Msgr. Marvin Mottet (1930-2016)


By Barb Arland-Fye
Catholic Messenger, editor

Msgr. Marvin Mottet
Funeral Details (at end of article)

Msgr. Marvin Mottet, a priest whose name is synonymous with social justice, died Sept. 16 at the Kahl Home in Davenport, three months after marking the 60th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood.  He was 86.

Bishop Martin Amos observed that in his 10 years as bishop of the Davenport Diocese “I’ve come to realize the tremendous impact Msgr. Mottet has had on people in general, the poor in particular and in the area of social justice.”

Msgr. Marvin Mottet prays during a healing Mass in Ottumwa in 2012. He passed away Sept. 16 at the age of 86.
Msgr. Marvin Mottet prays during a healing Mass in Ottumwa in 2012. He passed away Sept. 16 at the age of 86.

A farm boy from Ottumwa who witnessed his parents’ compassion toward anyone in need, Marv Mottet honed his social justice skills as a student at St. Ambrose College, a priest and teacher in the Davenport Diocese and leader of the National Campaign for Human Development in Washington, D.C

He embraced diversity, working side by side with African Americans and with Hispanics to end discriminatory practices in housing, employment and immigration. Ordained to the priesthood at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport in 1956, he helped form the Catholic Interracial Council to address racial discrimination and segregation in the city a year later.

At age 78 he marched in a rally in Postville, Iowa, on behalf of undocumented immigrants devastated by a massive immigration raid on a the town’s meatpacking plant.

His networking skills led a future saint (Mother Teresa) and a national civil rights leader (Martin Luther King, Jr.) to agree to come to Davenport on separate occasions to receive the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award.  Fr. Mottet, as he preferred to be called, was stunned to be named a recipient of the same award years later, and suggested others he felt were more worthy of the award.

When Fr. Mottet opened the Social Action Department for the Diocese of Davenport in 1969, then-Bishop Gerald O’Keefe mistakenly referred to it as Social Services. “No, bishop,” the priest politely corrected his superior, “it’s social action; justice comes first.” While charity is necessary, solving the problems that create poverty is crucial, the priest explained.

mottet-postville1He conceived the “Two Feet of Social Justice” approach to social ministry while standing on a corner near Nazareth House (now Project Renewal) in central Davenport. The “Two Feet,” illustrated by the outline of a pair of shoes, became a symbol in many different dioceses and organizations throughout the world.

The outline of the shoes served as a metaphor of Fr. Mottet’s life. He wore out many pairs of shoes engaging in social action. In 1978, he became executive director of the National Campaign for Human Development and lived among the poor in a Catholic Worker House in Washington, D.C.  “Social justice is not just a theory; I felt it was necessary to live in solidarity with the poor,” he explained. So he helped open two Catholic Worker houses in Washington, D.C., and two in Davenport.

The range of his influence on social justice in the Quad-Cities is extensive. A Pacem in Terris Coalition member likened it to the role of yeast in bread-making. It has an invisible but undeniable effect. Organizations such as Legal Aid, Center for Active Seniors Inc., Quad-Cities Interfaith, Interfaith Housing, Project Renewal, Café on Vine and other programs began or benefited from the leavening efforts of Fr. Mottet and his collaborators.

He helped launch Quad Cities Interfaith and Interfaith Housing, a congregation-based organization to address the causes of poverty locally. Numerous organizations that address poverty and injustice have taken root at his instigation and his ability to persuade others to join him. “We weren’t intending to build an empire. It was research, plan, develop and spin-off,” he said.

Prayer and the sacraments sustained him through his all-consuming ministries, a near fatal bout with cancer in his 30s, a kidney transplant, hip replacement surgery and other health challenges in later years. He often joked that “if they don’t run out of used parts, I’ll be all right. Sometimes I feel like a used truck.”

Whether he was riding on a bus or seated in the chapel, you could find him deeply immersed in his well-worn breviary or another prayer book. When he wasn’t praying, celebrating Mass or providing spiritual counseling, he’d be reading articles in Commonweal or America or books on community organizing or healing ministry. Even as he lay dying in the Kahl Home, Fr. Mottet talked about the work of Edward Chambers, who with Saul Alinsky established the community organizing movement.

Fr. Mottet presided at healing Masses at Sacred Heart Cathedral until his health prevented it, and encouraged other priests to carry on that ministry.

His alma mater, St. Ambrose University, honored him with its McMullen Award in 2007. The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in Davenport honored him in 2013 for his dedication to bettering the lives of people of all races, creeds and cultures. Five years ago, the Roundtable Association of Catholic Diocesan Social Action Directors presented its Servant of Justice Award to Fr. Mottet in Washington, D.C. The organization recognized the priest for advancing social justice and dignity for all members of society through the tradition of Catholic social teaching. The association noted that “Msgr. Mottet continues to put into practice the Gospel’s preferential option for the poor as an advocate and an example.”

His steadfast faith in God guided him through each day. “Every day is gift,” he said. “Live it to the hilt. Thank God for the gift of life.”

Funeral Details

Visitation will take place at Halligan-McCabe-DeVries Funeral Home from 3 – 6pm Tuesday, September 20, followed by the Vigil for the Deceased led by Fr. Rich Adam.  Visitation will also take place from 9 – 10 am on Wednesday at Sacred Heart Cathedral.

The Funeral Mass will be celebrated at Sacred Heart Cathedral at 10 am Wednesday, September 21, with Bishop Amos presiding and Fr. Ed O’Melia as homilist.  The Rite of Committal will take place at the Priests’ Circle in Mt. Calvary Cemetery following the Mass.  A luncheon will be offered at the Knights of Columbus Hall, 1111 W 35th St, Davenport, following the burial.

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3 thoughts on “Msgr. Marvin Mottet (1930-2016)

  1. I couldn’t stop thinking about him all day after coming across a book he gave me. Now reading this, I am in such shock. A truly beautiful, beautiful man. Among so many other things, he taught me ‘to never let my light dim,’ words that have carried me through many challenges. The world will miss him very much.

  2. He planted his two feet firmly in this community. One for Justice and one for Social Action. May they continue to guide us forward.

  3. If there were more priests and bishops who witnessed to the Gospel like Father Mottet, we would have a different Catholic Church. I also believe, and am certain he would agree, that it is not just up to the clergy to shape the church and be the hands and feet and heart of Jesus working for justice but the calling of the laity as well. We must support the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and the peace work of the Church through our voice, financial contributions, and active involvement. Organizations working for justice,peace and systemic change, such as Quad Cities Interfaith, and the entire Gamaliel network, needs the involvement of Catholic Churches. The extent of the charity work of our Church is undeniable. Clergy, religious, and laity alike must continue to follow in the footsteps of Father Mottet. When it is undeniable that people of Catholic faith are known for their justice as much as their charity, it will be a much better world. And, Father Mottet will be able to rest in peace.

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