May 23, 2006

John Paul’s town becoming Polish pilgrimage site

By Tom Heneghan

WADOWICE, Poland (Reuters) - Tucked away in the rolling
hills of southern Poland, this sleepy provincial town is slowly
becoming a pilgrimage destination for Roman Catholics devoted
to its most famous son, the late Pope John Paul.

The tourist numbers are still modest, but it's not for lack
of trying. Wadowice, about 50 km (30 miles) southwest of
Krakow, is dotted with signs welcoming visitors "to the town of
Pope John Paul II" and posters showing the late pontiff.

A bust of the pope gazes over John Paul II Square in the
middle of town. Only footsteps away, marble plaques mark his
birthplace, boyhood church and primary school. A souvenir shop
offers John Paul books, candles, pictures and prayer cards.

The total of about 500,000 visitors last year was far
behind the four million at Poland's most popular pilgrimage
site, the shrine with the Black Madonna icon at Czestochowa,
but it has roughly doubled since John Paul died 13 months ago.

Residents of this town of 20,000 hope for a further boost
after Pope Benedict, the German-born aide who succeeded John
Paul, stops here on Saturday during a four-day tour of Poland.

"There was a surge of visitors to Wadowice after John Paul
died," said Magdalena Dziura, whose souvenir shop on the main
square is housed in the same building as the modest two-room
apartment where the late pope lived from 1920 to 1938.

"There are lots more Italians and Americans than before,
more Germans too. Benedict's visit will bring in even more."

Wadowice is so small that pilgrims usually just make a
short trip from Krakow or stop on the way to the former death
camp Auschwitz.

The town has been spruced up for Benedict's visit, with new
paving on the main roads and a fresh coat of pale gray paint
and white trim for the baroque minor basilica on the main

Either time or money ran out, because the sides of the
church are still a dingy gray.


"People are very happy that Benedict is coming," said Jozef
Hyrciel, a tour guide at the town museum. "They say he's our
pope. His nationality makes no difference."

At another time, Benedict's German nationality might have
made a big difference in Wadowice, which was ruled by Austria
from the late 18th century until 1918, occupied by Nazi Germany
during World War Two and then led by communists until 1989.

John Paul Square was named after Adolf Hitler during the
war and was called Red Army Square for decades afterwards.

Now Poland is a democracy and Wadowice's main square boasts
a Chinese restaurant, a pizzeria and a mobile phone shop.
Posters on shop fronts show Benedict and the basilica, watched
over by a smiling John Paul in the clouds above.

"They say about 30,000 people are expected to come to see
Pope Benedict -- about as many as came to see John Paul," said
a young woman who gave her name only as Aneta.

"There was no tourism here before John Paul's pontificate,"
Dziura said in her souvenir shop. "We were just another town
along the road to Krakow. The pope changed everything. Now we
have contact with towns in other countries."