She was staying in an apartment overlooking the Nile with a family friend when they heard a news report on the radio that the pope had died.
“We were going, ‘Oh my gosh, they are really behind on this,’” she said. “We thought that they were speaking of Paul VI.” Pope Paul VI had died the month before.
“But no! It was John Paul I, so then of course we riveted,” she said.
“We were listening to the radio on October 16, 1978 at a little after seven at night, the BBC news. We heard ‘Habemus papam,’ and it was a long, drawn-out name.”
“They looked at me and said, ‘Where in Italy is he from?’” she recalled. “I said, ‘I don't know that name.’ Then we heard he was Polish and we all dropped our forks, you know.”
Some of Lewis’ favorite memories of John Paul II are from the times she attended Mass in his private chapel.
“I have never seen anyone pray like John Paul did in my whole life,” she said.
She also met the pope as a part of the papal party for World Youth Day in Denver in 1993.
"I always loved his talks to young people,” she said. "Whenever his speeches, homilies, whatever came to my desk where it was the Holy Father addressing young people ... I wanted to be the one to write it.”
Working at the Vatican from 1990 to 2005, Lewis served as part of the Holy See delegations to international conferences, including the United Nations Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, and other conferences in Copenhagen, Istanbul, and Beijing.
She said that the pope's message for the delegates was "always to put the human being at the center of every single thing, and to protect and to defend life, to protect and defend human freedom.”
“I remember him saying very clearly to the delegation before we left. He said: ‘I want you to know ... you can count on my prayers every day.’ He told us that he knew these conferences would be an uphill battle and said ‘I’m just a phone call away if you ever need me.’”
Lewis’ work for the Vatican also included translation. She remembers translating parts of Pastores dabo vobis, the pope’s 1992 post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the formation of priests, into English.
“I personally translated the Holy Father’s last will and testament,” she said, recalling that she was sitting at her desk in tears at the time.
When the pope died, Lewis said it felt like she had just lost her father a second time. Her dad had died 13 years earlier.
“All across St. Peter's Square there were 50-60,000 just all over the place praying rosaries, singing songs, burning candles, especially young people,” she recalled of the days leading up to his death.
“He had died at 9:37, so we finished our news ... and then I went out into St. Peter’s Square and finally the emotions got a hold of me, and I sobbed for 45 minutes,” she said.
“I loved every person in that square because they were paying tribute to the man I loved, this huge spiritual father.”
Fifteen years later, Lewis said that she hopes she will be able to visit St. John Paul II’s tomb in St. Peter’s Basilica on the centenary of his birth. The basilica has been closed to the public for the past nine weeks to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. In recent weeks, the Italian government has slowly loosened its restrictions and will allow public Masses to resume on May 18, St. John Paul II’s birthday.
Lewis, who turns 80 next month, said that she has missed seeing friends, going to restaurants, stopping by the EWTN office, and going to the hairdresser during the lockdown.
But this has not stopped her from contributing to her parish's weekly Mass livestream as a long-distance lector, writing posts for her blog, and recording her weekly radio show.
The weeks under quarantine have also given her some time to work on a book about her memories of St. John Paul II. She says it will be called “I baked cookies for a saint.”
“I feel enormously blessed that my life was touched by this man's life,” Lewis said.