The Pope? Nope—It's British Bobby Billy Bird of Merseyside

updated 09/05/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/05/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

At first, the only people who noticed were other English policemen on a tough Liverpool beat in Merseyside. They addressed him as "Your Holiness" and went down on one knee as he walked by. Then, when Pope John Paul II visited the city last year, people in the huge waiting crowd noticed too. "Pretty soon they started taking my picture," says Billy Bird, 50, who was on guard duty at the airport. "Then they started passing their children over the barricades to be photographed with me. One lady even grabbed hold of my hand and started kissing it. She said, 'If I can't get to the real Pope, I'll have the next best thing.' "

Bird, a 26-year veteran of the Merseyside police force, so closely resembles the pontiff that he has had to get used to the joshing—and to being a local celebrity. Soon after the Pope's visit, he started getting requests for pictures. "What they really wanted to see," he says now, "is what I'd look like if I was dressed similar to the Pope." So Bird obliged. His wife, Maureen, 47, made a red cape out of one of her old gowns. Billy put on a white shirt backwards and wore a bride's white cap. "When I looked in the mirror," he says, "I actually cried. I don't know why, because I'm not an overly emotional man. I just felt full from the feet upwards."

The 6-foot, 189-pound bobby wanted to use the resemblance to help local charities. But, fearing that his actions might be misconstrued by the Vatican, Bird wrote to the Pope, enclosing photos of himself. He got back an equivocal reply from a Vatican official that said, "His Holiness wishes you to know that he appreciates the sentiments expressed which prompted you to write, and he thanks you very much for the photograph." "I did not," stresses Billy, "specifically ask for permission to dress as the Pope. All I did say was that I hoped His Holiness would not be offended by the photographs."

Though he has yet to raise any money for charity, Bird recently made his first public appearance dressed as the Pope at the Bootle Welfare Center. He says, "The crowd started applauding wildly. I said, 'Hello, you know who I am. I'm Billy Bird, and I've just come along to say hello.' " Bird says there will be no American Express commercials or other rip-offs. Rather, he says: "I sincerely hope people just look on it as a bit of fun, as I do."

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