Pope John Paul II’s canonization on Sunday marks the fastest path to sainthood in recent Roman Catholic Church history with the Vatican citing two events it cites as confirmed miracles.
Rosalee Maddaloni’s story isn’t one of them. But nonetheless, she believes John Paul II was at the heart of a string of remarkable events that helped reunite a friend with her missing father.
“Sometimes, I’m almost afraid to tell people because it’s so inexplicably unbelievable, but it happened,” said Maddaloni, 64, now principal of Nativity of Our Lord School in Warminster.
It all started when Maddaloni met Pope John Paul II during his visit to Philadelphia in 1979. She was an eighth-grade teacher at Christ the King School in Morrell Park, and a contingent of students and chaperons were selected to greet the new pontiff at the airport.
To Maddaloni’s dismay, her name was not chosen, and she was told security credentials were limited.
In a happy coincidence that would become the first of many, Maddaloni’s brother was a Secret Service agent stationed in Washington, D.C. “He told me this agent was in charge of the [Pope’s] detail,” she said. “This agent I knew personally because he and I were godparents to my brother’s son.”
And so, on Oct. 3, 1979, Maddaloni took a bus to the Philadelphia International Airport, credentials in hand, and joined scores of spectators behind the VIP gate.
“People were throwing cameras over the gate for me to take pictures with because I had such close proximity,” she said. “I don’t remember taking any because I was kind of awestruck that this was really happening.”
As the Pope descended from the plane, dignitaries rushed to greet him, kneeling on the tarmac and kissing his ring.
“Then, he just slowly walked toward me,” Maddaloni recalled. “I put my arms out and he put his arms out and I hugged him and I told him I loved him. The kids were screaming, absolutely screaming.”
She directed the Pope’s attention to the excited schoolchildren, who were draped in red-white-and-blue sashes and standing on a stack of bleachers.
“Instead of getting in his limo – the limo was right there – he walked with me to the children,” Maddaloni said. “The agents were freaking out because the teachers said, ‘Run, children! Hug him, hug him!’”
On the bus ride back, Maddaloni struck up a conversation with a fellow teacher, Caroline, who had brought a box of her parents’ trinkets for John Paul II to bless.
“She showed me the box of jewelry and said, ‘You know, this experience will bind us together for life,’ ” Maddaloni said. “We couldn’t talk much, and I didn’t think anything of it at the time.”
When the school year ended, Maddaloni was slated to live at LaSalle University, where she was finishing up a degree program.
“For some reason, the reservation was lost and they didn’t have my dorm room, so I lived at the closest convent at that time, which was Saint Genevieve’s in Flourtown,” she said. “I was bummed out. I really wanted to live on campus.”
One night that summer, Maddaloni was sitting in the convent’s kitchen doing homework when a man knocked on the door. “The sisters told me he had been coming regularly for a while and they would give him something to eat,” she said.
She prepared the man a meal as they sat together at the table and made small talk. When she told him she was a teacher, he replied, “Cookie’s a teacher.”
“I said, ‘Who’s Cookie?’ He said, ‘My daughter,’” Maddaloni recounted. “That’s all he said. I didn’t pursue it. He was a little out of it.”
Maddaloni packed the man a bag and watched him walk to his car, which was parked just outside St. Genevieve Parish.
“The rest of it, I really can’t explain,” she said. “I was sitting down, studying, and for some reason I just stood up and went to the phone and called one of the teachers from Christ the King and asked her if Caroline was okay.”
The teacher replied that Caroline was not – her father, who suffered from bipolar disorder, had left the house in a manic state and was missing. The family was frantic.
Maddaloni was surprised to find that Caroline remembered her when she called her former colleague that night. She asked if Caroline had ever had a nickname.
Confused, Caroline replied, “My father always calls me Cookie, but no one knows that.”
Maddaloni rushed outside and found Caroline’s father was still sitting in the parked car, where he had apparently been living for some time. She waited with him until his daughter arrived, giddy with relief.
“We knew it was the pope,” said Maddaloni, who is still moved to tears when she recounts the story. “We knew it was his intervention. There’s nothing that can explain this.”
“Everything was weird,” she continued. “I wasn’t supposed to go to the airport and meet the Pope. I wasn’t supposed to be at St. Genevieve’s. I still don’t know what made me pick up the phone.”
Now, Maddaloni’s office at Nativity of Our Lord is crammed with photos of John Paul II. On Sunday, she plans to get up at 3:30 a.m. and watch him officially become a saint.
“I’m very moved by the canonization because he so deserves it and his goodness just touches you,” she said. “I just keep looking at pictures of him and I fill up. I feel like it’s a family member being canonized.”
As far as what took place nearly 35 years ago, Maddaloni still believes divine forces were set into motion by the Pope's visit.
The Vatican is citing the disappearance of a French nun’s Parkinson’s symptoms in 2005 and the curing of a Costa Rican woman’s brain aneurysm in 2011 – as evidence of John Paul II’s divine qualifications.
Pope John XXIII will also be canonized Sunday in Rome.
Maddoloni knows her story isn’t a miracle in the context of canonization.
“It’s not a miracle that would make him a saint,” she said, “but a series of events that makes you wonder. This man was lost and needed to be found and somehow, I believe God worked through John Paul and worked through me.”