By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register
Sept. 25, 2019
Pope John Paul II was coming to Iowa.
Well, maybe. If — if — the capital city area could handle the event, the pope was interested.
A call by the pope’s U.S. travel coordinators relayed the information to Bishop Maurice Dingman of the Des Moines diocese in mid-August 1979.
If the pope were to come to Des Moines for four hours, where would the diocese take him? Dingman, who died in 1992, called Monsignor Frank Bognanno. His voice trembled.
Dingman commanded: “Come see me at once,” Bognanno recalled.
Bognanno rushed downtown to Dingman’s office. He entered a room full of somber-faced priests, all leadership in the diocese.
“The pope is coming,” Dingman informed Bognanno. “I want you to take care of the arrangements.”
“I was 39 years old, and my brain was still developing,” Bognanno, now 79, said in a recent interview. “I didn’t have enough sense to say, ‘Get somebody, anybody, else.’”
But the efforts of Bognanno and the rest of the Des Moines diocese, the Iowa National Guard, the Iowa State Patrol and uncounted others led to one of the most beloved moments in Iowa history.
An estimated 350,000 people hailed Pope John Paul II at Living History Farms in Urbandale four decades ago, on Oct. 4, 1979.
Des Moines was a city of less than 200,000 at the time. Diocesan and public officials had just six weeks to plan for a crowd that today would fill Kinnick Stadium five times over.
And it all began with a letter from an Iowa farmer.
Joe Hays, who died earlier this year, farmed 90 acres near Truro. The devout Catholic attended Immaculate Conception Church at St. Mary’s in Warren County.
In July 1979, national news reported Pope John Paul II planned his first pastoral visit to the United States since he ascended to the papacy the previous October.
The schedule for the visit wasn’t final, but the planned stops included major metropolitan areas: Boston, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. The closest he would come to Iowa was Chicago.
Hays mentioned to his priest, Monsignor Paul Connelly, that the pope should see life in “rural America, the heartland and breadbasket of our nation.”
Connelly encouraged Hays to write a letter to the pope, inviting him to rural Iowa.
Pope John Paul II was 59 years old, young for a pope and vital. Previous popes were much older and struggled with a variety of ailments, including obesity. Pope John Paul II jogged in the Vatican gardens, lifted weights, swam, played soccer and hiked.
And he was willing to travel. During his pontificate, from 1978 to 2005, he visited 129 countries and ventured 680,000 miles outside Italy. The voyage that brought him to Des Moines was just the third of his papacy.
In early pastoral visits around the world, the pope showed an affinity for meeting everyday people, beyond church and political leaders. Connelly and Hays believed a letter from an Iowa farmer would resonate with the pope.
At a St. Mary’s parish dinner on July 22, Connelly sat Hays next to Bishop Dingman. Hays gave his letter for the pope to Dingman, who forwarded it to the Vatican.
For years, rumors circulated that the late Monsignor Luigi Ligutti, a priest with strong Iowa ties, goosed the letter on its way to the pope.
Ligutti was born in Italy and immigrated to Iowa in 1912. He earned a bachelor’s degree from St. Ambrose University and was ordained as a priest in 1917. He led churches in Woodbine and Granger.
During the Great Depression, Ligutti founded the Catholic rural life movement, linked to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Ligutti became a national and international figure, delivering hundreds of lectures a year promoting agricultural development.
Ligutti became close friends with a Polish cardinal named Karol Jozef Wojtyla during the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II in October 1978.
But Ligutti was retired by the time the pope visited the United States. Monsignor Stephen Orr, who was chancellor under Dingman, said Ligutti found out about the pope visiting Des Moines after the plan was underway.
Bognanno takes a more romantic view.
“I think when the pope saw Joe Hays’ letter, he thought of his old friend Ligutti and decided to visit his hometown,” Bognanno said.
Archbishop Paul Marcinkus and the Rev. Robert Lynch, the priests in charge of arranging the pope’s visit to the United States, secretly visited Des Moines the weekend of Aug. 15, 1979.
Bognanno met them at the Des Moines airport and gave them the lay of the land. Lynch emphasized the pope wanted to meet common people, not just VIPs, Bognanno remembered.
