Every house has a history but few can say that they were blessed by the Pope – especially here in America. There is, however, one Alexandria, Virginia condominium unit that can make the claim.
In 1976, while still a cardinal – and, thus, still known by his birthname, Karol Józef Wojtyła – the future Pope John Paul II visited the Parkfairfax apartment of Polish-American journalist John Szostak and offered his blessing.
In more ways than one, it was a memorable occasion for Szostak, who lived in a ground floor unit with his wife and two small children. “The cardinal almost fell over a Batmobile car that the children had left in the middle of the floor. I grabbed him just in time to prevent a major ecclesiastic disaster and could just see the headlines, ‘Polish Cardinal Breaks Ankle in American Newsman’s Home.’”
Fortunately, there were no injuries and the Cardinal was quite gracious, telling Szostak, “The disarray is a sign of a happy household.”
Cardinal Wojtyła stayed for a few minutes as Szostak showed him around. The future pope then blessed the home and, afterwards, asked to use the telephone, which was mounted on the wall. As Szostak recalled, “It seemed a new experience for him, using a wall phone. He was also very much impressed by the touch dial, remarking that, ‘This is another outward sign of America being a prosperous nation.’”
So, was the cardinal just making house calls to all the D.C. journalists? No, not exactly.
According to Szostak’s memoir, which was published in 1980, he and Cardinal Wojtyla’s friendship dated back to the 1960s, when Szostak was working in the White House “writing speeches and taking care of ethnic problems for President Kennedy” and, later, for President Johnson. The young staffer gained a reputation amongst Catholic church officials behind the Iron Curtain.
“Gradually, I became known to Polish clergymen abroad as their man in Washington, without portfolio…. I was in a position to keep them informed about the church and cultural activities of Polish-Americans living abroad, especially those living in the U.S. Also, I was able to report on the status of the Catholic Church in America.”
Szostak corresponded with many clergymen during the period, but developed a particularly close pen pal relationship with then Bishop Karol Wojtyla. Their correspondence kept up after Wojtyla become a cardinal in 1967 and Szostak had left the White House.
The two continued to exchange letters frequently – about once a month or so, according to Szostak – through the early 1970s but never met in person until Cardinal Wojtyla made a visit to the United States during the summer of 1976 to attend the Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia.
Prior to the conference, the cardinal gave a speech at Catholic University in Washington. It was there that Szostak – who was working as a Washington correspondent for a Polish news service – met his longtime correspondent in person for the first time. According to Szostak’s memoir, their friendship picked up right where their pen-and-paper relationship had left off.
The future pope asked Szostak to accompany the Polish delegation, which included 19 bishops in addition to the cardinal, to Philadelphia and serve as the group’s press liaison. Afterwards, the group returned to Washington and Szostak served as D.C. tour guide. Amongst other sites, they visited the U.S. Capitol, Library of Congress, Air and Space Museum and Arlington National Cemetery, where they paid their respects to the famous Polish pianist, Ignace Jan Paderewski.
In the course of his sightseeing, the cardinal carved out a few minutes to visit the apartment in Parkfairfax and had his encounter with the miniature Batmobile.
Just over two years later, Cardinal Karol Józef Wojtyła became Pope John Paul II and the May 1979 edition of the Parkfairfax Condominium Newsletter celebrated the community’s papal connection:
“There is a certain awe felt when a great person comes into our lives. Even though we did not experience it ourselves, or know of his visit; there is joy in simply knowing that John, his family and his community shared in a heartwarming, history making event. It is our hope that His Holiness carries with him the remembrance of the pastoral community serene in its garden setting; a community which now delights in the knowledge of a visit and a blessing from one of the good and great men of this century.”
Today there is a plaque in front of Szostak’s old unit memorializing the visit. It reads:
CARDINAL KAROL WOJTYLA
NOW POPE JOHN PAUL II
Blessed This Home On His U.S. Visit
August 9, 1976
Probably not a bad thing for property value!
For more on John Szostak’s friendship with Pope John Paul II, read his memoir In the Footsteps of Pope John Paul II: An Intimate Personal Portrait by His American Friend, which formed the basis for this post. Special thanks to Parkfairfax board member Sarah Clark, longtime community resident and archivist Dave Bush, and IDI’s Scott Sterling for their help on this article.
NOTE: Out of respect for its current residents, we have intentionally omitted the exact address of the home, which Cardinal Wojtyla visited.