A Valley Jewish organization praised the pope for improving relations between Jews and Catholics.
YOUNGSTOWN -- Less than 90 minutes after Pope John Paul II's death, members of a local parish offered prayers for the pontiff who shared their Polish heritage.
"We won't see another Polish pope in our lifetime," said Frank Petrone, minutes before 4 p.m. Mass at St. Stanislaus Church on the city's lower South Side.
The Saturday Mass at St. Stanislaus, a church founded by Polish immigrants in 1902, is in English, but a Polish Mass is celebrated on Sunday morning, a nod to its mostly Polish parishioners.
Pride in the pope and his accomplishments were evident among the parishioners.
"They couldn't have made a better choice," said Ed Rudnicki, a member of the church since 1924. "He did so much. I believe that the fall of communism was partly his doing. He stood up to the Russians."
Rudnicki, who just celebrated his 85th birthday, learned of the pope's passing after he arrived at church.
"I'm just a few months older, you know," he said. "I'm sorry he's gone, but I think he went peacefully. If he had to go, that was the way to go."
The Rev. Edward Neroda, parish pastor, had prepared a homily for the Saturday service but told his congregants he was going to skip it. He asked them instead to offer prayers for the pope.
Neroda, who has been battling the flu, laughed as he recounted how he heard back in 1978 that the Archbishop of Krakow had been elected to the papacy.
"I had just returned from a [European] vacation in Poland, and I had gone to get a haircut," Neroda said. "I walked in and someone said, 'The Polack made it!' I thought they were talking about me, coming back. It took a bit for it to register that they meant we had a Polish pope."
Neroda went to the Vatican for Pope John Paul II's installation and was able to get a seat about 50 feet away from him, he recalled.
Many Italians weren't happy that the new pope was not Italian for the first time in more than 400 years, Neroda said. "But with the universality of the church, sooner or later, we would have a pope who was not Italian."
Calling the pope "a tough act to follow," Neroda said John Paul II "had a charisma that was unbelievable."
Neroda reminded the congregation that just two days before the pope's death, the Diocese of Youngstown learned that Bishop Thomas Tobin is leaving the area for Providence, R.I.
"We have lost our bishop and our Holy Father," Neroda said. "But I know that our Heavenly Father will continue to provide us with excellent leadership."
In a written statement, Tobin noted his personal sadness but added his appreciation for the "remarkable life [and] extraordinary ministry" of Pope John Paul II.
"Few individuals have had a more significant impact on the history of the Church and the world than John Paul II," Tobin's statement continued. "He has renewed the spiritual vitality of the Roman Catholic Church, has tirelessly promoted understanding and harmony with other religious communities and has been a courageous voice on behalf of world peace, social justice and human life."
The pope's willingness to reach out to other faiths was noted in a statement issued by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation.
"Pope John Paul II was a towering figure representing righteousness, spirituality and humanity," the group's president, Alan Kretzer, said. "Under his guidance, the Catholic and Jewish communities enjoyed a fruitful, harmonious and productive relationship."
John Paul II was the first pope in centuries to visit a synagogue and the first pope to visit Israel, the statement noted. His statements addressing the Holocaust, affirming the right of the Jewish people to a homeland in Israel and denouncing anti-Semitism were "far-reaching and critically important," Kretzer said.
Tobin will offer a memorial Mass for the pope at noon Friday at St. Columba Cathedral. The public is invited.