Waiting to see Pope John Paul II during his 1979 visit to the United States. (Washington Post file)

Pope John Paul II was the first pope to visit Washington, on a whirlwind 1979 tour of the United States that also included stops in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Des Moines, Iowa. It was the second papal visit ever to America.

Among those who traveled to Washington to meet the John Paul II were some Catholics from West Virginia mining country who rented the only two charter buses around for their trip.

Washington Post reporter riding with the group asked them what it was like to be from a place filled with Protestants. “It’s not easy to be Catholic in West Virginia,” the Rev. Charles Schneider told the reporter.

Jim Copolo, then 25, said most of the people on the bus with him became familiar with taunts about “praying to statues” from their classmates, in a region where only about 1 in 20 people were Catholic.

Here’s the group with a hand-painted banner they brought to Washington:


Parishioners from Bluefield, W.V., display the hand-painted banner they brought to the Mall during the visit of the Pope John Paul II. (Art Harris/The Washington Post file)

Below are other stories and photos about John Paul II’s two-day visit to the District. All are from The Washington Post’s archives.


“May the blessings of Almighty God descent in abundance on all the people of this nation’s capital,” he told the crowd.

The pope drew a delighted roar from the crowd when he diverged from his printed remarks to greet “in a particular way the citizens of Maryland.”

Later, as he strolled along the fence, exuberant members of the crowd tossed flowers at his feet, clambered by the dozen atop portable bathrooms to wave, and held mirrors up to catch his reflection.

The pope clasped and lifted children who scrambled past his body guards, greeted and thanked an airline stewardess who promptly burst into tears, and shook hands with the Navy band conductor.

Then he climbed into a Marine helicopter for the short flight to Washington as the strains of “God of Our Fathers” rang out.

“The Arrival: Flowers Tossed at His Feet And a Welcome From Mondale,” by Jackson Diehl and Margaret Shapiro, Oct. 7, 1979 (The Washington Post) 


Pope John Paul II carries a five-month-old Heather Eastwood outside of St. Matthew’s Cathedral. (Margaret Thomas/The Washington Post file)


There were others, of course, even the faithful, who did not feel John Paul II is doing enough, and they were outside St. Matthew’s Cathedral in force to let him know.

They were the activists from Catholic Advocates for Equality, whose blue and black banners urged on the pope such thoughts as “Sexism is a Sin” and “A Woman’s Place is in the Sanctuary.”

Carole Rayburn of Washington, a member of the group, held her equality sign high above the heads of the masses outside the cathedral. “We are here by the hundreds,” she said. “In Christ there is neither male nor female. That is from Galatians 3:28.”

“They Come to See and Be Touched,” by Ward Sinclair, Oct. 7, 1979 (The Washington Post) 


Tom McMahon gives communion to parishioners at the National Mall. (Margaret Thomas/The Washington Post file)


Mary Grady, who has been confined to a wheelchair for 22 years, traveled from Frederick, Md., only to find she could not get in without a ticket.

“I cried piteously,” she said. “I felt sad.”

But Grady joined a small group of handicapped persons who positioned themselves to see the pontiff as he left.

“At least I got here this far and that’s pretty good,” she said. “My parents, my grandparents never saw the Pope. And I’ll never get to Rome.”

“Hoping for Miracles, Handicapped Come To See the Pontiff,” by Thomas Morgan and Patricia Camp, Oct. 8, 1979 (The Washington Post) 


Disabled people at Trinity University kissing the ring of the Pope John Paul II. (Lucian Perkins/The Washington Post file)


“He seems to be saying that real problems can be solved, like the problems of poverty, genocide, total annihilation, materialism, cynicism. That thing about cynicism really struck me because I’m a very cynical person. But you can’t live life by being cynical. I mean, sitting around criticizing things isn’t going to make things better.”

Still, the pope’ s visit, he said has not spurred him to become a daily massgoer again, or even to accept wholesale the teachings of the Catholic Church.

“I believe in hope, and maybe that’s why I like this pope. There’s something really hopeful about what he’s saying. . .He’s not going around demanding that you have faith or be charitable, but he’s saying, if you have hope, things will be better.”

