AUBURN – To Poles, he was an icon.

Urszula Blachut remembers how, as Krakow’s cardinal, Karol Wojtyla gave Poland a person to believe in, trust and respect.

For Blachut, who grew up in Poland and now lives in Auburn, Wojtyla became a symbol of Poland’s quest for – and ultimate success in – gaining democracy.

Poland, which is 95 percent Catholic, was ruled by Communists when Wojtyla’s influence began to rise. In time, those he had preached to on Sundays began protesting on Mondays, as the Solidarity movement grew and eventually wrestled control of the nation.

But Blachut, 48, says she best recalls Wojtyla’s reassuring smile and his kind, caring eyes.

Today she will join with millions of other Poles in mourning the loss of Wojtyla, the man who became known to the world as Pope John Paul II.

“Very bad I feel about him,” Blachut – Ula to her friends – said in broken English Thursday afternoon. “A wonderful man he was.”

Blachut moved to Auburn from Bethel about a year ago, she said. She came to the United States about a dozen years earlier.

For much of the past week she’s been on the telephone, sharing tears over John Paul’s death by long distance with her mother and other family members in Sosnowiec, a city about an hour from Krakow.

“I’m very upset myself,” Blachut said. “I cry every day when I think of him.”

Her mother tells her she saw John Paul while he was still a cardinal when he visited their hometown years before being elected pope.

Blachut says she doesn’t remember that visit. But she does remember seeing then-Cardinal Wojtyla in the summer of 1977 or 1978, shortly before John Paul I died and Poland’s prelate was picked as the first non-Italian in centuries to hold the church’s highest position.

Blachut and her family had visited Krakow on holiday, and made a point to attend a Mass celebrated by their cardinal.

“He was a wonderful gentleman,” she says, “a wonderful person.”

He was a national leader at a time when Communists still ruled Poland and its staunchly Catholic population was at the heart of a new Solidarity movement.

Because of that, and the pride he gave to all Poles by leading the Vatican, “For my country it is a dramatic moment now,” Blachut said of John Paul’s death.

She was still hoping Thursday that the church would find a way to agree to send John Paul’s heart back to be buried near the mountains he so loved in his native Poland.

Blachut said she was planning to attend a special 7 o’clock Mass at Saints Peter and Paul Basilica in Lewiston Thursday evening to pray for John Paul.

The fact that the area’s Catholic churches hadn’t remained open day and night to give her and her daughter and her friends a place to pray and to find solace bothered her, she said.

She said that Friday will be a full day of mourning and praying and watching John Paul’s funeral.

“I no go work. I no go doctor. I stay home. I watch TV at 4 a.m. I no want to miss anything. This is very touching to me. I call my mom in Poland. We cry.”

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