has changed since Pope John Paul II’s last visit to Hamtramck almost 32 years ago. The city has since faced financial struggles, and the city’s Polish population has diminished from 90% in 1970 to just a little more than 10% today. With the influx of new groups of immigrants, Hamtramck is now one of the most diverse communities in all of Michigan. 

In 2005, Pope John Paul II passed away at the age of 84, spurring an outpouring of tears and ceremonies throughout Metro Detroit. Less than a decade later, on Divine Mercy Sunday 2014, the Polish man once known as Karol Wojtyla was officially canonized as a saint. 

Despite these dramatic changes, there is little doubt that the “homegrown” pope left a lasting mark on Hamtramck. In the wake of his historic visits, the Polish pontiff not only inspired the creation of two monuments, but he also inspired area Catholics to embrace their heritage and the faith that sustained their ancestors during times of hardship and struggle. Though the future of Hamtramck might seem uncertain, future generations of Polish-American Catholics only need to look to the example set by their beloved St. Pope John Paul II, a holy man who placed unwavering trust in God and was steadfastly committed to doing His work. 

Joe Boggs is a public high school teacher, historian and co-chairman of the Monroe Vicariate Evangelization and Catechesis Committee. Contact him at [email protected]