“One Catholic’s Spiritual Journey,” by Judith Valentine, Oct. 7, 1979 (The Washington Post)


Mary Jane Fanning and her two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, during a Mass at the National Mall. (Margaret Thomas/The Washington Post file)


A few days after Pope John Paul II left the United States after his jubilant two- day visit in Washington, Msgr. David E. Foley, pastor of St. Bernadette’s Church in Silver Spring, received a phone call from a former parishioner who had been separated from her husband for a year.

“The woman,” the pastor recounted, “said she had watched the Holy Father on television and heard his message on marriage, about how separations come about when two people get lost in themselves rather than each other. She asked me if I could talk with her and her husband, and help them work on a reconciliation.”

Later, Foley received a letter from another parisioner’s wife who said she was not a Catholic, but had raised her children in the Catholic faith because of her husband. The pope’ s visit, she related, had spurred her to think about attending classes for converts, Foley said.

John Paul’s Bequest: Joy and Conflict,” by Judith Valentine, Oct. 14, 1979 (The Washington Post) 


Jennifer Zami, who earlier had presented the pope with flowers, shows her gift of a rosary. (Margaret Thomas/The Washington Post file)


“Security, medical, traffic and transportation preparations for the mass on the Mall proved more than adequate, and the crowd was handled with hardly an incident. Planners had prepared for 500,000 to 1 million people.

The Park Service said that 175,000 came. It was expensive planning. Hundreds of police officers, nurses and Metro attendants, many on overtime, often stood idle, waiting for something to do.

Souvenir vendors had a bad day. “We’re all stuck with tons of material,” said John Bauer, who was trying to sell pope pins for $1.50 each on 14th Street. “I have $3,000 worth of stock and I can’t sell it,” said Jay Harris, a Washington freelance photographer who was selling buttons and balloons.

“I didn’t get to sell but $200 yesterday. This is a oneshot deal, and I think I’m going to sink.”

“Coping Proved Easier Than Expected,” by Apul W. Valentine and Douglas B. Feaver, Oct. 8, 1979 (The Washington Post.) 


A vendor at the National Mall selling signs with the image of the Pope John Paul II. (Art Harris/The Washington Post file)


“We were watching the pope until 1 p.m., but when the Redskins game came on, we switched to that,” said Paul Meagher, manager of the Hawk and Dove Restaurant on Capitol Hill. “People came here to see the football game, so that’s what we give them.”

“Many Residents, Visitors Pass Up Papal Mass on Mall,” by Margaret Shapiro and Ted Gup, Oct. 8 1979 (The Washington Post)


Pope John Paul II greets and is greeted by an enthusiastic crowd within the Crypt of the National Shrine. (Lucian Perkins/The Washington Post file)


The thousands that did gather to see the pope as he drove about the city where the Catholic population is much smaller than in cities like Boston and Chicago reached to John Paul with the same excitement as the larger throngs who greeted him elsewhere.

By dawn yesterday, hundreds of students and families had gathered outside the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to see John Paul make his first stop of the day. As the pope moved past them up the stairs of the enormous church, he reached out to touch their frantically waving hands, kiss their cheeks and gather bewildered children into his arms.

At the top of the staircase, he paused for a moment to address the crowd when suddenly two girls shouted out, “We love you.”

“‘You Americans Have Supported Me Very Well,'” by Christopher Dickey, Oct. 8, 1979 (The Washington Post)


The host, the wafer representing the body of Christ, is passed back through the crowd during the mass on the National Mall. (James K. W. Atherton/The Washington Post file)


When last seen close up, Pope John Paul II was standing in the garden of the apostolic delegate to Washington before a battery of microphones that would not work and once again was running far behind schedule. He was in a playful mood, thumping the mikes and shaking his head wryly, and ad libbing while he said farewell to the journalists who had followed him and, through them, to the nation.

When he finished his prepared remarks, he said goodbye in several languages, with a “Cheers!” in English, and then someone shouted, “Come back to America, John Paul.” The pope smiled, and said: “You Americans have supported me very well”

That is perhaps the one thing about his extraordinary trip to the United States that everyone can agree upon.

— “The Legacy,” by Haynes Johnson, Oct. 8, 1979 (The Washington Post) 


Clouds over the National Mall during Mass offered by Pope John Paul II. (Larry Morris/The Washington Post)

President Carter hosted Pope John Paul II at the White House. (Frank Johnston/The Washington Post)