Bognanno headed south from the airport to the Irish Settlement near Cumming on the border of Warren and Madison counties.
In the early 1850s, Irish immigrants founded the 40-acre parish — once referred to as New Ireland, and with St. Patrick’s Catholic Church at its heart. The sense of community and Irish identity thrives today.
Lynch and Marcinkus liked what they saw. Now, where would the pope celebrate Mass? Before the visiting priests had arrived, Bognanno had tried to get in touch with a man who knew the topography at Living History Farms, but he couldn’t reach him.
When they arrived at Living History Farms, Bognanno got out of the car first and hustled over to the man, whose name Bognanno has long forgotten, and asked where the highest point at the location was.
“You’re standing on it,” the man said.
Lynch and Marcinkus asked where the pope would stand.
“I said, ‘Right here,’ like I knew all along,” Bognanno said.
Marcinkus, a smoker, pulled out a pack of Lark cigarettes. He was out. The man who knew the topography at Living History Farms noticed the brand. He happened to have a carton in the front seat of his pickup. He handed Marcinkus a pack of Larks.
“In my head, I’m thinking, ‘We just sealed it on a pack of Larks,’” Bognanno said.
The diocese informed Gov. Bob Ray’s office on Aug. 20 that Pope John Paul II might come to Iowa on Oct. 4.
Ray immediately made the Iowa National Guard and the Iowa State Patrol available to help the diocese make the visit happen. They had just more than six weeks to pull off the preparations.
Slowly, the secret of a papal visit began to spread. A few law enforcement sources tipped former Des Moines Register courts reporter Paul Leavitt that the pope might visit Iowa for a few hours, flying in from Chicago.
Leavitt passed the tip on to Bill Simbro, the Register’s religion writer, and Nick Lamberto, a Notre Dame graduate and a celebrated reporter and writer.
Lamberto had written about the Des Moines diocese invitation to the pope earlier that month, but he had described the chances as remote.
Now, with the rumblings in law enforcement, the visit appeared to be probable.
Simbro and Lamberto broke the story on the front page of the Register.
“It was one of the biggest scoops in Register history,” said Randy Evans, retired Register opinion editor, who was a news reporter at the time. “It was one of the biggest events in Iowa history.”
The diocese and state officials reached out to parishes across Iowa and in neighboring states to get a sense of how many people might visit. It soon became apparent they were dealing with a crowd the likes of which Iowa had never seen.
The governor put Col. Harold “Tommy” Thompson in charge of logistics. Thompson worried the scarcity of parking near Living History Farms would create a gridlock disaster.
Dingman, the bishop, turned the basement of his house into offices for those planning the event. Thompson and the National Guard had a crew there along with diocese officials.
Thompson knew they needed to use buses to bring larger groups of people to the site. He offered an unusual solution: Close the Interstate 35-80 bypass and turn it into a parking lot for buses.
Federal transportation officials objected. This was a major commerce highway. To shut it down for hours was unthinkable.
“Gov. Ray called the White House,” recalled David Oman, Ray’s chief of staff. “Gov. Ray was a pretty senior governor at that time. He talked to someone and was able to get approval.”
The diocese encouraged visitors to park at designated sites and walk to Living History Farms, using the theme of taking a pilgrimage. Thompson ordered several footbridges to be built over creeks and waterways in the area to allow people to safely cross.
Some were bused in from larger sites, including Adventureland, Valley West Mall and Merle Hay Mall.
Urbandale schools closed, and businesses shut down in anticipation.
The gates at Living History Farms opened at 7:02 a.m. on Oct. 4. The masses streamed in as vendors tried to make a buck off the pope’s visit. Some sold coffee and doughnuts. Others sold T-shirts.
Much of the land around Living History Farms in Urbandale was still farmland or open fields. Some landowners charged as much as $100 for parking. Others let people park for free.
The owners of one hotel, believing their alcohol license allowed them to sell anywhere on the property, tried to sell beer from the hotel parking lot. State officials quickly informed them the license was only for the designated bar area, and no beer would be sold this day.
In Cumming, scores filled the pews of St. Patrick’s and the grounds in anticipation of the pope’s arrival.
