WADOWICE, Poland, April 1 -- Hundreds of people in this small, southern Polish town prayed and kept a hopeful vigil Friday at the 500-year-old church where Karol Wojtyla was baptized, remembering their personal encounters with perhaps the most famous Pole in history.
As the parishioners streamed into the white stone church, its steeple encased in scaffolding, they passed under a large color portrait of the pope that adorns the front of the building, as does a plaque dedicated to his birth here. Next door, draped over the three-story Wadowice city hall, is an even larger banner featuring photos of John Paul II as an infant, a young boy, a priest and, finally, as the Holy Father.
People pray at St. Anna's church in Warsaw. Poles entered churches to hold vigil for Pope John Paul II, whose already fragile health took a dramatic turn for the worse.
(Alik Keplicz -- AP)
Photo Gallery: Catholics across the world pray for the ailing Pope John Paul II as he nears death.
Video: Cardinal McCarrick remembers the pope.
Video: Catholic religous leaders urge the faithful to pray for Pope John Paul II.
Video: Mass is held at Washington's Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle.
Video: The Post's Robin Wright shares her experiences covering the pope with washingtonpost.com's Terry Neal.
Live Video From St. Peter's Square
_____More From The Post_____
Pope Edges Near Death As Faithful Pray and Wait (The Washington Post, Apr 2, 2005)
After Resolute Leadership, an Uncertain Path (The Washington Post, Apr 2, 2005)
Catholics Crowd into Churches to Pay Respect (The Washington Post, Apr 2, 2005)
Under Windows, Pilgrims, Tourists Mill About and Pray (The Washington Post, Apr 2, 2005)
Worshipers Pray for a Most Familiar Holy Figure (The Washington Post, Apr 2, 2005)
"He is our great pride. He is our great hope, and he is our great love," said Jozefa Czeslaw, 48, who came to pray for John Paul and afterward recalled the many occasions during her life that she met him face-to-face.
The most memorable, Czeslaw said, came during a visit to the Vatican in 1998, when she, her husband and a group of other pilgrims from Wadowice were granted a personal audience with the pope. She kissed his ring, touched his hands and received his blessing. Later, she became pregnant -- at age 44 -- with her sixth child, a minor miracle she attributes directly to the visit. "I have no doubt," she said.
Throughout the day and late into the night, people packed St. Mary's church as priests led prayers and held a succession of services. As in many cities across Poland, an all-night vigil was planned, as many worshipers dismissed or shunted aside reports of the pope's imminent demise.
"He is very strong," said Helena Smolik, 72, a member of the church choir, who held out hope that John Paul might recover and even return to Wadowice for a visit this year. "The people of Wadowice love him and adore him, and he knows this."
One block from the church, the home where the pope was born still stands; it has been converted into a museum in his honor.
Along the main road leading into the town of 20,000, visitors are greeted by a triple-billboard-sized sign that proclaims Wadowice's pride for its most famous citizen.
Every year, scores of pilgrims from Wadowice -- including the senior class from the local high school -- make a trip to the Vatican and are almost always guaranteed a visit with the pope.
John Paul last returned to his home town in August 2002, during a four-day trip to Poland that many people saw as a farewell tour. While the centerpiece of that trip was an outdoor Mass that he celebrated for 2 million people in a field outside Krakow, the pope ordered that his helicopter be flown low over Wadowice so that he could catch a final glimpse of the town.
Hundreds of townspeople waiting on the main square waved yellow handkerchiefs as he flew overhead.
"The Holy Father was my father," said Pawel Zowila, 56, a Wadowice native who was 14 when he first met John Paul, then the bishop of Krakow. "And he was the father not only for Poland, but for the whole world."
Born Karol Josef Wojtyla on May 18, 1920, John Paul grew up in Wadowice in a time marked by grief. It included the death of his mother when he was 8, followed by the death of an older brother four years later.
Still, he made an early mark in his home town by graduating as the class valedictorian, which propelled him to an academic and seminary career in nearby Krakow, where he was ordained in 1946.
Even after moving to Krakow, John Paul kept up his contacts in Wadowice and made frequent visits here as part of his duties as the bishop, archbishop and later cardinal for the region.
As he climbed the official hierarchy, he became beloved in southern Poland for his willingness to preserve the church's independence in the face of communism and for using his global pulpit as pope to call for freedom in Eastern Europe.
Many in Wadowice and throughout the country credit him with playing a singular role in freeing the country from Soviet domination and for giving democracy-minded Poles hope during a dark period in their history.
After she finished praying for John Paul on Friday night in St. Mary's, Barbara Kaffka recalled how, at age 14, she received a sacrament of Confirmation from a man who was already revered for refusing to submit to the authority of the Communist government.
"In those days, the church was underground," she said. "Religion was done in secret back then. This man, he is the man who made us free."