By Margie Wuebker
As Catholics bid farewell to their beloved pontiff today at the Vatican, a handful of area residents share poignant memories of their personal encounters with Pope John Paul II.
The Rev. Louis Schmit, pastor of St. Augustine Catholic Church in Minster, had an opportunity to meet the pope three times. The first occasion took place in November 1980, just two years into the pope's 26-year papacy.
Schmit, a U.S. Army chaplain stationed near the German city of Fulda at the time, had been adopted by priests assigned to the cathedral just three miles from his residence. Excitement swept through the country following an announcement the pope would be coming to meet with bishops, he recalls.
The priests invited Schmit, a talented singer, to come to the cathedral and serenade the pope. The impromptu concert never occurred because the pontiff was exhausted after a busy schedule. However, he granted personal audiences.
"I tried speaking to him in German, but he spoke better English than I did German," Schmit says. Pope John Paul II greeted Schmit warmly and listened as the priest talked about the military men in his parish and their duties. They talked for a while before the pontiff said, "I will give you a blessing and for all the soldiers you take care of. I will ask God to continue your good work."
"I came in awe of John Paul that night as I knelt at the foot of his chair," Schmit says. "He was a kind man who loved his people."
The second meeting occurred May 4, 1987, on the tarmac at Stuttgart Air Force Base in Germany. The pope's helicopter landed at the base for what was to be a short visit. He emerged from the aircraft smiling and waving. A group of German bishops and archbishops stood along the red carpet anticipating a personal greeting.
Pope John Paul II looked over the crowd and spotted Schmit standing with uniformed officers on the other side of the carpet. He headed in their direction bypassing the church dignitaries.
"Father are you still in the Army," he asked. Schmit replied "Yes, your holiness" and the pope responded "Keep up the good work."
The pontiff turned and waved to the bishops before boarding an Alitalia jet for one of his many trips to countries throughout the world.
The third memorable event came in November 2000, when he and the Rev. Ken Schroeder, a former military chaplain who serves as pastor of St. John Catholic Church in Maria Stein, were among dozens of priests who concelebrated Mass with the pope at a special event for military and police families. The pope later laid a hand on Schmit's shoulder while greeting guests at a special breakfast.
"I have a little lump inside watching the television these days," Schmit says, placing a hand on his chest. "I had an opportunity to meet him not once but three times because I happened to be at the right place at the right time."
The Rev. Ray Seifert, a retired priest at St. Charles Center in Carthagena, has a color photograph of his brief encounter with the pope.
Seifert was part of a 1986 tour marking the 200th birthday of St. Gaspar del Buffalo, founder of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood.
Standing with other priests, he watched Pope John Paul descend from the pope mobile and shake hands with the faithful. When the prelate extended a hand to him, Seifert said, "Praise be Jesus Christ" in Polish. The pope looked rather quizzically at the priest before responding "Now and Forever" in his native tongue.
"I think he was trying to decide what part of Poland I came from given my accent," Seifert says with a chuckle. "Oh my, shaking hands with him was such a thrill. It was an experience I will never forget during my 61 years in the priesthood."
Celina residents Joe and Marcella Hemmelgarn were on the same tour. They, too, stood with the masses hoping to catch a glimpse of the man who headed the church in a quiet, devout way.
"We saw the pope mobile coming and the next thing we knew he was headed in our direction," Marcella Hemmelgarn says. "We were in the first row along the road, and we moved over so a young boy could see better."
The pope shook hands with the couple as well as the boy, cupping each outstretched hand with both of his, Hemmelgarn recalls.
The next morning fellow tour group members asked the Hemmelgarns whether they had seen the Vatican newspaper. She laughingly responded, "No, we don't read or speak Italian."
The picture on the front page showing the pope shaking hands with the couple and a little boy needed no words. The Hemmelgarns purchased copies of the picture -- a large one for themselves and one for each of their eight children.
These past days have been poignant ones for the Celina woman as she recalls how excited her husband, who is now deceased, was to meet the Holy Father.
"Joe and I were so impressed by Pope John Paul II, as were Catholics and non-Catholics throughout the world," she says, looking once more at the framed photograph that hangs in a prominent place at her home. "My hope is that he rests in peace after a job well done."