The plane carrying Pope John Paul II landed at the Des Moines airport at about 1:45 p.m., about 45 minutes behind schedule.
Ray’s staff waited in an airport building. The governor arranged for a porcelain statue of a Polish peasant bride to be presented as a gift to the pope.
Ray’s aide, Joe Grubbs, held the statue until it could be presented to the pope. Grubb and other members of Ray’s staff chatted while they waited.
Grubbs became animated while telling a story in the cramped, low-ceiling room.
“Suddenly there was this clang of the statue hitting one of the pipes overhead,” recalled Ken Quinn, president of the World Food Prize who was then on loan from the State Department as an aide to Ray.
The room silenced. A few pieces of white fluttered down like snowflakes and everybody held their breath, Quinn said.
“Nobody knew if the head was going to fall off or what,” Quinn continued. “The governor gave it to the pope and it was intact. If the head fell off on the way back to Rome, we never heard about it. I think it took five years off Joe’s life.”
From the airport, the pope flew by helicopter to the Irish Settlement to observe Mass with the assembled crowd at St. Patrick’s. He doted on children, stopping to hug them, pick them up and pat them on the head.
The altar boys of St. Patrick’s drew straws to decide who was to assist the pope in Mass. One of the boys was 9-year-old Bobby Mulvihill.
The pope paused to speak to each altar boy. When he got to Mulvihill, he asked his name.
“What?” Mulvihill, now 49, recalls saying. “He spoke English, but he had a Polish accent. I didn’t understand him. I was nervous.”
The pope asked young Bobby if he was Irish.
“I don’t know,” the boy said.
“My parents were probably mortified,” Mulvihill said recently. But the pope hugged the boy. Young Bobby looked over at his parents, who had tears in their eyes.
The pope’s arrival at the church startled another child at the church: 4-year-old Michael Kiernan, who would go on to be a leader in the state Democratic Party and a Des Moines city councilman.
Kiernan saw the procession of cardinals marching into the church in their red garments. He ducked under the pews.
“I had seen ‘Star Wars’ with my brother, and it was like something out of a movie,” Kiernan said. “I was kinda scared.”
Young Michael felt someone grab him from behind. It was Pope John Paul II. He picked the boy up in his arms and gave him a blessing.
“I remember the warmth I felt from him,” an adult Kiernan recalled. “He was just so genuine.”
A photo of the pope cradling young Michael went out on the news wires and appeared in newspapers nationwide.
Covering the pope’s visit to Cumming involved some coordination on the part of the Register and its afternoon counterpart, the now-defunct Des Moines Tribune.
In the days before mobile phones, the internet and digital cameras, photographers needed to develop film and transmit images to the offices downtown using a special fax machine.
Register business manager Vern Brown arranged for a utility pole with power and a phone line to be installed on the edge of a farm field near the Irish Settlement.
Brown rented a trailer for photographers to develop film and reporters to send stories from primitive laptops that connected to phones with suction cups over the ear and mouth pieces.
The Register and Tribune arranged for local high school cross-country runners to take film from photographers at Living History Farms and run it to the fence, where another runner would take it across the street to a building the papers used to produce the coverage of the day: an extra for the afternoon Tribune to be available as people left the grounds and a special eight-page section in the next morning’s Register.
For one of its biggest photos, the Register enlisted an unusual freelancer: the governor himself. Authorities ruled the airspace over Living History Farms a no-fly zone. But Register editors wanted an overhead shot of the massive gathering.
They asked Ray, an accomplished amateur photographer, to snap a picture as his helicopter flew over the crowd. He did and received a photo credit in the next day’s Register, something that delighted the five-term governor.
The pope left by helicopter for Living History Farms. The crowd there was cheerful and calm. Loudspeakers played music.
Leaders from other religions offered prayers and blessings before the pope celebrated Mass. A sign across from Living History Farms read: “LUTHERANS LOVE THE POPE TOO.”
Pope John Paul II met Southeast Asian refugees who had resettled to Iowa after the Vietnam War.
He spoke directly to American farmers, reminding them the rich soil was a gift from God to all mankind as a means of sustaining life for generations.
