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Visitors converge on Washington center honoring pope

Many come to sign condolence books

Posted: April 7, 2005

Washington - A cultural center honoring John Paul II, in a neighborhood nicknamed "The Little Vatican," hosts lines of people waiting to sign condolence books to remember the 263rd pontiff.

At the John Paul II Cultural Center, the pope's image is everywhere - in oil paintings and old TV footage, in sculpture and still photographs.

People are coming to pray, to mourn and to weep. In many cases, they are drawn to discover more about the religious leader whom they knew only from CNN, not Sunday sermons.

Since the pope's death, several thousand had made the trip by midweek, many more visitors than usual, officials said.

The $65 million center was the brainchild of Cardinal Adam Maida, a Polish-American who had been bishop of the Diocese of Green Bay, where the idea was born. Maida, who this week is at the Vatican, has said in interviews that the pope embraced the idea and chose Washington for its site because he regarded the U.S. capital as a world crossroads.

Four stories tall, the center is at once a state-of-the-art museum, educational facility and platform for inter-religious dialogue and intercultural exchange.

Maida, who leads the Archdiocese of Detroit, is president of the center, which, the former Karol Jozef Wojtyla was never able to visit. The center opened in 2001 in northeast Washington, across from Catholic University of America.

Seven people waited in line Thursday to sign one of six condolence books, sometimes leaving behind not only ink, but a tear or two.

About a half-dozen condolence books, held in storage until Saturday, initially were put out, but by Wednesday, "we bought 16 more," said Mary McDavid, the center's director for international programs.

She's counted at least nine languages in the books and "talked to people who have flown in from California, taken the train in from Rhode Island and driven from as far away as Michigan, Ohio, even Wisconsin."

If it was once the pope who traveled - since 1978, he made 104 pastoral visits outside Italy and 146 within the country, and appeared as Bishop of Rome at 317 of its 333 parishes - now others are on the move.

The center, with more than 50,000 feet of exhibit space, hosts the expected - his miter, silver papal staff and rosaries - and the unexpected, from a colorful chasuble from his first visit to Africa in 1980 to the Dynastar skis, which he enjoyed on the Italian slopes early in his papacy.

Gifts given to the pope are here, too: a Steuben goblet from President Ronald Reagan, a mother-of-pearl Bible from the King of Jordan, and an ornate nautilus shell from Cuban President Fidel Castro.

A gaggle of teenagers in light blue pleated skirts - parochial school girls from the Baltimore area - toured Thursday as a young couple pushed their 1-year-old in a stroller and nursing home residents took in the offerings from wheelchairs.

"Not being Catholic, it's been fascinating. There must have been something there that I, as a Southern Baptist, don't understand," said Timothy Brown, 43, who was drawn by TV images of millions waiting to pay their last respects in Vatican City. He said he admired John Paul II in part for his opposition to the war in Iraq.

A 6-year-old girl, signing one of the books, strayed from geopolitics to observe, "You were the best Pope. Love, Gianna."

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From the April 8, 2005, editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

 The Presents of God ministry