Touched by a soon-to-be saint

John Verica is selling this cap from the Pope's 1979 visit.
John Verica is selling this cap from the Pope's 1979 visit. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff)
Posted: July 07, 2013

Denise Baron was 9, a fourth grader at St. Adalbert School in Port Richmond, when she and her classmates filed past the man in red robes.

She could not pronounce his name, and now, 37 years later, she can't recall whether he touched her head or her shoulders. What she remembers clearly, though, is going home that night knowing she had been blessed by a great man.

"Being Catholic and Polish, I knew that being in his presence was pretty cool," Baron said. "As a little kid, you went, 'Wow!' "

Three years later, when Cardinal Karol Wojtyla returned to Philadelphia - this time dressed in white and elevated to Pope John Paul II - Baron found herself in his presence once more. This time, as one of hundreds of thousands who gathered in Logan Circle to join a historic event.

Her neighborhood buzzed with anticipation, she said. All the Polish grandmothers in Port Richmond who wore babuschkas and scrubbed their sidewalks were talking about what a great honor it was to have the pope walk on the same ground.

"He had a Mother Teresa kind of vibration," Baron said. "His being, his speech, was very luminous."

Now, one day soon, Baron, a wellness-and-lifestyle coach in Center City, can say she has been blessed by a saint.

Friday, Pope Francis announced that a Vatican committee has validated a second miracle attributed to John Paul II, making it likely that the late pope will be canonized by the end of the year.

"Some blue-collar girl from Port Richmond, blessed by a saint," she mused. "That's pretty cool right?"

Having once breathed the same air of such an eminent spiritual leader does not retain the same thrill for Marge Sexton.

On Oct. 3, 1979, Sexton was a 36-year-old marketing researcher, the mother of two young boys and a practicing Catholic.

She bought her sons paper papal mitres and sat with them on the Parkway, watching the motorcade speed past.

"We wanted our boys to have the experience of having seen the pope," says Sexton, now 70 and like her sons, no longer affiliated with the church.

The news that John Paul II is advancing to sainthood has not burnished the memory of his visit.

"I'm appalled by it, frankly," she says. "He covered up and turned away from all the clergy sexual-abuse issues. In his own way, he enabled it.. . .I also felt he was anti-women's rights and unkind toward gay people."

Neither the qualifications nor the timing bothers John Verica.

"I think he deserves it," said Verica, although he has a vested interested, so to speak.

He is selling a yellow baseball cap blessed by Pope John Paul II on his 1979 visit to the city.

Verica's grandfather was one of a select group chosen to guard the pope. All the guards wore the caps when the pontiff blessed the group.

Before Verica's grandfather died in 1986, he gave him the hat. Recently unemployed and in need of the money, he has listed it on eBay for $100.

So far, no bids.

His willingness to part with the cap does not mean he is not sentimental, said Verica, 45. He remembers as a seventh grader catching a glimpse of the pope's motorcade as it passed near Packard Park.

"It was really a big deal," he said. "I still have the newspaper from that day with the headlines."

And the idea that his grandfather - and his grandfather's hat - were blessed by a man who might soon be a saint?

"When you think about it, it's pretty heavy."


Contact Melissa Dribben at 215 854 2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com

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