Pope John Paul II once served lunch on Christmas Eve to a woman who now lives in Sebago.

Eulalia “Ali” Suder, then a Polish refugee in Italy, received a printed invitation from the pope to come to “lunch” at the Vatican on Dec. 24, 1985. Lunch turned out to be communion, and she sat in a second row seat in a sanctuary in the Vatican behind Nuns. The pope personally served Suder communion.

“I’m from Mogila,” Suder told the Pope, identifying herself as someone from a part of Krakow the pope knew well.

“God bless you,” he said as he gripped her hands and smiled.

Inspired by the pope, Suder, who owns the Eurotopia Restaurant in downtown Westbrook, immigrated to the United States in 1986. Her path in life crossed several times with that of the pope.

In the early morning hours last Friday, she watched TV in her home in Sebago, as his funeral was broadcast by satellite from Krakow, Poland.

She last saw him 20 years ago. “I saw a man who came into the world to teach us to be good,” she said. “He was a real man – born to be pope.”

‘He touched my life’

She knew him well as a child growing up in Mogila, an area of Krakow where the pope had once been a priest. As a young girl attending a religious school, her class was often visited by Bishop Karol Wojtyla, who became pope in 1978. He was the man the world mourned last week.

As bishop, he frequently visited her school. Suder described him as energetic and said he took time to play soccer with the boys in her class.

She remembered his love of children. “Do you love your God? Do you love Jesus?” she said he would ask her and her classmates as he walked among them and patted their heads.

She first remembered seeing him at her cousin’s confirmation in 1961. He blessed her and handed her a printed card bearing his name, which she still has. Then in 1963, he blessed her again at her first communion.

Suder had been on vacation in Hungary with her sister in 1978 when she first heard a new pope had been installed. When they returned to their home country, they asked a border guard who it was.

“We were stunned,” she said. “He’s an icon to me.”

Suder described him as amazing. “He always had a twinkle in his eyes,” she said. “He touched my life.”

‘He opened my eyes’

Suder realized just how much she missed him as she looked over her memorabilia last week. She picked up a medal he gave her and blessed for her when he visited Czestochowa, Poland, as pope in 1983. It was a commemorative medal of Our Lady of Czestochowa.

There, she was one of thousands in a mass gathering to hear the pope speak. She recalled many of his words last week.

With Poland still a communist country, he spoke of freedom and said the United States was a good country. “The impossible is possible,” she said, translating his words into English.

Suder said the pope was diplomatic. He didn’t tell the people to go against their government, but he caused them to think.

The pope used his own story to inspire Suder and other Polish people to rise above their own circumstances. He told them how he had been a poor boy in a small town but became pope.

“He opened my eyes,” she said. “He had a heart for all people. He wanted the whole world to be happy.”

Under communism in Poland, she said there were no taxes, no homeless people and no speaking out. “You couldn’t say you didn’t like something,” she said.

Suder was fired from her job as a bookkeeper in Krakow after joining Solidarity – a protest movement against the communist government. Telling authorities she wanted to go to Italy to visit the pope, she escaped in April of 1985.

She didn’t go back for 17 years. “If I had stayed, I would have been in big trouble,” she said.

Help for the hungry

In Italy, she first stayed in a refugee camp for Eastern Europeans in Latina. The rooms were bad, and there was only one shower for 300 people but the food was good.

Then the United Nations sent her and 125 others to a hotel, which was a short walk from the Vatican. She went to the Vatican several times during each week and on Sundays.

The United Nations supplied food for the refugees in the hotel, but the food was horrible. She said white worms crawled in the meat. She lost 90 pounds in three months.

The 126 went on strike and refused to eat after complaints about the food to the United Nations didn’t do any good. To draw attention to their plight, a man, who was a refugee, went to the refugee camp and slashed his bowels with a knife. Blood rushed out in front of the camp’s director.

The man survived, but the incident made the papers on the following day. The 126 in the hotel were visited by a priest from the Vatican a short time later.

“We got outside help from others for three weeks,” she said, declining to identify the source of the help. Eventually, the United Nations supplied better food.

In the meantime, Suder and her friend, Margaret Nanowski, cooked donated food for the entire 126 people on two electric burners in their hotel room. The pair served the meals between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. each day.

Mourning from Poland, Maine

Suder saw the pope for the final time at a mass at the Vatican in March of 1986. Shortly thereafter, she was on her way to the United States, but she later had to reimburse the United Nations for airfare. She arrived here on March 21, 1986.

“I’m a Maine girl now,” Suder said. She arrived with just $20 but clinging to the Pope’s words – “the impossible is possible.”

Last week, Suder watched the funeral of the 85-year-old pontiff with her daughter and son-in-law, Kasia and Jay Nason. The Krakow TV coverage switched between coverage at the Vatican and Krakow, where 800,000 worshippers had gathered to watch on big screens.

During the broadcast, Suder spoke in Polish with her daughter. They listened to a Polish news commentator and heard that 300,000 Polish people were at the Vatican for the funeral. The commentator said a crowd was chanting “Santo, Santo,” which means “saint.”

“It’s the biggest funeral in the history of the world,” the Polish commentator said.

When TV showed a video clip of the pope, Suder rose to her feet. She spoke about the pride of her native land in having a pope from Poland. “This is a big loss for the whole world,” she said.

In the broadcast, Suder saw clergy from the world’s religions coming together. “I’m sure this has never happened before,” she said. “The right person can do anything.”

She said that the Polish people wanted the pope to be buried in Poland. “His heart has always been there,” Suder said.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.