"No one gets to eat breakfast unless you sing." shouted Sister Catherine Mullooly at 5:45 a.m., three hours shy of White's Truck Stop on U.S. 81.

Two busloads of 90 sleepy pilgrims, pope pompons and banners in hand, roared down the mountain singing and praying before dawn, their big-city-bound Silver Eagle buses coughing and spitting through the Appalachian fog with the hardy band of coal country Catholics, long outnumbered by Bible Belt Baptists suspicious of their ways.

Many rose before 3 a.m. yesterday to drive down from the hollows and board the bus in the parking lot of Sacred Heart Church, a lone parish of 953 Roman Catholics in this sleepy mining town of 16,000.

Others, like hairdresser Linda Angelelli, stayed up all night to paint the banner that later would be unfurled 300 miles away on Washington's Mall: "Viva Pope. Bluefield, W. Va." It was painted red, blue and black.

"That's red for pope, blue for Bluefield and black for coal," said Angelelli, whose father emigrated from Italy in the early 1900s to work the mines, contracting black lung and dying of a heart attack after 30 years beneath the ground.

They were hairdressers and housewives, sales clerks and mine inspectors, students and teachers, miners wheezing from emphysema and widows who had lost their miners years back from cave-ins or black lung. And Pope John Paul II, they all insisted, was their pope.

There was Charmaine Powers, wife of the town's surgeon. A country club member who hadn't ridden a bus "in years -- I usually drive or fly," she explained -- Powers said she didn't mind: "I've got a nice footrest here; I'm quite comfortable."

And there was Tan Van Phung, 45, a department store tailor who arrived in Bluefield with his eight children in May -- the town's third family of Vietnamese boat people. He learned of the pilgrimage from another Vietnamese man and, though he speaks no English, indicated that he wanted to see his pope.

"Joy, joy, joy -- I've got the joy to stay," the passengers sang.

"Imagine taking a bus from West Virginia to see the pope," said one pilgrim, who happily forked over $25 for a seat. "Tell that to people and they think you're crazy."

These are pilgrims who take their religion -- and their trek to Washington -- seriously.

"This is more important than anything I've ever done," said third grade teacher Rita Crotty, a divorced mother of three teen-agers who converted to Catholicism eight years ago. "I've always dreamed of going to the Vatican, but that's pretty farfetched with inflation the way it is."

She is teaching and studying hard for a master's degree; her children are about to spread their wings and leave her alone in an empty nest. Money is tight. "I need a boost in my life," she said.

"All these things seem trivial now," she said, as the smell of fried chicken wafted down the aisle. "I couldn't sleep last night, I was so excited. I feel like if I can just see the pope, I'll be a better person."

"Yea, pope! Yea, pope! Yea, Pope John Paul," Sister Catherine led the cheer.

Many aboard the bus recalled how they had been taunted as children because they were Catholics amid fundamentalists who sneered at them as heathens "for praying to statues," as Jim Copolo, 25, put it.

"It's the same riding black people get," said Copolo, 25, a sixth grade teacher who grew up and teaches in the heart of McDowell County's coal country. "A lot of people ride me about being Catholic and want me to go to their church. They say, 'You pray to false gods like the Virgin Mary.'

"But we don't pray to Mary, we pray to God. We just ask her to intercede. She's symbolic, a reminder, just like a crucifix."

"It's not easy to be Catholic in West Virginia," said the Rev. Charles Schneider, 44, an affable ex-industrial engineer for Montgomery Ward, who cornered the only two buses in the area and organized the pilgrimage for Sacred Heart and two neighboring parishes. Seats were snapped up virtually overnight.

About one West Virginian in 20 is Catholic. In the state's remote Western towns such as Bluefield -- at 3,000 feet above sea level, the highest American city each of Denver -- finding a Catholic is about as rare as a heat wave.

Things are not nearly as bad as they were in the early 1900s, said Schneider, when Poles, Hungarians and Italians, often were unable to find a priest willing to settle in the Appalachian outback and minister to their needs.

Nonetheless, many Catholics say they feel like an endangered species, and an opportunity to see the pope was a way to recharge their spiritual batteries.

Copolo, whose grandfather immigrated to West Virginia from Calabria to work in the mines and died of black lung at 90, is debating whether to become a priest.

"I'm hoping I'll get a sign or some kind of vision in Washington about what I should do," he said.

The pilgrims were laden with necklaces, rosaries and medals pressed on them by neighbors, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, in search of the pope's blessing. When Nancy Liuzzo Dean, cashier for Ashland Mining Corp. since 1943, who last ventured to Washington 30 years ago on her honeymoon, asked for Monday off, her boss said fine -- on one condition.

"If you get sprinkled by holy water, try to bring a drop back for me," she said he told her.

Most of the passengers in the bus were women. Their men stayed home to rest up for early shifts Monday or watch the football games on television.

"Men don't get religion 'til they get one foot in the grave and one on a banana peel," said Crotty. "One man told me, 'I wish the Pope would hurry up and get like Oral Roberts, so all I have to do is get up and touch the TV.'"

At 1:58 p.m. as the bus neared the Pentagon parking lot, an anxious hush fell over the bus and its passengers stampeded for the bathroom, their raincoats, or their Instamatics.

"I believe in miracles; you never can tell what will happen," said Scott King, 31, a Methodist convert who wore a beard and an "Elect Kennedy" button. He said he hoped that being in the presence of Pope John Paul II would provide a spiritual lift.

"Life gets discouraging from time to time," said the eighth grade social studies teacher from Powhatan. "You need something like this to keep you going. I expect to be 'up' for a long time."