Iowans remember Pope John Paul II’s 1979 visit

Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II

.- Thirty years after Pope John Paul II’s visit to Iowa, residents are remembering the event when an estimated 340,000 pilgrims, the largest crowd in Iowa’s history, gathered on the grounds of Living History Farms in Urbandale.
Mary Jane Pray, 92, sang in a choir that day.

“When I was a child, Catholics were seen as a far-out people who wore horns,” she told the Des Moines Register. “I think it softened a lot of people's hearts, especially if you were not Catholic. He was just a simple priest.”

Joe Hays, 69, a farmer from Truro, brought the Pope to Iowa with a handwritten request. After learning of John Paul II’s visit to America, he wrote to the Pope and said that the strength of the Catholic Church in America is found in its rural people.

A month later, a response arrived and Hays was called to an August 29 news conference announcing the visit.

“I put on my teal green leisure suit,” he told the Des Moines Register.

Then-Bishop of Des Moines Maurice Dingman and hundreds of others only had six weeks to plan for the gathering.

The then-mayor of Urbandale E.J. Giovanetti initially did not believe news of the visit until his police chief took calls from the Secret Service.

"Oh my God, this thing is for real," Giovannetti recalled his thoughts. "What are we going to do?"

He had to ask the governor to send the Iowa National Guard to assist at the event.

According to the Des Moines Register, local millworkers made an altar out of 100-year-old barn wood and carved their names on the boards. Harley “Van” Siebert, owner of the Carpet Factory and a non-Catholic, prepared a red carpet for the Pope.

Fr. Frank Bognanno, who helped coordinate the visit, told the Des Moines Register how Gov. Robert Ray and other dignitaries met Pope John Paul II at the airport tarmac.

“The Pope stepped back and nodded to me,” Fr. Bognanno said. “Gee, I felt like I was related to this guy. He was just a regular guy. It certainly made the papacy less removed. It brought him to our level, not in some tower.”

Fr. Francis Ostdiek, then the oldest priest in Des Moines at 91 years old, was pushed onto the tarmac in a wheelchair by Jim Boyt.

Boyt reported that Pope John Paul II walked up to the priest, looking “like a linebacker” with “big blue eyes,” and told Fr. Ostdiek “You could not come to see me in Rome, so I will come to you in Iowa.”

"His first priority was not the dignitaries,” Boyt said.

Pope John Paul II in his homily urged people to be generous and to serve others and to have gratitude.
He also spoke of the land as God’s creation.

"The land is not only God's gift; it is also man's responsibility," the Pope said, according to the Des Moines Register. "You are stewards of some of the most important resources God has given the world. ... Conserve it well."


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