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My encounter with the Pope Benedict


      Never in her 80-plus years did Rose Fuchs think that she would travel to Italy or be singled out by the pope.  But 2006 found her and her family in reserved seats in the front row of the pope’s weekly blessing in St. Peter’s Square, shaking hands with the pontiff.  It all came about because of a mysterious picture that hung in her parents’ home, a colorful painting on oilcloth that came with some vague history and a lot of questions. It depicts Rose’s great-grandfather, Peter Welters, as he looked in the late 1800s at age 22.  He is dressed as a soldier in the pope’s army.  His uniform is emerald green with pale purple froggings and trim, sash, and a black cap.  He is wearing white stockings and black shoes.  He is leaning one arm jauntily on a wall, his other hand on the hilt of a sword or other weapon.  It hung in Rose’s parents’ home for years, and always left a question in her mind. No one was even sure whether it was a painting or photograph, but it resembled Rose’s father. The original passed to Rose’s older brother.  She borrowed it and took it to experts in the Cities who verified that it was a painting and copied it by laser. Once it was framed and on her mantel in her Albany home, Rose started climbing the family tree.  She started with family legends, which said that the subject was her great-grandfather, Peter Welters.  One story said he was a member of the pope’s guard, but others doubted that because he wasn’t wearing the familiar colorful stripes of the Swiss Guard, a uniform alleged to have been designed by Michelangelo. Further research by a nephew in Oregon, Stephen Welters, and a researcher in Holland unearthed the information that Peter Welters was the son of a farmer in Echt, Holland. The researcher in Holland searched her computer to find Peter’s enrollment certificate, which stated that he had passed his test and was officially enrolled in the military.  His signature is legible, but not the date. He was recruited during a time of unrest, when Italy and all of Europe was in turmoil, and there were no set boundaries to define Italy, Germany or other European states.  His uniform resembles those worn by the Papal Zouaves, French infantrymen who defended the papal states. He is supposed to have said that he wasn’t scared until someone shot the ornament from his cap. (Note:  There is no ornament in sight in the picture!)  It isn’t known how he came to be recruited; perhaps there were newspaper editorials urging men to fight, or a recruiter may have marched into Echt and delivered some persuasive oration. “Those are questions you can ask yourself,” Rose says. The existence of this document is a small miracle. “Holland was bombed fiercely during the Second World War, but apparently they didn’t bomb the building where the records were.” Peter joined men from 22 other countries to fight for Pope Pius IX in his battle against the Risorgimento  (Unification). Eventually the papal states were taken over by Italy, and in the 1870s, the papal troops were disarmed and the papal states secularized.  Vatican City was not created until 1929 by the Lateran Treaty. Back home in Echt, Peter married, had two children, and in February 1888, they immigrated to St. Anthony, in Stearns County, where they bought farmland.  But Peter’s health was not good, and he was advised to move to a better climate in Portland, Ore.  Their son Anton, Rose’s grandfather, stayed in Minnesota. Rose and her family–son Bill, his wife, Karen, and sons Nick and Christopher–spent two weeks in Italy. They rented apartments in Rome, and traveled by train (when the railroads weren’t on strike) and car to Florence, Bellagio, Venice and Siena.  Rose’s legs aren’t as strong as they used to be, but she managed to do a lot of walking, even up the seven flights of stairs that led to their apartment. Waiting for them in Rome were special tickets to front-row seats for Pope Benedict XVI’s blessing in St. Peter’s Square. Fr. Tony Oelrich of Richmond, who had spent some time in Rome, had made the arrangements. The ticket office was conveniently only three blocks from their apartment. “They were so glad to see us,” says Rose. “They told us, don’t lose those tickets! They told us what gate to go to and to go right up to the front row.”  Rose passed the time waiting by speculating on which sights in the square her great-grandfather might have seen. Wooden crush gates mar the appearance of the square, looking more suitable to contain cattle, but they are necessary to direct the 63,000 people who were in the square that day. Rose and her family watched the pope’s secret service men in their suits and dark glasses as they talked into their coat sleeves. “If you ever see the pope on television, just watch.  They’re just like the men who guard the president.”  No one was allowed to carry a camera, but the Vatican photographers took pictures, and Rose and her family went back two hours later and selected the ones they wanted. Pope Benedict was in an open car, not the Popemobile, which he is alleged to dislike.  He smiled and shook hands with Rose as she showed him her ancestor’s document. Rose says, “I’d love to go back, but not in my condition.  I did pretty good.”  She would like to go to Germany and to Echt. As she says,  “Who else had a great-grandpa who served in Rome?”  As for her experience in the Vatican, she says,  “It’s amazing!  I can’t believe it!”

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