March 13, 2013: White Smoke and the Papal Celebrity

Summer of 1979
(my grandparents with Aunt Kathy in back)
(Matt, cousin Andrew, me in front)

My grandma loved the Pope. She loved everything about the Pope. She would have been glued to the TV watching every moment of the Vatican events of recent days. CNN would have been her best friend and the Internet a welcomed accompaniment to her Papal selection research. The white smoke, no doubt, would have created a furor for her if she were still alive and living on the farm.

I know this to be true because my brother and I were eye witnesses to her wonderment of Pope John Paul II in 1979. She was in a state of grace that day the beloved pope visited Des Moines, Iowa. It felt like nothing short of a miracle that this leader to billions of devout Catholics would travel to our little rural state on his first trip to the US.

The trip was initiated by a fellow Iowa farmer who wrote a handwritten letter to the pontiff. The writer, Joe Hays, shared many commonalities with my grandma. He was sixty-nine and an Iowan farmer. After learning of John Paul II's planned visit to America, he wrote to the Pope stating that the strength of the church was found in its rural people. Grandma agreed with Mr. Hays; as did I. The Pope obviously agreed as well.

A month after the letter was sent, Mr Hays was called to a August 29, 1979 news conference announcing the visit. "I put on my teal green leisure suit," he recently told the Des Moines Register in an interview. We Iowans were so proud of our handsomely suited farmer and thrilled at the prospect of a Papal visit.

350,000 people made the pilgrimage to Living History Farms in Urbandale, Iowa that day in early fall. The rest of us watched it on our television set. Grandma wore her favorite blue dress in anticipation of the big event. Mark and I sat by her side. It felt like we were in church, but joining in like modern day video-conferencing. Grandma sang and talked to the TV as though she was joining via interactive telecommunication.

In her mind she was among her fellow pilgrims taking in every word of the Pope. Mark and I saw it differently though. We kept eyeballing each other, wondering if Grandma had truly lost it. While she felt like she was there, all we saw was a grandma enthralled with the fuzzy TV screen. The more Grandma clapped and appeared drawn in to the television monitor, the more Mark and I would lock eyes with quizzical looks.

Just when we thought we had reached a point of containing our merriment of the situation (we were getting a case of the giggles), Grandma walked to the piano and grabbed her Polaroid camera. With her blue dress covering our range of vision, she bent over with the lens aimed squarely at the television. Mark and I locked eyes again sharing the thought of "oh my gosh, she's taking a picture of the TV!!" And then one of us laughed.

Grandma finished her picture and reprimanded us for our irreverence to the Pope. "Do you not understand what a big deal this is? This is a moment in history we will never forget." And we haven't. Grandma then placed her treasured Polaroid on display next to the piano music. It stayed there for years. Grandma was proud and savored her special time with the Pope...the Catholic phenom.


  1. My Grandma, Sarah Cecilia Delaney Wilson, was devoted to Pope John the XXIII, who died around the time I was in third grade. On one wall in her bedroom was displayed HER Holy Trinity: A Pastel of the Face of Jesus; a picture of President John F Kennnedy (possibly derived from a LIFE magazine spread); and a picture of Pope John. Gran lived in southern Indiana, settled by the French and later inhabited by many people of Irish and German descent. Thanks for this post. I was thinking about my little ghosts this morning, and hoping that their faith has been answered.


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