“You who live in the heartland of America have been entrusted with some of the earth’s best land,” the pontiff said. “You are stewards of some the most important resources God has given to the world. Therefore, conserve the land well.”
Mimi Buttry missed every word. She went with her sister and young toddler son. But when the pope’s helicopter touched down, it stirred dust that triggered her asthma. She had to go to a medical tent to receive a shot of epinephrine.
“What a letdown,” she said. “It was still a beautiful day.”
Mary Lou Doak took her four young daughters. One, Dani, then 3, ran off to take shelter in one of the portable toilets, creating a brief panic before her elder sister spotted her. The group spent seven hours in the chilly open field on a day that reached 57 degrees.
“After seven long hours, I really felt like cutting loose and running,” Doak wrote in an essay for the Tribune. “Someone up there didn’t think it was very funny because with my next step, I twisted my foot.”
Mary and Jack Day took their 4-month-old daughter, Morgan, with them to the farms. They tried to position themselves as close as possible to the altar in hopes of getting their daughter a blessing from the pope.
But when the moment came, they found themselves too far away.
“So, we put our faith in the people around us and handed our baby forward,” Mary Day said.
The crowd gently handed the infant Morgan Day forward, getting close to the edge of the stage — perhaps making her the youngest crowd surfer in Iowa history.
The pope noticed baby Morgan and gave her a blessing from the stage as he walked by. The crowd, just as gently, returned the baby to her parents’ arms.
“It was the most beautiful experience of my life other than childbirth,” Mary Day said. “I can’t imagine doing something like that today, handing my baby to a total stranger.”
Quinn, Ray’s aid, remembers the pope blessing the massive crowd in sections near the end of his visit. Ray and the rest of the staff were boarding one of the awaiting choppers.
Quinn, who was raised Catholic, paused to watch as the pope made his blessing to the section of crowd closest to him.
“There was an audible gasp as 75,000 or so people surged forward,” Quinn recalled. “There was this incredible electricity. I was frozen by it. It was as if there was one small moment I understood the charisma of Jesus addressing the multitudes.”
Pope John Paul II took off from Iowa shortly before 5 p.m., about an hour behind schedule. Thompson, the Iowa National Guard commander, figured it would take seven or eight hours to clear Living History Farms.
The Iowa State Patrol posted a commander at the Lucas Building in case of an emergency. His phone never rang through the entire day.
Around 7 p.m., Quinn, who was Ray’s liaison to the guard and state patrol, called Thompson to ask how things were going.
“Everybody’s gone,” Quinn recalls Thompson saying.
“I don’t know if this is canonical, but I believe that was a miracle,” Quinn joked.
In the years to come, Quinn considered the events of that fall afternoon in the context of Iowa at the end of the 1970s.
The farm economy boomed. The Iowa caucuses were growing in national prominence. And though some had misgivings, the state welcomed hundreds of refugees from the war-ravaged regions of Southeast Asia.
The December following the pope’s visit, the Iowa SHARES charity sent Iowa doctors, volunteers and hundreds of thousands of dollars in donated food and medicine to the displaced people of Cambodia who suffered under the brutal regime of Pol Pot.
“The country was torn apart by the Vietnam War and Watergate,” Quinn said. “I believe the pope’s visit helped heal us.”
A strong impression lingered with Pope John Paul II.
Near the end of his life and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, the pontiff invited the world’s bishops for a last conference.
Des Moines Bishop Joseph Charron waited his turn to meet with the pope, whose hearing was failing and who spoke only in short sentences.
Charron reached the pope, paid homage and reminded the pope of his visit to Iowa.
Pope John Paul II perked up slightly at the state’s mention.
“Iowa,” he said followed by a long pause.
“Farms,” the pontiff said and paused again.
“Refugees,” he said.
The pope fell silent. Charron bowed and moved on.
But the memory of Pope John Paul II’s brief visit to Iowa stayed with him until his death in February 2005.
Register Storyteller Daniel P. Finney grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. He wrote his first story for the Register in 1993 at age 17. He has stacked paragraphs ever since. Reach him at 515-284-8144 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @newsmanone or Facebook at @danielpfinney.