Nonstop pope makes big impression on New Yorkers

September 26, 2015
Pope Francis passes the crowd and kisses a baby in his pope mobile in Philadelphia on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015. The pope spoke at Independence Hall on his first visit to the United States. (Jim Bourg/Pool Photo via AP)

Pope Francis passes the crowd and kisses a baby in his pope mobile in Philadelphia on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015. The pope spoke at Independence Hall on his first visit to the United States. (Jim Bourg/Pool Photo via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — From the United Nations to the Sept. 11 memorial to Central Park to Madison Square Garden — and everywhere in between — there was no escaping Pope Francis this week in New York City. Catholics and non-Catholics alike strained to see the Pontiff, with mixed success. Some got close enough to receive blessings. Many had to settle for catching a glimpse of him tooling around by motorcade in his black Fiat 500. Here’s a look at varied impressions made by the nonstop pope on his frantic two-day visit:



A few hours before Francis arrived at Kennedy Airport, Iluminada Gubatan received word that she and her ailing 27-year-old son, Garard, would be among about 200 people allowed to greet the pope on the tarmac.

She was assuming Francis would pass by. But she watched in awe as he stopped to touch Garard, who has cerebral palsy.

“I was frozen,” she said. “(Garard) was elated and I was speechless.”

Francis also blessed 12-year-old Julia Buzzese, who was in a wheelchair because of what her family calls a mystery illness. The blessing gave her mother, Josephine, hope she’d see her daughter walk again.

“I was praying for a miracle today,” the mother said, “and it’s going to happen.”



Bernadette Princiotta, who lost her firefighter brother in the Sept. 11 terror attacks, was among those who waited for hours to see the pope Friday on his visit to the memorial.

The 58-year-old came away “torn” because Francis was surrounded by politicians and security and she could barely see him. When she tried to take his photo, a Secret Service agent got in the way.

“What are you going to do? Gotta protect the pope,” she said.

Elizabeth Holmes and Nancy Mercado, once Sept. 11 rescue workers, were at the same gathering looking to reconnect with the church. The two Catholics said they have been together for 25 years and married when it became legal in New York in 2011.

Holmes, 47, expressed optimism that Francis will move the church closer to accepting LGBT relationships.

“I already feel more welcome,” she said. “I don’t feel as stigmatized.”



Roberto Morales summed up his feelings this way: “I’m not interested in the pope. I’m interested in the church.”

The 71-year-old is still smarting from the closure of his church, Our Lady Queen of Angels, in 2007 in a reorganization that merged parishes in response to demographic shifts and a priest shortage.

Morales and about 10 neighbors have kept up their faith by holding impromptu services in the courtyard of their apartment building every Sunday.

He doubts even the pope could summon the kind of power it would take to reopen his church.

“I hope that a miracle happens,” he said. “I don’t believe it will, but I hope.”



With a stockpile of Pope Francis merchandise mounted on a handheld cardboard palette, Jason Thomas made his way through the crowd on Fifth Avenue. He quickly lightened his load as he sold off pope lanyards and Vatican flags for $10 each, with a “Welcome to America” pin with a picture of the pope’s face on it thrown in for free.

“I’m an entrepreneur in America,” Thomas said. “I can send you a receipt and everything.”

Thomas, 25, is from St. Louis and travels the country selling merchandise at big events like football games and political rallies. Just last week he was in Dallas for a Cowboys’ game Sunday and a Donald Trump rally Monday. But the pope’s visit is the big event.

“I’ve got thousands invested in this,” he said. With the three cities combined, Thomas said, he could bring in around $10,000.



“He’s a pope of the people,” Agnes Berry commented, just moments after she saw Pope Francis waving from the window of his Fiat on Third Avenue in East Harlem.

Along with attending President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, she said, seeing the Pope was one of the greatest highlights of her life.

Berry, 64, was born into a Baptist home, but decided to convert to Catholicism when she was 13 after her family moved from the racially divided South to New York City, where she could sit as a young black woman wherever she wanted at the movie theater.

She is excited about a pope who she sees as a return to the kind of openness that first drew her to the church.

Berry says she wants all people to be accepted in all churches. “Jesus never turned anyone away,” she said.



Priscilla Hernandez traveled seven hours from Pittsburgh to line up outside Madison Square Garden for a chance to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis.

The 31-year-old restaurant worker who emigrated from Mexico loaded her husband Luis and 2-year-old son Angel in a car before sunrise and made the journey to New York.

Hernandez, who attends Mass every Sunday, said Francis’ Hispanic heritage and thoughts on immigration resonate with her.

“He speaks Spanish. He understands our problems,” she said. “He’s talking about immigrants.”

Hernandez is also a member of a church group that helps migrants living in the U.S. illegally.

She said she needed to make the trek for the slightest chance she could see a man she truly admires.

“I have family and friends who are undocumented,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to talk about that. He’s a very important person, and he’s talking to important people about issues.”



Ruth Smart dressed in all white to see the pope’s motorcade pass through Central Park. “I’m in white because it’s clean and pure,” she said. “I was hoping the pope might see me.”

The respiratory therapist from Brooklyn was part of a crowd of 80,000 who greeted the pontiff with a thunderous roar as his Jeep popemobile passed by. Afterward, she rested under a blanket, also white, as the crowd dispersed.

“The crowd had an intensity, but it was a peaceful intensity,” she said. “There were no negative vibes, so I didn’t mind getting squished. Everybody wanted to get the same glimpse of the pope. As he passed by, you felt a cool, refreshing peace, as if he were spreading a huge blanket of peace through the crowd.”


This vignette has been corrected to show that Ruth Smart said that as the pope passed, “you felt a cool, refreshing peace,” not “you passed a cool refreshing peace.”



Earl Lester didn’t have a ticket to see the pope’s motorcade pass through Central Park, so he improvised and climbed a tree.

“I saw a little. … I saw the hat,” the 44-year-old New Yorker said of the view from his perch along 59th Street.

Perlita Walsh, 76, was coming from the dentist and made a spur-of-the moment decision to try to see the pope. She managed to get in the second row behind a barricade on 59th when he drove by but didn’t get a good look.

“I thought I’d at least see the white coat,” she said. “I just saw the cars.”


Associated Press writers Verena Dobnik, Karen Matthews, Michael Balsamo, Jackie Snow, Jonathan Lemire and William Mathis contributed to this report.