ST. PETERSBURG — As throngs converge on Rome for the canonization of two popes Sunday, one the first Polish pontiff in Roman Catholic history, at least one contingent of Tampa Bay Polish Catholics will be present for the historic event.
Others who couldn't make it will be watching from here.
Anna Trzeciak, who escaped communist Poland with her parents and sister in 1987 and was a refugee for two years in Italy before coming to the United States, will watch the ceremony on television from her Land O'Lakes home.
She speaks emotionally about Pope John Paul II — the former Karol Józef Wojtyła — and says he helped her family through a traumatic upheaval.
"It was thanks to John Paul that we had a place to stay," she said, carrying a photograph showing her family and other Polish refugees with the pope after a private Mass at the Papal Palace of Castel Gandolfo.
"He was so supportive of all the immigrants. He had this big charisma about him and we felt he was our father and watching over us. … You can feel the radiance of God in his eyes."
To hear Trzeciak and others from her homeland talk, Sunday's canonization is a mere formality.
"We could feel that he was a different person," said the Rev. Wojciech Beden, a visiting priest from Poland and Australia who had John Paul as a teacher in seminary and was ordained by him. "We are very proud, but we expected it."
Wednesday afternoon, as members of the Mercy of God Polish Mission gathered for Mass at St. Paul's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg, several stopped to talk about the pope from their home country who was about to be elevated to sainthood.
"I am so happy that it happened fast and we didn't have to wait. He is loved by so many persons and it's not just by the Polish people," Elizabeth Kurnik said.
"I am happy. I am proud. I knew him when he was a bishop in Krakow. I was confirmed by him."
Christine Hipp, assistant church secretary, said John Paul helped free Poland from communism.
"He became a leader of our younger generation," she said. "He was always holy."
But Maria Debord was heartbroken not to be in Rome with the more than three dozen parishioners who had left the previous day with Monsignor Janusz Burzawa, head of the 23-year-old Polish congregation. Pilgrims also set out Tuesday from Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Sun City Center for the festivities in Rome.
Pope Francis will canonize both John Paul II and Pope John XXIII, best known for convening the historic Second Vatican Council that brought widespread change to the Catholic Church.
Pope John Paul is going to be remembered "in a big way" for his opposition to communism, said Michael Anthony Novak, assistant professor of religious studies at Saint Leo University.
Violetta Marchante, 42, who lives in Tampa, lived through the changes brought about by John Paul. She has organized a celebration honoring him after the 9 a.m. Sunday Mass at St. Ignatius of Antioch Catholic Church in Tarpon Springs.
"People were repressed in Poland at that time," she said of Poland under communism.
"People who were going to church had no possibility of better positions. From the moment he was elected pope, it gave a new strength to the nation and everybody came out and were celebrating in the street. People started to be very open about their faith and their religion. That gave a chance to all of us, a new breath, a new strength."
The Rev. Eugene Gancarz of Resurrection Catholic Church in Riverview, has another memory of John Paul, who had been his archbishop in Krakow.
"Sometimes he came to our parish to celebrate Mass for the people who were praying for a new church," he said.
His canonization is important not only for the Polish people but for all Catholics, said Gancarz, who also worked under Pope Francis when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires.
But Pope John Paul's elevation to one of the Catholic Church's newest saints is not without controversy. Critics say he did not do enough to address the sexual abuse scandal that erupted on his watch. Novak disagrees. "At one level, it clearly, simply, obviously was a failure. … But I get a little doubtful about people dropping complete responsibility on his shoulders," he said.
"It is only in the last 20 years or so, during John Paul's papacy, that society has really started talking about the sexual abuse of children. … We have displayed denial and disbelief across society. And we've done so for centuries."
To Trzeciak, who first saw John Paul when she was 18, he is already a saint. She has a memory of the times she has seen him, as he stretched out his hands to the crowds at the Vatican after papal masses, on Good Friday for Stations of the Cross at the Colosseum, at Castel Gandolfo.
"These are the moments I will cherish forever," she said. "Whenever he looked at you and touched you, you feel the presence of God, the peace of God. It's hard to describe. … I still feel it."