Your support is key 🔑

70% of our budget comes from individual members, making our work possible without paywalls.

Will you join us?

The last time Philadelphia hosted the Pope, in 1979, 8,000 police officers were on duty, Pope John Paul II talked about how we shouldn’t have sex and people from the Catholic stronghold of South Philly got really pissed at JPII.

Also there were bees.

The whole scene was chaotic, one of the biggest events in our city’s history, just like it probably will be this September when Pope Francis visits Philadelphia. He’ll be performing mass on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the same area where John Paul II did on October 3, 1979.

Billy Penn combed through old issues of the Philadelphia Daily News and the New York Times, and found 12 interesting aspects of the 1979 Papal visit, including how the city had to change the Pope’s motorcade route to detour around porny stuff.

Philadelphia had just 800 porta-Johns in the vicinity of the Parkway

And they weren’t even all that close to the Parkway. So the Pope wouldn’t be offended, Philadelphia kept the toilets at least two blocks away from where he’d be saying mass. Not exactly ideal for an event that brought about an estimated 1 million-plus people into the city.

SEPTA didn’t change its operations all that much

It added more subway trains, but the Daily News didn’t include anything on fewer stops, as is being planned for this year’s visit. The MFL had trains running every five minutes in the few hours before the Pope’s mass on the parkway and every three-to-four minutes in the few hours after it. Like for this year’s visit, people were discouraged from driving cars. Oh, and about 3,000 charter buses were used.

The Pope told everyone to not have premarital sex

In his homily, JPII lauded American for all its freedoms but then reminded us we needed to keep our freedom in check concerning sex, saying he saw way too lax of an attitude toward it. JPII pretty much said we would only be free if we upheld, as was published in the Times, “the whole of conjugal morality.”

A swarm of bees attacked people watching his Parkway mass, and 40 people had heart attacks

Somehow, that’s not an exaggeration. About 40 people were taken to the hospital after complaining of chest pains. As for the bees? Well, dozens of people were stung. It wasn’t known why so many of them came to the Parkway.

Stores and vendors sold souvenirs galore

The most popular item was the papal flag, featuring the colors green and white. The flags ranged in size from tiny to 20-feet. Other popular items included gold Pope medallions, bibles and even $1 jars of tap water that people could use to have blessed by the Pope. There was also the usual junk: keychains, coins etc. Street vendors, knowing they had a good chance to cash in, got particularly savvy, with one duo taking MasterCard and Visa for payment.

Then-mayor Frank Rizzo planned to give the Pope two gifts

Frank Rizzo’s gifts: A rare bible that was printed here in 1790 and a 1775 engraving of our own Billy Penn brokering a peace treaty with Native Americans.

150 people received communion from the Pope

And you had to stand out to make the cut. Those who did included a blind seminarian, a high school student who immigrated to Philadelphia from Poland and a Vietnamese refugee.

Balcony Pope parties were a thing

If you had prime Parkway real estate with an outdoor view, everyone wanted to be your friend. Apartment complexes had to limit the number of guests residents could bring. It was pandemonium on the Parkway, too. People tried sleeping out the night before to secure a spot, but security made them go home at 2 a.m.

South Philly got pissed at the Pope

The Pope was running a bit late, and he had to hurry to make it to the Parkway in time for mass. On his way to the Parkway, his Popemobile was supposed to be traveling up Broad Street at 5 mph. Instead, he was booking it at closer to 20 mph. You could barely see him, and this didn’t sit well with some South Philly residents. Said one to the Daily News, “So what if he was late? He brushed us right off. On TV, he was beautiful; here he didn’t even stand up in the car. So what did South Philly ever do to him?”

1,500 reporters covered the event

And to accommodate them, Bell telephone installed special portable phones and miles of new phone lines in the area of the Parkway so reporters could file dispatches from on site. They won’t be needing any of that this time.

Security was tight

Most of the 8,000-member police force worked during the Pope’s visit. The estimated cost for their overtime duties was $443,662, which is the equivalent of $1.4 million today. An estimated 1,500 of those police officers followed the Pope along his route up Broad Street to the Parkway, and a Secret Service helicopter monitored the scene from the sky. Pretty much every building in or near Logan Square was closed, including the Art Museum, Franklin Institute and Rodin Museum. The airport also closed when the Pope arrived and left.

The city prevented the Pope from seeing porn

The Pope’s route up Broad Street and over to the Parkway didn’t exactly follow the legally correct path. Rather than turn east and circle around City Hall as normal cars are required, the Popemobile turned left, skipping the curve. This move wasn’t introduced to save time; it was because the storefronts in Market East were too porny. From the Daily News: “The change was designed to steer the motorcade clear of the sight of 13th and Market Sts., with its porno shop overtones.”

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...