Priests recall late pope’s visit to Iowa in 1979

Fr. Maynard Brotherson

By Barb Arland-Fye

Father Maynard Brothersen still has the Kodak Ektra camera he used to snap a close-up photograph of Pope John Paul II during his historic visit to Iowa 30 years ago.

Fr. Brothersen, who at the time was pastor of St. James Parish in St. Paul, Iowa, was among the priests distributing Communion during the papal Mass at Living History Farms. They had been escorted toward the altar when the pope arrived at the site by helicopter.

“Where he landed was within 50 yards of where all the priests were. I happened to be in the front row,” Fr. Brothersen recalled. As the pope passed by the priest, “I guess I snapped a couple of pictures.”

Fr. Brothersen had arrived early that morning of Oct. 4, 1979, with a family from Iowa City. “We got there about 3 o’clock in the morning and it was chilly.”


The family found a spot that was still quite a distance from the altar, but had a portable TV to get a better view of the Mass.

Fr. Brothersen said the experience impressed him. “It was something that never happens in your lifetime. (The pope) was so gracious and it was such a great event. I had looked forward to it and wasn’t disappointed.”

After the Mass, Pope John Paul II “got back into the helicopter and he waved at us as he took off.”

Fr. Brothersen still carries in his Mass kit a commemorative pin in the shape of Iowa with the pope’s picture on it.  “It was the only time he visited Iowa, and it was a very important visit.”

Father Stephen Ebel was among four priests, a pilot and the pilot’s wife who flew to Des Moines 30 years ago to participate in Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to Iowa.

The pilot was a friend of Fr. Ebel, who was serving as parochial vicar at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport at the time. Pilot Jim Goetsch and his wife wanted to see the pope, as did the priests who were serving at the cathedral: Msgr. Sebastian Menke, Father Tom Buechele, Father Luis Coto (a priest from El Salvador) and Fr. Ebel. He arranged for his friend to fly the six of them to Des Moines.

Early on the morning of Oct. 4, 1979, the group took off in a six-passenger plane from the airport in Moline, Ill.  After arriving in Des Moines, they were taken to Living History Farms where Pope John Paul would celebrate Mass on his first visit to the United States.

“It was a crispy, cool day,” recalls Fr. Ebel, now pastor of St. Anthony Parish in Knoxville and Sacred Heart Parish in Melcher. “It was a historic event and we were excited. We were all thrilled with the new pope and his energy and his willingness to come to Iowa.”

Fr. Ebel and the other priests distributed Communion at the Mass. “So we were fairly close to the altar and to the pope himself.”

What impressed Fr. Ebel most about the pope was his youthfulness and energy.

“I think we were all proud as Catholics to have a pope who was so young and energetic and so willing to travel and be active and engaged in ministry.”

Fr. Ebel doesn’t recall the return flight home. “It was a very exhausting, but joyful day.”

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