WHEN SAID out loud, 1982 feels like the dark and distant past, but it marked a historic day on the nostalgic map for Coventry with a special visit from the pope. Writes Gemma-Louise Johnson
John Paul II was the first pope to visit Britain and amongst the first cities he visited was Coventry. More than 350,000 people flocked to the Baginton airfield on 29 May 1982, to wait the first ever visit of a reigning pope to the country.
Joining in with the overwhelming excitement of those crowds was Deacon Tony Colby, of St Thomas Moore’s RC Church of Coventry, who enjoyed the day greatly and has a host of special memories about the event in which he has exclusively shared with CUtoday.
Deacon Colby, who helped organize the Pope John Paul II visit to the City, says the event took two years to organize. Given the scale of the event, venue identification proved a tricky task.
“Monsignor Canon Thomas Gavin took care of it all, he was the events main organizer”; said the former deputy head teacher.
“Baginton was close to the A45 and A46, and had 400 acres of land as well as all the facilities. The A45 highway was closed off which was used as a car and coach park. From the early hours of the morning people were able to walk down the A46 in crowds. We had to have medical and detention facilities to hold any criminals, because of the recent attack on the Pope at the time.
Security was so tight on the day of Pope John Paul’s visit that the people stood in front of the alter wearing white capes were in actual fact fire arms experts with revolvers, ready to fire if trouble broke out.
He went on to describe the atmosphere of terrific excitement that filled the air the night before.
“There was an air of festivity; Father Pat Brown in Birmingham hitched a lift on the back of a police motor cycle, not something you would hear of happening today of course,” he laughed.
One of Colby’s most abiding memories of the trip, though, was the way the wind blew on such a warm day.
“The wind was howling I thought the Holy Spirit was being blown in with the wind, but it was so hot. I was stood so close to the Pope when he came, you could see him walking along the front of the podium, and he shook my sons hand a few times, I was so proud.
“It was a truly marvelous thing- the pope coming to Coventry. He flew in and out by helicopter and you could see him walking along the front of the podium. Pope John Paul confirmed groups of people there, and a lady called Mrs. Sergeant who was blind, delivered the first reading using brail.
“Afterwards, the Pope drove to buildings in his pope mobile for a meal at Sully Park with Monsignor Gavin and bishops, I didn’t attend this as it was only a very select few that were invited, but I was told that the Pope had requested Polish Beer.”
Although Deacon Colby did not get to meet the Pope properly that day, he did however 2 years later in Rome, he says the Pope shook his hand and gave his son –who is studying for a PHD at Coventry University- rosemary in his hand.
Local onlooker, Diane Johnson, who was just 19 when the event took place, watched excitedly as the Pope stepped out of his mobile, she said: “It was a very crowded occasion, absolutely thronging with people it was. The pope came round in his pope mobile to the crowds and everyone was trying to push forward to get close to him. He received a rapturous reception and it was a great experience.”
The chair that Pope John Paul II sat on during his 1982 visit has pride of place today at the St Thomas Moore’s RC Church of Coventry.
Pope Benedict XVI is to visit the UK in 2010, although Coventry has not yet been ruled out, Birmingham and London according to Colby, are major players on the cards of his next visit.