Prospective black Pope has roots in upstate New York, where he was nearly arrested cleaning a bank in the 1970s while attending seminary
Ghana native Peter Cardinal Turkson, current head of the Vatican's justice and peace office and a favorite to replace Pope Benedict XVI, was introduced to snow in New York's Capital District and is often spotted around the Vatican with his iPhone and iPad.
By Christine Roberts and Corky Siemaszko / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
The African cardinal who could be the next Pope nearly wound up in a New York jail when he was caught in a bank after hours.
Peter Cardinal Turkson, then a young seminarian in Rensselaer, N.Y., got into trouble in the 1970s when a passer-by spotted him roaming the halls and called the cops, close friend Dr. Joseph Marrota recalled Tuesday.
“It was 8 or 9 o’clock and they wanted to know what he was doing there,” Marrota said. “He told them the truth, that he was cleaning the bank. They were going to arrest him and he had to call the cleaning service. He almost got taken away.”
That brush with the law didn’t sour Turkson on New York. In fact, the 64-year-old graduate of the now-defunct St. Anthony-on-Hudson Seminary in Rensselaer still has close friends in the Albany area — and visits them regularly.
“The cold weather is somewhat difficult for him,” said Marrota.
Flying in and out of Albany without drawing a crowd may also become difficult for Turkson, if the oddsmakers are right.
The Ghana native, who heads the Vatican’s justice and peace office, is one of the favorites to replace Pope Benedict.
The Pope shocked the faithful Monday with the announcement that he is stepping down at the end of the month. The Vatican said the fact that the 85-year-old pontiff has long relied on a pacemaker did not figure in his decision.
Turkson, in a 2009 interview, said he was open to the idea of being Pope.
“Why not?” he said. “All of that is part of the package.”
“Now it is (President) Obama of the United States. And if by divine providence — because the church belongs to God — if God would wish to see a black man also as Pope, thanks be to God.”
Marrota, an orthopedic surgeon in Troy, N.Y., who got to know Turkson while leading medical missions to Ghana, said he is reminiscent of another outsider — Pope John Paul II
“Like John Paul, he’s an outdoorsman, an athlete, a physically powerful man,” he said. “He has that unbelievable combination of intellect, character and charisma.”
The second-oldest of nine children, Turkson was born in Wassaw Nsuta in western Ghana on Oct. 11, 1948. The son of a son of a subsistance farmer, he grew up in a hut with a dirt floor.
His father was Catholic, his mother Methodist. The Catholic side won out when the priests at his village school pegged him as bright and set him on the path to priesthood.
Turkson had never seen snow when he landed in Rensselaer in 1971. He also quickly discovered he would need a car to get around, which is how he wound up cleaning a bank at night.
“He still drives himself,” said Marrota. “When I visited him in Rome, he and I were whipping around Rome in his Lexus SUV.”
Turkson returned home to Ghana after earning his theology degree and began his rise through the church hierarchy.
Marrota said Turkson sleeps just four hours a night, devours books, speaks seven languages, and — unlike many of his fellow cardinals — relies on his iPhone and his iPad.
“He’s very tech-savvy,” she said.
But when it comes to church doctrine, Turkson comes down on the conservative side.
“He, like Pope John Paul, is a progressive man yet conservative in the sense that he has a tremendous dedication to the faith and traditions of the church,” he said. “He is willing to consider new ideas, but he’s not bashful about showing the world what he believes needs to be done.”
While Turkson could become the first black Pope, he would not be the first African Pope. That would be Pope Victor I, a native of what’s now Libya, who held the office from 189 to 199.