Coffin: John Paul in Pomfret

Apr 29, 2016

A recent television documentary on Pope John Paul II and a close woman friend has brought back memories of two encounters I had with her in 1999 as I was writing a history of the Burlington Diocese.

Her name was Anna Teresa and she and her husband Hendrik lived on an old farm in Pomfret, the town of my mother’s ancestry. They were friends of Carol Wojtyla, the Catholic cardinal who became John Paul II, and he had visited the farm shortly before becoming its leader.

When I met her, she was well into her seventies, and eager to discuss the friend she had known since childhood, in Poland. She and Wojtyla had collaborated on research, and writing. She had recently been in Rome.

Wojtyla, she said, had greatly enjoyed Vermont, particularly because the Pomfret countryside reminded him of the landscape in which he had grown up. In Vermont, he had picked blackberries on steep maple-clad hills that seem to leap from the White River near West Hartford, and helped the neighbors with chores, diving into their pond at the end of a hot day’s haying. She showed me a picture of a smiling Cardinal Wojtyla, in Bermudas and plaid shirt, a handsome man with an athletic build.

In researching a future pope’s visit to Vermont, I confess I’d hoped to discover something, frankly, spiritual. I WAS, after all, writing a book for a church. T hen Anna-Teresa showed me a metal cup the cardinal had used in celebrating Mass.

He said mass here? Yes, she said, with vestments borrowed from a Woodstock church.

Where exactly, I inquired?

In the back yard each morning, she said, on a card table under the apple tree.

By himself, I asked? No, she said, with my husband, my son, and me.

And, she recalled, each morning the donkey, a sheep, and a goat came to watch.

And there it was. What I had really come for.

For a handful of days in 1976, in a deep Vermont valley just after the sun’s first rays touched a little scene surely filled with a quiet power, clad in robes on loan from a church in my home town, the man soon to become Pope John Paul II performed the ancient rituals of his church.

As I listened, I thought of another rural place, a third of a world away, when creatures of the field gathered by a manger to witness the first hours of one of history’s mightiest lives.

Related news story by Steve Zind: Family reflects on Pope John Paul's Vermont ties