Remembering John Paul II's 1984 historic visit to Edmonton

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Pope John Paul II, in his vestments, waves to the thousands gathered on Sept.17, 1984, for his open-air mass at Namao air base just outside of Edmonton. (The Canadian Press - image credit)
Pope John Paul II, in his vestments, waves to the thousands gathered on Sept.17, 1984, for his open-air mass at Namao air base just outside of Edmonton. (The Canadian Press - image credit)

When Pope Francis's plane touches down in Edmonton on Sunday, he will be the second head of the Roman Catholic Church to visit Alberta.

Pope John Paul II famously visited the province in 1984 and then briefly again in 1987. The first visit was part of a 12-day tour across Canada that began in Quebec City and went as far west as Vancouver.

Monsignor Jack Hamilton, a retired priest with the Edmonton Archdiocese, was involved in the planning for the 1984 visit. He said the latest visit will have a different tone.

"It's going to be a lot more serious than it was in 1984, which was very jubilant," he said during a news availability earlier this month.

"It was a pastoral visit to everybody, there was no problem that we knew about that he was coming for."

Pope Francis is expected to deliver an apology for the Catholic Church's role in residential schools during his visit to Canada that starts Sunday.

A year of planning

Hamilton said there were weekly planning meetings up to a year before the pope's arrival to Edmonton nearly 40 years ago.

"I don't envy the people who are organizing the [latest] visit because they only have a few months to do it," he said.

On Sept. 16, 1984, John Paul II flew into CFB Edmonton, near Namao, Alta.

He rode in his Popemobile down 97th Street — crowds greeting him along the way — before attending a meeting of religious leaders at St. Joseph's Basilica downtown.

The next morning was the main event of this leg of the journey: mass for an expected crowd of more than 100,000 in a farmer's field adjacent to the base.

RCMP and emergency services were at the site to keep everything running smoothly. Ted Suranyi, Namao's fire chief at the time, was part of the planning.

"Traffic was a big problem for us," he said during an interview last week. Highway 28 to the CFB Edmonton airport  was a narrow road at the time. RCMP controlled traffic and people were bused in, Suranyi said.

Suranyi himself had little chance to hear the pope actually speak — he spent the day riding around in a vehicle with his deputy chief, checking in and liaising between police and fire departments.

"I was quite busy all the time."

Leftover wafers

The crowd ended up not being large as had been expected, according to Hamilton. He said Sept. 17 was a cold and blustery day.

"I remember the pope starting his remarks by saying, 'Nice country but very windy,'" he said.

"There were a lot [of sacramental wafers] left over — thousands and thousands left over — which we had to then take back to our parishes and give out to the people for their regular communion over the next number of weeks."

The day after the mass the pope visited Elk Island National Park.

Arturo Mari/ The Canadian Press
Arturo Mari/ The Canadian Press

John Paul II also delivered a radio and television address to Indigenous peoples from the Yellowknife Airport days later.

The pope spoke about self-determination, acknowledging the desire for a "just and equitable degree of self-governing" and the need for "a land base with adequate resources."

He also mentioned efforts to repair the relationship between missionaries and Indigenous peoples despite "whatever harm involuntarily resulted."

"It is a time for forgiveness, for reconciliation and for a commitment to building new relationships."

Fort Simpson delay

During the 1984 trip, John Paul II had been scheduled to visit Fort Simpson, N.W.T., but couldn't because of bad weather. In 1987, he completed that original itinerary.

He again flew through CFB Edmonton. Retired brigadier-general Bill Buckham was the base commander at the time and got to greet the pope.

"I was thinking I wouldn't wash my hand for a week but that wasn't in order."

Buckham said John Paul II had a "force of personality" but something that surprised him was the sparsity of the papal cabin: a simple mattress on the floor.

"There was nothing very fancy about it," he said. "It was very humble."

John Paul II died in 2005. He was succeeded by Pope Benedict until Pope Francis's election by cardinals in 2013.

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