Lorena Vega Calderon came to the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul’s visit to Immaculate Conception School in the gritty Pico Union district with her husband and six children on Sept. 16. The 39-year-old Highland Park wife and mother wanted her family to see the new monument commemorating the historic visit — located on the exact spot under a leafy ficus tree on the edge of the asphalt school yard where the Holy Father had spoken to the entire student body of 315 boys and girls exactly a quarter century ago. Moreover, she wanted them to see the place nearby where John Paul on his way out of the parochial school had stopped to comfort the crying eighth-grader.“I think I was as emotional as I am right now,” said Lorena, who was also one of the 21 students selected to meet with the pope and First Lady Nancy Reagan in a classroom. “I was really excited. I was really sad to see him leave. I was very happy, and I was just overtaken by his presence. I don’t know how to describe it. It was a very unique experience with lots of energy vibes. I can see now why he’s on his way to holiness, you know.”Then Lorena explained how the famous pontifical hug — the photo of which ran in newspapers and on TV around the nation — came about.“As he was leaving, he took our hands and shook them,” she recalled. “I guess I was crying so hard that he hugged and kissed me, or I hugged him and he hugged me back. He said he loved me and we would always be together through prayer. And it’s true.”According to an Associated Press reporter, the hug lasted about 15 seconds while John Paul spoke softly in her ear. The 14-year-old appeared unable to let go, and was still crying, but now in joy and amazement, when John Paul left her along the side of the school. Lorena said she could never forget the pope’s “gorgeous” blue eyes and how her father had remarked, “You’re very fortunate to have hugged Jesus Christ. I absolutely believe he has the spirit of Jesus Christ. So you were one of the fortunate ones.” Secret Service agentsTalk about baptism by fire.On August 1, 1987, Mary Ann Murphy began her new job as principal of Immaculate Conception School. Within that first month, the U.S. Secret Service showed up to start the vetting process for the pope’s visit to the inner-city school. The new principal was in shorts, T-shirt and sneakers trying to figure out what she should do first, when a huge rat ran across her office — right in front of some startled Secret Service agents. And when school started after Labor Day, the situation got more surreal, with the press also on campus every day until after the papal visit. Back then, according to the 58-year-old principal who is starting her 26th year at the helm of Immaculate Conception, the school building was smaller, there wasn’t any playground for younger kids and not a single computer. Today, the building has been added onto through the Shea Foundation. There’s a colorful modern playground for the little kids courtesy of the national nonprofit Kaboom. And practically all instruction involves computers and smart boards in classrooms by a well-trained faculty with mostly master’s degrees. But two things remain the same: The parochial school continues to serve one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Los Angeles. And Pope John Paul II’s visit continues to be an immense source of pride in the largely Hispanic community.“The first image that comes to my mind that day is after the Holy Father spoke to those 21 kids, when they walked out to the school yard and the entire school just erupted into cheering and clapping,” Murphy said. “I can still see their faces, and I have not seen kids smile that big. So it meant so much to them.“But there was such a hush when the Holy Father walked into the classroom with the 21 students,” she continued. “And, then, the depth of their questions was something. One young lady asked about did he find it hard to be forgiving. Somebody else asked if he felt threatened in terms of his security, visiting so many countries. And his reply was really cute. He said, ‘Afraid? Of you? No!’ And somebody else asked if as a young man he had ever dreamed that he would be the pope? And he said, ‘No, no! Not ever.’”The classroom session lasted about 40 minutes, followed by the half-hour outdoor general assembly, which ended with eighth-grader Lorena Vega hugging the Holy Father as tightly as she could. “I’m sure that’s made a profound difference with her life, and all of their lives,” Murphy observed. “And I think, even though we’re at least a generation-and-a-half since then, it’s a unique part of who we are at Immaculate Conception. ’Cause there’s no other school in the archdiocese” — and she corrects herself — “in the United States that had this privilege,” before adding with a grin, “and no other principal starts their administration that way.” Living her faithLorena Vega Calderon readily agreed. The up-close, hands-on experience with Pope John Paul II — who would make trips to 129 countries, racking up more than 650,000 miles during his 26-year pontificate — continues to influence her life in ways she could never imagine as an eighth-grade student at the little urban elementary school. “You know what? I think what stays with me is, things don’t happen by coincidence,” she mused. “I couldn’t probably understand what he said back then. But now when he said, ‘Do not be afraid to evangelize with your life,’ it makes a lot more sense to me to strive to live my faith nowadays with so much going on in society and so many issues going against the Church. So we need to stand firm in our Catholic faith and our Christian Catholic values.“It’s been a great privilege. It’s something I can share with my family still, and something that now serves my faith. It gives me the motivation, reminder that when I feel it’s difficult to go on, I have that motivation, his wonderful example of I met him. “So I can say it’s one of the most important things in my life, and one of the major experiences,” Lorena stressed. “I literally was chosen through a lottery to be with the group of 21 students. So I can’t ask for anything else. It’s wonderful.” {gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2012/0928/lorena/{/gallery}