COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Not too many college football teams can brag their home stadium has been blessed by a saint. And the New Orleans Saints don't count. We're talking about a real, canonized, recognized by the Vatican saint. And we're not talking about futbol, either.
Pope John Paul II, who became a saint Sunday, led a prayer service at Williams-Brice Stadium in September 1987. The stadium may not be a saintly relic, but during the service, Saint John Paul II blessed the venue and the people within it.
"It was a grand day when the Pope came to the University of South Carolina," said Dr. Dennis Pruitt, Vice President for Student Affairs. Pruitt helped with the Pope's security detail for his appearance on the Horseshoe.
"Now that the Pope has become a saint, it makes those memories even fonder," said Pruitt.
"We were thrilled when the Pope came and thrilled to be blessed just by his presence here," he said. "It was a grand day for South Carolina. It was a grand day for our students because they got to witness something so few people get to witness."
According to Catholic tradition, there are three classes of saintly relics. Parts of the humans, such as bone, hair or fingernails are considered first class; things a saint used are considered second class; and things they touched are third class.
Two of those relics are kept at St. Peter's Catholic Church on Assembly Street, where John Paul gave a service before the mass at Williams-Brice Stadium.
"For us to have the relic of a Pope -- a saint -- in this church in South Carolina, which is unusual and unique, is very special," said Father Gary Linsky.
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The parish cherishes its papal chair and prie-dieu, where John Paul II sat and kneeled. The chair was custom made to be bullet proof. Since his 1987 visit, hundreds of couples kneeled on the prie-dieu during their weddings at St. Peter's.
"Now to think that this church and the people in this city had contact with a saint is something very special," said Linsky. He wasn't in Columbia in 1987, but Linsky met John Paul and participated in his masses several times while in Rome.
"As a parish we are very humbled in that the Holy Father graced our parish," Linsky said. ""It is incredible. When we think about the fact that a Pope came to Columbia. Let's remember, back in that time period, South Carolina was only 2% Catholic."
Dr. Pruitt says people of all faiths welcomed John Paul's visit.
"When the Pope came, he really gained the admiration and the love of our students and our university family," he said.
John Paul II's words are memorialized in a plaque commemorating his visit on the spot outside the President's house where he spoke.
"As only he could do, in, actually, very understandable English, kind of raised his hands and he said, 'It's great to be young. It's great to be a student. And it's great to be a young student at the University of South Carolina,'" Pruitt recalled. "As you can imagine, the crowd of 30,000 just erupted in applause and screaming and shouting. He had the University of South Carolina there."
Williams-Brice Stadium is one of three college football stadiums that hosted a mass officiated by John Paul II. The Catholic News Service says he served masses at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, AZ, home of Arizona State University, and the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, home of "the other USC."
So the bricks on the Horseshoe and the turf at Williams-Brice Stadium may not be saintly relics, but still, they were places walked by a saint.
"I would not say that he walked on the stones and it made them relics," said Linsky. "To show his respect and his desire to reach outside the church to show is respect to others of good will and Christians from other backgrounds, I think is incredible testimony to his legacy."
"There was something so special about him," said the priest. "That's what touched the hearts of people throughout the world."