‘On the same ground as the pope’: St. John Paul II in the heartland

| Debbie Musser | March 13, 2020 | 0 Comments

Pope St. John Paul II accepts fruits of the harvest from gift bearers at the Mass at Living History Farms in Urbandale, Iowa, Oct. 4, 1979. COURTESY LIVING HISTORY FARMS

Dial back to the fall of 1979. A new pope, John Paul II, set out to embark on a nine-day apostolic journey to the United States that included a special visit to Des Moines, Iowa, only 230 miles from the Twin Cities.

Robust and active at age 59, the pope also presided at a welcome Mass in Boston; an appearance before the United Nations General Assembly in New York; and stops in Philadelphia, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Last year marked the 40th anniversary of the historic trip, the first of seven Pope St. John Paul II would make to the U.S.

Following a stop at St. Patrick’s Irish Settlement, a small rural church settled by Irish immigrants near Cumming, Iowa, the pope arrived by helicopter Oct. 4 to a crowd of 350,000 people at Living History Farms in the Des Moines suburb of Urbandale.

For some in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, it was a challenging but delightful pilgrimage.

“The weather was cold and clammy, and we were sitting like sardines for hours,” said Father Kevin Finnegan, pastor of Our Lady of Grace in Edina. “As the pope’s helicopter came over the crowd, the clouds started to break and the sun came out.”

Finnegan was 19 years old at the time and in his first year at St. John Vianney College Seminary in St. Paul.

“The seminary rented a couple of buses. The night before the pope’s visit we slept on the floor of a nearby furniture store,” Finnegan said. “At 6 a.m., we hiked the few miles to Living History Farms, got there by 7 a.m., and waited all day for the pope’s arrival. It was a very festive, wonderful atmosphere.”

St. John Paul II moves through the crowd at the site. COURTESY LIVING HISTORY FARMS

The Iowa stop came about after the late Joe Hays, a farmer from Truro, Iowa, sent the pope a handwritten invitation to visit rural America, the nation’s breadbasket.

St. John Paul II celebrated Mass on a knoll set among fields of corn and soybeans before the largest crowd in the history of Iowa, calling attention to conservation of the land, offering gratitude to the heavenly Father, and urging generosity and service to others.

“Knowing that the pope traveled all those miles to celebrate the Eucharist there made a big impact on me as a new seminarian aspiring to be a priest,” Father Finnegan said. “Our Church has a person who stands at the head to serve, and that’s very tangible.”

Bobbi Vaughn, 80, a parishioner of St. George in Long Lake, was 40 years old when she made the trek to Des Moines with a group from St. Alphonsus in Brooklyn Center, her parish at the time.

“One of the young priests organized a busload of us, and I recall we traveled through the night,” she said. “It was a big piece of land, and we were a long way away, but we were on the same ground as the pope, which was exciting.”

Vaughn admired St. John Paul II, noting he initiated World Youth Day for Catholic youth and young adults. “And I thought it was wonderful that he came from Poland, especially since that country suffered so much in World War II.”

St. John Paul II spoke 12 different languages and used nine throughout his papacy, which lasted until 2005, when he died at age 85. The first non-Italian pope in 455 years, he was one of the most traveled world leaders in history, visiting 129 countries as pontiff. He was canonized April 27, 2014.

“He was approachable, had a charisma with youth and a desire to be right down with the people as shown by his visit to rural America,” said Jon Cassady, director of advancement at Our Lady of Grace.

Cassady, who was a University of St. Thomas freshman in the fall of 1979, traveled to Iowa with his parents and siblings for the pope’s visit. “My sister lived right next to Living History Farms at the time, so we literally did a family pilgrimage through the cornfields,” he said.

St. John Paul II’s visit occurred on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and the environment. In his homily, he said, “You are stewards of some of the most important resources God has given to the world … the land must be conserved with care since it is intended to be fruitful for generation upon generation.”

Cassady recalls a beautiful banner featuring the colors of a farm community on the altar, which was made of 100-year-old wood planks.

“It was a joyous occasion set in the simplicity of a farm,” Cassady said. “The pope noted that while the farmer prepares the soil, plants the seed and cultivates the crop, God makes it grow as he alone is the bread of life. That was such a beautiful message.”


Bishop Richard Pates, recently retired from the Diocese of Des Moines and former auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, said Pope St. John Paul II’s 1979 visit is a historic highlight in Des Moines and the state of Iowa.

While Bishop Pates, now serving as apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, was not in Des Moines at the time, he was involved in the papal visit as secretary of the Apostolic Delegation (now known as the Apostolic Nunciature) in Washington, D.C. He worked closely with Archbishop Jean Jadot, apostolic delegate to the U.S., and his team, coordinating preparations for the pope’s travel, official celebrations and events.

“Pope John Paul II had stirred interest and was very popular, so it was tremendously exciting to be close to him the two days he was in Washington, D.C.,” Bishop Pates said.

“He led a Mass at the National Mall, visited religious men and women at the National Shrine, and also met with President Jimmy Carter. He worked very hard, and I recall that he was very excited about his speech at the United Nations.

“We had meals with him, and he spoke English very well,” Bishop Pates continued. “While he was very outgoing and related extraordinarily well to the crowds, in private he was a lot more subdued. He was friendly, very observant, but quite quiet.”

Bishop Pates recalls one evening after dinner, the pontiff asked for a “micro” — a microphone — to address the crowd that had gathered on Massachusetts Avenue outside the Apostolic Delegation’s building.

“The archbishop advised against the Holy Father going out there, telling him there were people protesting some of the teachings of the Church and that might call attention to those,” Bishop Pates said.

“The pope got quiet, then said, ‘Andiamo’ — ‘let us go’ — and went outside, where he gained cheering and a very positive reaction. The protests kind of melted away.”

Tags: , , ,

Category: Featured, Retreats