Pope Francis leaves imprint on Abu Dhabi Catholic congregation

Worshippers invited to pontiff's private visit to St Joseph's Cathedral tell of their encounter with the Pope

The worshippers of St Joseph’s will never forget February the fifth, the day the head of the Catholic faith visited their modest church and blessed the congregation.

And none more so than Sena Davies who will, from this day, carry the pope’s rosary beads that he gave to her.

Dressed in school uniform and stood outside the church, after the Pope left, Sena, 6, gleefully twisted the beads between her fingers.

“The Pope gave me his necklace,” Sena, from Ethiopia, said proudly.

She was given the rosary after taking part in a private prayer with the Pope and a few other pupils. She presented Pope Francis with a card she had painted, and he repaid her with the unique gift, which he had blessed.

Sena was among dozens of worshippers who were invited to the Pope’s private visit to St Joseph’s Cathedral on Tuesday, ahead of his Mass at Zayed Sports City.

While the building has none of the grandeur of the great cathedrals of Europe, it has stood in the heart of Abu Dhabi since the 1960s.

Pope Francis arrived in a similarly humble Kia Soul at 9am to cheers from crowds leaning against barricades, hoping to catch a glimpse of him.

Inside, after an introduction from Bishop Paul Hinder, Apostolic Vicar of Southern Arabia, and saying a few words to the crowd, the Pope walked among members of the congregation, shaking their hands and blessing children.

He also stopped to bless a row of people in wheelchairs, praying they be healed.

"We saw the Pope close-up. He was so close we could have touched him," said Imelda Popplewell, 49.

"I said to him 'welcome' and he looked back at me and smiled.

"He gave us a wave and looked directly at us," the British teacher said.

Ms Popplewell was one of five teachers from the British School Al Khubairat to have been selected from a draw to attend church during the Pope’s visit.

They were escorting 25 Emirati pupils who had also been invited to the event as part of the Year of Tolerance.

Hannah Robb, 50, another teacher from BSAK said she would never forget this day.

"I have been living in Abu Dhabi for 35 years, and I must say this is the most important event that has ever happened to me in the UAE.”

Ms Robb said that as an Irish Catholic, the Pope’s visit carried extra special meaning for her.

"You never get this experience as an ordinary person, to be so close to the Pope, anywhere else in the world."

She said she within arms' distance of him. “He looked directly at us and smiled, and took a card from one of the students. He just looked so happy to be here."

Ms Robb has been in the presence of a Pope before, when she was 10 years old she saw Pope John Paul II during his visit to Ireland in 1979.

"I went to mass with him in Dublin. He was far, absolutely nothing like today," she said.

Allen Joseph, Ashten Raja and Daksh Pandit, from India, were among 225 boys and girls selected by the church for altar-service during the Pope’s visit to the cathedral.

They stood in the front yard in robes of white and red to welcome the Pope and see him off before his Mass.

“The pope arrived in his car, with a bunch of black cars, and they started rounding around the cathedral,’ said Daksh, 9.

“And he was waving at everyone,” added Ashten, 13.

Those who were invited to the event, more than 200 people, stood on the sides waving back at him.

“After the Pope stopped his car, one of his guards started giving us his card,” said Daksh, pulling out a portrait of the Pope bearing the Vatican seal.

When it came time for the pontiff to leave, the altar boys and girls stood outside and sang him a song in Latin, while the Pope got into his modest Kia Soul, leaving an imprint on the congregation of the church forever more.