A glimpse of the Gipper on spontaneous side trip

Posted: June 21, 2007

I don't usually like shooting pictures of signs. I like to think I can bring more to my craft.

But when you're driving, signs are what catch your eye. The sign on the Doylestown Bypass for "National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa" does just that on my drive up Route 611. I'd passed it many times, but in my summer-long road trip's spirit of serendipity, I decide to drive in. On a cloudy weekday, between Masses, I'm able to drive past the big empty parking lots and find a spot right in front of the 25-foot-high statue of Polish Pope John Paul II.

Towering 200 feet above him are the Bell Tower and the adjacent main church. But I walk the other way, directed by the arrow for "Gift Shop." You can tell a lot about a cultural, educational, recreational - or even religious - institution by its gift shop. That's not quite a "Road Trip Rule," like "Don't eat anything that's served out a window (except ice cream)," but if it were, this gift shop would make the cut.

Of course it has lots of religious statuary and plenty of replicas of the "Miraculous Painting" of Our Lady of Czestochowa (the original was brought to Poland in 1382, believed to be painted by St. Luke). And more Polish candy, crackers and snacks than you can find anywhere outside of Warsaw.

Having gotten a true sense of the place, I set out to wander the grounds - the outdoor rosary, the Stations of the Cross . . .

Then, I notice the bronze couple seated at a picnic table.

I walk up just as Teresa Laudanski of Mercerville, N.J., is greeting nearby workers in Polish. "Zdravstvuite." They're replacing the stucco on the main church with granite. She sees me climbing all over the base looking for weird angles to photograph the bronze guy in the suit - President Ronald Reagan - with the folk-costumed lady oddly looking at his fingers.

"You should find my husband," she says. He's wearing "a big hat and beard."

I spot him walking out of the gift shop building with a priest.

Five years after he immigrated to the United States, Joseph Laudanski helped put up the stage for the shrine's annual Polish American Festival in 1984 when President Reagan was a guest.

News reports said that Reagan drew cheers by declaring: "Thank God for Pope John Paul II," after Philadelphia's Cardinal John Krol praised him for supporting federal aid to religious schools.

Laudanski, a building contractor, explains that 20 years later he wanted to commemorate the historic visit. But he didn't want a statue that looked like all the other heroes "standing" in town squares.

Then he saw an old news photo of the president, sitting at a table holding up a single placki (Polish potato pancake), with costumed festival host Jennie Gowaty looking at it.

He knew he had his statue. Except for the pancake. Laudanski thought it blocked the Gipper's face. So he had the sculptors in Poland leave it off.

The sculpture was dedicated at last year's festival. This year's will take place the first two weekends in September, with polkas, food, rides and games for the kids, and even 17th-century costumed cavalry reenactors doing battle.


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Contact staff photographer Tom Gralish at 215-854-2950 or tgralish@phillynews.com.

A Reader Responds

Denise Rambo: I'm right there with you about road trips being about much more than just traveling from one place to another.

I recently took the long way home (and I DO mean the LONG way) from a convention near Somerset, Pa., and, while the trip TO the convention took about three hours, the trip HOME took about seven (with LOTS of U-turns along the way when something caught my eye). But . . . along the way I saw a house with a giant piper standing guard at the driveway entrance, the Tombstone Hearse Co., an ice cream stand that looked like a giant sundae, the LlamaLot Llama Farm, Mr. Ed's Elephant Museum and Candy Shop, and a BYOB Strip Club!

My friends who took the turnpike home got to see lots of billboards and rest stops.

The one thing we differ on, though, is that I DO take photos of signs - sometimes that's all you get to see of the place that advertises them (and sometimes, like with the BYOB Strip Club, I'm sure the sign is much more interesting than the club itself). I look forward to your continuing adventures.

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