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St. Michael Catholic Church contingent thrilled by witnessing papal Mass in New York
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"I don’t think anything of this nature has ever happened in Yankee Stadium," Father Kizito Okeke said as he waited to see the popemobile pass by after the papal Mass held in New York on Sunday afternoon.

"I’m so happy to be a part of this. Our dream has come true in a big way," said Okeke, who is the parochial vicar at St. Michael Catholic Church in Gainesville.

Twenty-six people from St. Michael — members of the youth group and several adults serving as chaperones — made the trip free of charge thanks to donations from other church members. As if the drive to New York wasn’t long enough, the group endured two flat tires along their journey.

The papal Mass began at 2:30 p.m. and lasted about two and half hours. During the Mass, the popemobile carrying Pope Benedict XVI moved clockwise around the stadium. The six-day visit is his first trip to the United States since being named head of the Roman Catholic Church in 2005.

"Everyone could have a good view," Okeke said, adding that attending the papal Mass and seeing the pope was "an experience one will never forget."

Okeke described the atmosphere of Yankee Stadium, where the Mass was held, as that of pure joy. He said all ages of people at the Mass clapped and cheered.

"I’ve never seen that kind of reaction," Okeke said.

Bryson O’Shields, 15, of Clermont, said the trip "was a great experience."

O’Shields, a member of St. Michael, said he was able to see the pope from five feet away after asking a security guard if he could stand alongside the fence where the pope was to enter.

Although Yankee Stadium was sold out for the event, Okeke said there were thousands of spectators outside the stadium also showing support for the pope. But Cecilia Puente, 13, of Gainesville said that she was upset by the number of protesters outside the event.

"They yelled about love and peace, but they were not showing love and peace," Puente said.

Puente made the trip to New York, but was unable to attend the Mass in Yankee Stadium. She and six other people from St. Michael couldn’t get tickets to the Mass after registering too late for the trip.

As far as the children’s response to the event, Okeke said "it was the most exciting moment in their lives."

Puente said she had a "great time" in New York with her fellow church members.

"I’m very grateful to God, who made it possible for us to travel far and wide; all of our expectations were fulfilled. Also we send blessings to all who made this (trip) successful with contributions and spiritual support," Okeke said.

St. Michael’s youth group left New York Sunday night to return to Gainesville.