It was 20 years ago today that Pope John Paul II flew a bit late from Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix aboard “Shepherd One” for Los Angeles because he had insisted on meeting the grown kids of the bishop’s housekeeper.
Sultana Klatt had never expected such a fuss about her family, but the Holy Father had hit it off big the day before with the French-born cook and housekeeper for Bishop Thomas O’Brien, at whose Phoenix home the pontiff stayed for the night.
“He knew that I had children, and he asked where the children were,” Klatt, 87, recalls. Although her daughter, Danielle Gillenwater, was on hand to help with meals for the pope and his entourage, her other four children were elsewhere. The pope pressed Klatt to get as many of them there as possible, despite huge security logistics and little time to spare. But strings were pulled, and eight family members were cleared for the personal encounter with the pope, but it delayed his departure for the airport.
Klatt, Gillenwater and more than 950 are expected today at Phoenix Convention Center for a 20th anniversary observance of the pontiff’s historic visit to Phoenix and Tempe. It will be preceded by a Mass at 5:30 p.m. across the street at St. Mary’s Basilica in downtown Phoenix. Tickets were $50. (www.jp2.visit.com)
On the theme “An Encounter with Christ,” the event will “celebrate the impact his life, leadership and teaching had on the world.” John Paul II died in May 2005 at the age of 84 after 26 1/2 years in the papacy. A bronze statue of the pontiff, in the familiar pose of his arms raised, stands outside the Diocese’s Pastoral Center.
The head of the Roman Catholic Church spent about 24 hours here Sept. 14-15 during his 10-day, nine-stop tour in the U.S. Focusing here on Catholic health services and ministries to American Indians, the pope squeezed six major events into his stop. One of them was a public address from the third-floor balcony of St. Mary’s to throngs in convention center’s plaza. But it was the three-hour Mass that night for 75,000 packed into Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe that capped his visit and would be most talked about in the years that followed.
Klatt recently reflected on her supreme adventure to provide food, comfort and hospitality for the pope, then age 67 as she was. She had about a year of advance warnings that the pontiff was coming. Besides making the home, with its chapel, spotless, she would prepare a late lunch for about two dozen people including bishops, a late dinner for the pope after the Mass and a breakfast the next day. Her husband Leonard and granddaughter Nikki peeled the potatoes.
A caterer would feed the throngs of police, security and others outside the house
“When he entered the house, he was very friendly -- spiritual,” Klatt said. “I met him at the door, and I accompanied him to his room. He sat in his room , and he had his Swiss Guard for his room all the time. There were six or seven of them. When he wanted something, his staff would come and contact me, and I prepared what he needed. If he wanted something he would call me.”
What Klatt said she found was a man whose feet were hurting. “He stood too much on his feet, and his feet were hurting him,” Klatt said. She talked to the pope’s doctor, who accompanied him throughout his American tour. He gave her the OK to put warm water into a small tub, “and he soaked his feet in his room. “They were bad. They were very bad,” she said.
Klatt sensed that the pontiff generally wasn’t feeling well. She was astonished that after he had left for California, he called to thank her for her thoughtfulness. “He wished I could have accompanied him to California,” she said. “I was shocked. He asked me, 'What do you think I should eat?’ And I said, 'If you don’t know what to eat, then open a can of soup.’”
Klatt, who had professionally worked in kitchens of large Valley hotels, had no shortage of chefs and general managers willing to supply the finest items to set the tables for the visit and other accoutrements. Even grocer Eddie Basha accompanied Klatt through one of his stores for her to pick whatever out was needed for the meals. All was donated.
The longtime housekeeper for O’Brien said she was never nervous around the pope. “I was too busy .... It was a job to be done. I did it, thank God. God gave me the energy to do what I did.”
Klatt, who turns 88 on Sept. 27, lives at Thunderbird Retirement Resort in Glendale. O’Brien, who resigned as bishop in June 2003 following his involvement in a fatal hit-and-run accident, still lives in the bishop’s home. Current Bishop Thomas Olmsted resides in the rectory at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral in Phoenix. Klatt said she recently was back at that home to visit O’Brien, and “he comes to see me. We are still friends.” They also telephone each other periodically.
“The bishop did a fabulous job” during the visit, said Gillenwater, Klatt’s daughter. “He was the one who inspired the visit.”
Gillenwater was able to take many photos but her prize was the final one of the pope leaving the house. “It is the most amazing picture. Everything was as clear as can be,” she said. “The pope himself is clear, except right outside his body is an image, like a ghost.”
The pope gave Klatt a medallion as a keepsake and later she received a personal thank-you letter from him. “I lost a friend,” she says of John Paul II. “I looked up to him. When I talked to him, when I took care of him, it’s funny, but he’d give you a feeling that you are not talking to a great leader. He was spiritual. He was something. He was God’s gift, you know.”