ISTANBUL — A large, beige-colored building sits on a corner of a semi-quiet street in Istanbul’s Sisli district.
The stone structure once housed Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, who lived in Istanbul from 1935 to 1944 as the Vatican’s apostolic delegate to Turkey and Greece.
In 1958, Archbishop Roncalli became Pope John XXIII; he will be canonized April 27 along with Blessed John Paul II.
“Many foreign tourists come from all over to look and they take photos,” said Neriman Reyhan, a Muslim, who lives across from the future saint’s former Istanbul residence on the street now called “Papa Roncalli.”
Reyhan, 82, told Catholic News Service the “street used to be called Ocelik” but it was renamed to honor the pope.
“He must have been a very good man,” Reyhan said of Archbishop Roncalli, who also served as administrator of Istanbul’s Latin-rite vicariate.
Istanbul’s present-day apostolic vicar, Bishop Louis Pelatre, said historical accounts concur that Archbishop Roncalli “was a good, saintly man,” and apparently very modest during his Turkey tenure.
“He wasn’t considered so important. He would go to ministries and sometimes wait all day to see someone, but if he was unable to meet the person he wanted, he never got discouraged. He would leave his card,” Bishop Pelatre said, relaying stories he had read and also heard from “the very few persons living” who had met Archbishop Roncalli in Turkey more than 70 years ago.
“There is hardly anyone left now though, most have departed or are on their way,” the priest said during an interview at his home, a former school, next door to Archbishop Roncalli’s residence. He said this residence has been mostly vacant since 1960, the year the Vatican and Turkey established official ties and papal ambassadors were moved permanently to the Turkish capital, Ankara.
“It’s now the pontifical nuncio’s residence when he visits from Ankara, but he doesn’t come much, and it remains mostly closed. Sometimes people come asking for the key and we tell them to call Ankara,” Bishop Pelatre said.
The bishop said he attended the ceremony for the renaming of the street to “Roncalli,” in 2000, three months after Blessed John Paul II beatified his predecessor.
As apostolic delegate to Turkey, Archbishop Roncalli had helped the Jewish underground to save thousands of refugees in Europe, Bishop Pelatre said, adding that the former pope was renown among Catholics and non-Catholics alike for convening the Second Vatican Council, which led to reforms that included stronger emphasis on ecumenism and a new worldly approach.
“I think for the Muslims here, as well as for many Christians, that when (Blessed John XXIII) was beatified, it was as if he had already become a saint,” Bishop Pelatre said. He said the street-naming event to mark the beatification had been organized by local government officials, and that many of the city’s Muslims, Christians and “especially Jews” had been present.
“For me it is something wonderful, because all levels of society rendered him homage. He had friends everywhere,” he said.
Jean Andriotti, 90, is one of the rare Istanbul natives who remembers meeting and greeting Archbishop Roncalli.
He said he grew up attending French Mass and praying to saints at Istanbul’s Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, where Archbishop Roncalli routinely celebrated Mass.
He “had a very strong Italian accent and sounded very funny when he spoke to us in French, and it made all of us boys laugh very hard. But, of course, we were only teenagers,” said Andriotti, who now lives with his Italian wife, Amelia, in a Catholic retirement home near the cathedral.
Andriotti said it was too early to decide whether he would be adding Blessed John XXIII to the list of saints he now prays to on Sundays in the chapel on retirement home grounds.
“He is not a saint yet,” he said. “Let’s wait until that happens and talk then.”