© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Central Standard

Why Pope John Paul II's Airplane Bed Is In Kansas City, Kansas

Alex Smith
A Kansas City, Kansas, museum remembers Pope John Paul II with a display of his custom airplane bed.

For many Catholics, Pope Francis' visit to the United States provides a thrilling chance to see the church’s highest leader in the flesh. 

But in Kansas City, Kansas, the Strawberry Hill Museum and Cultural Center still celebrates and remembers a previous pope’s trip to the United States — specifically how he rested during the trip.

On display is the former air travel bed of Pope John Paul II, which is now classified as a relic.

On the second floor of a building which served for decades as an orphanage, a bed, linens and other travel accessories are displayed behind glass. Though it’s been retired for years, this bed was originally installed on the Shepard I, a customized TWA plane commissioned for Pope John Paul II by the Vatican in the late 1970s.

The pope may have been surrounded by lavish accommodations at home in Vatican City, but this small, low-slung bed is relatively modest.

“The pope was not as tall as people think he was,” explains museum curator Adrienne Nastav. “It’s not a big bed. It had to have fit into the confines of the airplane.”

Credit Alex Smith / KKCUR
In between his visits to the United States, Pope John Paul II's travel bed was housed in a TWA facility in Kansas City, Missouri. Its permanent home is now in Kansas City, Kansas.

To ensure the pope was secure while he rested, TWA also designed for him a safety belt which is now folded carefully on a bench at the foot of the bed.

Pope John Paul II used the bed on three visits to the United States: in 1979, 1987 and 1995. Between visits and after his final trip, the bed was stored at a TWA facility in Kansas City.

After the museum took over the Strawberry Hill building in 1988, the Rev. John Horvat successfully lobbied to have the bed kept there, where the neighborhood’s multicultural heritage is commemorated.

“Pope John Paul was Polish, as Polish as anybody could be,” Nastav says. “The museum thought it would be a great exhibit representing the Polish people.”

From Bed To Relic

The bed took on a special significance last year when Pope John Paul II was canonized.

Because the bed and bedclothes were owned by a saint, they are now considered 2nd class relics by the Catholic Church, according to museum director David Hartman.

“The linens have not been washed. So if they do, we lose the value of them,” Hartman says.

Though the canonization may have awarded the artifacts with a special official status, their greatest importance to Nastav is still personal.

The curator maintains the bed and room and fluffs up the linens once a year.

“I’m Polish,” Nastav says. “The honor of having Pope John Paul II … it’s just indescribable. I’m really blessed.”

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.