# Living History Farms

Remembering Pope John Paul II's visit to Iowa

Pope John Paul II visited Iowa 30 years ago today. Iowa Public Television’s Iowa Journal broadcast a retrospective on the event last week, and you can read the transcripts here and here.

Mike Kilen’s feature for the Des Moines Register includes anecdotes from some of the estimated 340,000 people who came to see the Pope at Living History Farms in Urbandale. (Even if you believe the lower crowd estimates of 100,000 or so, that’s still the largest public gathering in Iowa history.)

The momentous event sprang from a handwritten request by Truro farmer Joe Hays.

He was watching television and learned of the pope’s visit to America. Pope John Paul II was only 59 then – a new, youthful voice, a robust hiker, a scholar with doctorates in theology and philosophy, a man at ease with children and one of the leaders of Catholic Church reform.

He urged nations to uphold rights of citizens, lectured on the horrors of war and challenged consumptive lifestyles, yet held to conservative Catholic doctrines, including a devotion to the Virgin Mary.

But he was, in his beginnings, a country boy from Poland.

A pope had never ventured to Iowa, Hays thought, so why not him, why not now? He sat down to write a letter, telling the pope that the strength of the church here in America is found in its rural people.

A month later, a response arrived, and Hays was called to an Aug. 29 news conference.

I recommend reading Kilen’s feature. The Pope’s visit was a life-altering experience for some people, like the farmer who began shifting to more sustainable methods after hearing Pope John Paul II urge Iowans to “conserve the land well, so that your children’s children and generations after them will inherit an even richer land than was entrusted to you.”

While you’re on that page of the Register’s site, you can watch a video clip from the Pope’s address that day and view a photo gallery from the visit. The second picture in the gallery shows masses of people walking down Hickman Road in Urbandale, which had been closed to traffic.

That image brought back a lot of memories for me.

As a young child, I knew virtually nothing about the Catholic Church. The first time I remember realizing the Pope was important was when Pope Paul VI died in 1978, and Pope John Paul I died shortly thereafter. I could tell that was a big deal for Christians. (I didn’t know the difference between Catholics and Protestants at that point.)

Our home in Windsor Heights was about three miles from Living History Farms, and when we learned about Pope John Paul II’s planned visit, my parents decided that our family would walk to the farms to hear him speak. I remember my mother joking ahead of time that she was a “fair-weather friend of the Pope,” because she was only going to make the journey if the weather was nice. October 4, 1979 was chilly but dry, so my family walked to Living History Farms with neighbors who were Jewish, like us.

I don’t recall anything Pope John Paul II said that day. I just remember being excited to be walking so far and seeing more people in one place than I’d ever seen before. I’ve never been part of a crowd that large since. Even at age 10, having no spiritual connection to Catholicism, I sensed that I was witnessing something historic.

If you were living in Iowa 30 years ago, please share your memories of the papal visit in this thread.

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