A papal keepsake: Hermantown's Pete Stauber trades headwear with Pope Francis

Hermantown's Matt Gannucci was yelling, "Oh my. Oh my." The Italian women the pilgrims had just met were crying right along with the Americans. Thousands of others were chanting, "Papa, Papa." Jason and John Gannucci, separated from their group a...

Pete Stauber trades caps with the pope
During a gathering in St. Peter's Square in the Vatican City on Feb. 26, Pete Stauber of Hermantown (right, in green) gives Pope Francis the skullcap he and his wife, Jodi, purchased at Gammarelli in Rome the day before. In return, the Pope removed his skullcap and gave it to Peter. (Vatican photo)

Hermantown's Matt Gannucci was yelling, "Oh my. Oh my."

The Italian women the pilgrims had just met were crying right along with the Americans.

Thousands of others were chanting, "Papa, Papa."

Jason and John Gannucci, separated from their group and farther away from the barricades on the street, watched on a giant television screen in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican.

There was Pete Stauber of Hermantown exchanging skullcaps with Pope Francis.


"It's an amazing moment," Stauber said of his Feb. 26 brush with the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. The odds of getting close enough to the pope at the weekly general audience and the ritual "popemobile" drive-through are long enough.

Getting the pope to stop and exchange zucchettos -- a type of beanie or skullcap -- is "something quite amazing," said the Rev. Joel Hastings of St. Rose Catholic Church in Proctor.

Stauber and his wife, Jodi, had been on a six-day pilgrimage to Rome with Hastings, other Northland couples and family members. They met Monday at St. Rose to debrief after a trip that Stauber said "changed me and my life for the better."

The exchange with the pope was just "icing on the cake," Jodi said.

The payoff

It's all on official Vatican video.

Stauber held the cap; a guard snatched it, and Stauber stood completely still, arm still extended, as a wash of awe visibly passed over him. The pope checked the zucchetto for size and authenticity and then made the exchange.

Stauber, gulping, uttered a wavy "Oh-oh-oh, thank you" twice, and then the pope was whisked away.


Video from the Vatican:


Jodi Stauber could consider the cap coup a prayer answered. She had prayed to St. Rita, the patroness of impossible causes, the night before.

The group of 11 from the Northland rose early and got into position to enter Vatican Square. It was cold. And people were trying to budge in line, eye-opening acts for the newcomers in the group.

Hastings was invaluable, they said. The priest once lived in Rome and knows the language. He put the group in position for the pope's ride to address the masses.

"We got the spots we wanted," Jodi said.

The Rev. Richard Kunst from St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Duluth gave some advice before the group left for Rome. Kunst has one of the world's largest collections of papal artifacts, including a zucchetto he exchanged with Pope John Paul II in 1999. His collection has been featured on a series of shows on the Eternal Word Television Network, a Catholic cable television station.

Matt and Beth Gannucci have taken many trips to Rome, including one with Kunst. The Staubers had a chance to see the Kunst collection, and the idea was planted.


They got instructions on where to buy an official pope cap that is sized for Francis, the only ones he will exchange.

"I basically told them how to do it," Kunst said. "Many try and don't succeed."

He said the fact that there are two swapped zucchettos in the Duluth area is quite a feat.

Taking the plunge

The Staubers learned Feb. 24 that pope outfitter Gammarelli had run out of zucchettos. They asked if they could buy the one in the display window. They balked at the price, 60 euros, or $83.

"It was kind of expensive," Jodi said. "Then we thought of when we would have another chance."

A reluctant clerk relented on selling the display model after learning the group was with a priest.

Sightseeing, prayers and an early wake-up call later, the group was in position.


The pope passed them, seemingly looking right at Stauber and his cap, and moved on.

"That was that," Jodi said of her thoughts at the time. There was a thrill at being so close to the pope -- "it was so cool" -- but a bit of a downer on the missed exchange.

The guards said it was unlikely that the pope would pass by again. So did the Italian women they had befriended. Gannucci said it was a nice try, but no.

Then he came back. Jodi Stauber said she became overwhelmed with tears as the pope kissed children as he neared.

"I got real emotional," she said. "I thought of what it meant to the mothers."

And then came the moment.

As far the group knows, Stauber's exchange was the only one that day. While it's a modern papal custom to swap zucchettos, it's a finicky one. Kunst had to try twice with Pope John Paul II, and that was in a private meeting. To be in the right place at the right time among 30,000 to 50,000 people in the square is rare.

Jason and John Gannucci, brother and father to Matt, were farther back in the crowd and didn't see the rest of the group until they met back at their hotel.


"I think I saw Pete on the Jumbotron," Matt recalled Jason saying.

Matt, barely able to contain himself, said, "Yes, he met the pope."


It was Matt Gannucci who set things in motion. His wife, Beth, was approaching a milestone birthday and he suggested going to a Minnesota Wild hockey game.

"Um, how about Rome?" Beth recalled saying.

Matt said he thought about the people in his life -- the Staubers, Beth and Eric Hillman of Duluth, Ron and Trish Jauhola of Proctor. All had been having challenges in their lives, Matt said. There had been talks about faith and how it all fit in.

"It was time for a pilgrimage," Jodi said. "It wasn't a vacation. It was a pilgrimage."

"Every Catholic should go at some point in their lifetime," Matt said.


Pete said nothing in his life, not a college hockey championship or making it as a pro, can compare to the moment with the pope. And now that he's home, the reaction from the community is gratifying. People are clamoring to see the zucchetto.

"To share it is a true blessing," he said.

When it's not touring area churches, the zucchetto is in a safe at the bank. The Staubers are working with artifacts expert Kunst on how to properly store and display the cap.

Beth Hillman brought numerous items to be blessed by the pope and wrote a letter to her children to remind them what it meant. She said the zucchetto exchange and her experience in Rome showed her a "pope who is really trying to reach out to the people."

Jodi Stauber laughs about the inauspicious start to the trip. During a day layover in Paris, the group was waiting in a long line at the Eiffel Tower. Just when they were reaching the front, a security breach shut the tower down, turning the group away.

"We told everybody that weird stuff happens when we travel," she said, and most often in a bad way. Pete's luggage ended up in Salt Lake City.

But then came what's being playfully dubbed the Vatican Square miracle. It was weird, but wonderful, Jodi said with a joyous laugh.

"Sometimes it works out for the good."

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