2016 marked the 40th anniversary of St. John Paul II’s clandestine visit to Montana.
While serving as the Archbishop of Krakow, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla came to America to participate in the Eucharistic Congress held in Philadelphia in the summer of 1976. At the conclusion of the congress, Cardinal Wojtyla traveled off the beaten path to the mountains of Montana to visit his friend, Monsignor Joseph Gluszek.
The two men had corresponded through letters since Wojtyla’s installation as the Archbishop of Krakow in 1958. They had met a handful of times in Poland during Gluszek’s visits to Krakow, and had become great friends over the years. In fact, Wojtyla even petitioned Pope Paul VI to make his good friend a monsignor.
Wojtyla’s visit to rural Montana was brief but monumental for the people of Geyser and the surrounding towns. A cardinal had never visited their town (and perhaps won’t ever visit again), given that Geyser is nothing more than a dot on the map. With a population of a little over 200, the town is easily overlooked.
Yet, while still a cardinal, St. John Paul II blessed the people of this small farming community with his presence. He celebrated Mass, conversed with the people, and caught up with his old friend from Poland.
Gluszek was ordained a priest in 1935, but his ministry was abruptly halted at the start of World War II. As a young priest, Gluszek was arrested by the Nazis in 1939 and sent to Dachau. There he remained until the liberation of Dachau in 1945 by General Patton. After the war, Gluszek decided to move to America. He had dealt with years of oppression at the hands of the Nazis, and he didn’t want to stay in Poland, which was now controlled by the communists.
Bishop William J. Condon of the Diocese of Great Falls, Montana, reached out to Gluszek and offered to take him into the diocese. With that, Gluszek bid farewell to his homeland and headed west to Montana.
Reflecting on the cardinal’s visit, Monsignor Gluszek said:
“The people who met him in Stanford, and Geyser, and Great Falls were just amazed, and asked, ‘How can a cardinal be so approachable?’ He was embracing everybody, and they were just amazed…He was just wonderful with the people. He offered Mass for us and for the people of my parish. He preached a little sermon in English – he spoke English quite nicely.”
After the Mass in Stanford, the people were invited to a luncheon with the future pope. He ate and conversed with the people, and afterwards all were invited to genuflect to the cardinal and kiss his ring as a sign of reverence.
My uncle, Gerald, who was 12 years old at the time, was in attendance and had the opportunity to meet Cardinal Wojtyla. They shook hands and talked for a few minutes and Wojtyla gave him a holy card with his image on it. The experience of meeting a cardinal was exciting for my uncle and the people of Geyser and Stanford.
Of all the places in the world for a man of Wojtyla’s stature to visit, Geyser, MT does not seem like a likely destination. The small town has more cows than people, and yet St. John Paul II blessed this forgotten farm community with his presence.
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