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Remembering A Different Boston, 30 Years After Pope's Historic Visit

This article is more than 10 years old.
Pope John Paul II greets the crowd from his motorcade in the streets of Boston as Massachusetts State Police hold back crowds, Monday, Oct. 1, 1979. (AP Photo)
Pope John Paul II greets the crowd from his motorcade in the streets of Boston as Massachusetts State Police hold back crowds, Monday, Oct. 1, 1979. (AP Photo)

It seemed like a more innocent time. The sins of the clergy sex abuse scandal, taking place at parishes throughout the Boston archdiocese, would not make headlines for decades. On Oct. 1, 1979, Pope John Paul II received a rock star's welcome in Boston.

The city made preparations for weeks ahead of time. Workers labored feverishly to build an elaborate, modernistc altar on the Boston Common. A stone tablet commemorating the event stands there today, near the parking garage.

A billboard for a function hall in East Boston, next to the tollbooths at the Sumner Tunnel, slyly suggested "Have an affair with Paula" — Paula being the woman you would call to arrange your wedding or anniversary party. City leaders thought that would not make a good impression on the pope, so the billboard was covered up.

The throngs who came to see the pope, celebrating his first Mass in the United States, began gathering in the early morning hours. Streets throughout the city shut down at midnight. An estimated 400,000 people gathered on the Common, and tens of thousands of others lined the motorcade route from Logan Airport to the cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End to the Common, and then to the cardinal's residence in Brighton.

It drizzled off and on all day, but by the time the pope arrived for late-afternoon Mass, the skies opened up and it poured. During the Mass, he ad libbed, "America the beautiful, even in the rain!"

John Paul had a pretty good sense of humor, and for years afterward, whenever anyone from Boston had a private audience with him, he would inquire: "Boston — is it still raining there?"

In 1979, Boston was a city still reeling from racial tension. Hard feelings lingered over school desegregation. Two days before the pope's visit, a 15-year-old black football player named Daryl Williams was shot in the predominantly white neighborhood of Charlestown. Williams survived but was left paralyzed by the bullet.

People hoped the pope's visit would bring some healing to the racially charged atmosphere. Perhaps it did.

Some may argue Boston is still a racist city. We have come a long way, especially compared to other cities. But there are moments that make us pause to look inward, from the Charles Stuart — Willie Bennett investigation of the early 1990s, to the Professor Henry Louis Gates — Sgt. James Crowley flap of this summer.

It's hard to say what sort of reception Pope Benedict XVI would get were he to visit Boston today. But somehow it seems that it wouldn't be as enthusiastic as what John Paul II saw 30 years ago.

WBUR's Steve Brown covered the pope's visit to Boston in 1979.

This program aired on October 1, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

Steve Brown Twitter Senior Reporter/Anchor
Steve Brown is a veteran broadcast journalist who serves as WBUR's senior State House reporter.


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