Archives

The attack that wounded a pope and two of the faithful

An American woman's trip of a lifetime turned into one that nearly claimed her life, as she was caught in the crossfire when a man tried to kill Pope John Paul II.

Shots fired at Pope John Paul II injured two others in 1981, including Ann Odre of Buffalo, N.Y.

Ann Odre recalls the day she was hit by a bullet intended for the pope. 1:13

The trip changed Ann Odre's life, but not in a way that she would ever have wanted.

Odre had used her savings to travel from Buffalo, N.Y., to Europe for a holiday in the spring of 1981 — one in which she had hoped to see the pope.

Unfortunately for Odre, the day she saw Pope John Paul II was the day he was shot.

A gunman, Mehmet Ali Agca, fired on the pope as he was crossing through St. Peter's Square on May 13, 1981.

Thousands of people were in the square when the shots were fired, injuring the pope, Odre and also Rose Hall, a fellow tourist.

A brush with death

Pope John Paul II is helped by his secretary Ladislaw Dsziwisz, right, and other unidentified assistants soon after he was shot and wounded in St. Peter's Square, on May 13, 1981. (Associated Press)

The pope was rushed to hospital, where he underwent several hours of surgery.

"Bullets wounded his left hand, right arm and lower stomach," the CBC's Russ Germain told listeners on As It Happens, bringing them up to speed on what had happened.

The attempted assassination of the Pope shocks the world. 6:54

Fortunately, for the pope and his followers, the injuries he suffered would not prove fatal.

'The world's gone mad'

Canadians react to the news that someone had shot Pope John Paul II in May of 1981. 0:56

The news that he had been shot shocked people around the world, including many Canadians.

"I think the world's gone mad, you know? First it's [Ronald] Reagan and now it's the pope," one woman said, referring to a separate incident that had seen the U.S. president shot just weeks before Pope John Paul II was attacked.

Many had the same core question — how could this happen?

"What is happening in the world today for something like that to happen?" asked a woman who appeared to be upset by the news. "It's a shock to everybody and I hope that he do pull through."

'I didn't realize it was a bullet'

This photo shows Pope John Paul II sitting in his bed at the Policlinico Gemelli hospital in Rome on May 19, 1981, six days after he was wounded in St. Peter's Square. (Osservatore Romano/AP)

Over in Rome, the attack had also been a shock for Odre. She did not even initially realize that she had been shot.

"I knew something entered my body, but I didn't realize it was a bullet," Odre said, when later recalling the events of that day on CBC's Front Page Challenge in October of the following year.

Odre told the game show that she had been standing on a chair when she was struck. She sat down on the ground and waited for help.

Eventually, she was carried away on a stretcher, as it was too crowded in the square for an ambulance to get to her. 

Odre remained in hospital in Rome for weeks, until she returned to the United States in July 1981 and spent further time in a Buffalo hospital.

She would return to Rome in August of 1982, returning to the papal audience in St. Peter's Square and having occasion to speak directly to the pope.

'Why was it me?'

In this April 10, 2014 photo, Sister Marisa from the Daughters of Charity closes the altar where the bloodstained undershirt worn by Pope John Paul II during the assassination attempt is kept, in Rome. (Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press)

"It was a little traumatic," said Odre, explaining that it was hard for her to return to the scene of the shooting.

"When the audience was completed, he had walked up to me and we both stood there for a couple minutes, not knowing what to say to one another," she said.

"Because he came up to me and he says: 'Is this really you?' But he said it in Polish, because I do talk in the Polish language."

Odre told Front Page Challenge the incident left her unable to work, in part due to the stress of what she had been through.

She also kept thinking about a haunting question, nearly a year and a half after the shooting.

"I keep asking, why was it me?" said Odre.

Agca, the man who shot the pope, was handed a life sentence. He spent nearly two decades in an Italian prison before being extradited to Turkey where he spent further time behind bars.

His motivation for the shooting has never been completely clear.