History of Des Moines Diocese

In the early 1800s, the Diocese of Des Moines was but a small part of the Diocese of Louisiana, which was comprised of the territory from the Gulf of Mexico up to Canada and from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains.

With the expansion of the Catholic Church in the West, the Diocese of St. Louis was created, and from that came many other dioceses, including the Archdiocese of Dubuque which was created in 1837. At the time, the Dubuque diocese included not only all of what is now Iowa but much of western United States.

In 1838, a Belgian Jesuit named Father Pierre De Smet began to minister to the Pottawattamie Indians in Council Bluffs along the Missouri River.

Iowa became a state in 1846, and growth continued with German and Irish settlers. In 1851, a priest from Ottumwa, Iowa named Father Alexander Hattenberger celebrated the first Mass celebrated in Des Moines.

A year later, missionary Father Timothy Mullen built St. Patrick, a log cabin church near Cumming at Irish Settlement, with a parish that covered most of what is now the Diocese of Des Moines. A new church built in 1868, and parishioners continue to worship in that structure today.

In 1855, Father Louis De Cailly purchased for St. Ambrose Parish in Des Moines, later to become St. Ambrose Cathedral Parish.

By 1911, when Pope Pius X established the Diocese of Des Moines, there were 54 parishes, 28 missions, 68 priests and 17 Catholic schools within its boundaries. Bishop Austin Dowling became the diocese’s first bishop, having come from Providence, R.I.

In 1918, Des Moines Catholic College was founded, which later became Dowling Catholic High School.

In the 1920s, an effort to serve the small railroad towns in the southern part of the diocese involved a Pullman-style railroad car called the St. Paul. The Catholic Church Extension Society sent the railroad car to areas of the rural poor, and in 1924, this included Fremont, Page, Taylor, Ringgold, Decatur and Wayne counties along the southern border of the diocese by the Iowa/Missouri state line. The train car had bedrooms for the traveling chaplain and cook, an office, a study, a chapel with a built-in altar, an organ, a confessional, stations of the cross, and seating for 70 people.

In 1925, Bishop Thomas Drumm announced the creation of the Des Moines Catholic Charities and the founding of the Christ Child Home. For 41 years, the Christ Child home offered a temporary home and refuge for children. It closed in 1966, having placed 1,039 children for adoption and cared for another 2,000 children through foster homes or Catholic orphanages. Catholic Charities expanded in 1945 to include services for those on the western side of the diocese including the counties of Harrison, Shelby, Audubon, Pottawattamie, Cass, Mills, Montgomery, Fremont and Page.

In 1933, Msgr. Luigi Ligutti – a leader in Catholic rural life issues -- established the Granger Homesteads. He secured a loan that helped 50 underemployed coal miners and by 1935, they no longer needed government relief. The program was touted as among the more successful New Deal community projects.

In 1936 the diocesan newspaper The Catholic Mirror was established, and in 1939 the Bishop Drumm Home opened.

In the 1940s and 1950s a number of parishes built new churches, others were established, St. Albert High School was founded in Council Bluffs and the number of seminarians and priests grew.

Bishop Edward Daly, a Dominican and former secretary in the Apostolic Delegation in Washington, D.C., became the shepherd of the diocese. He assisted at the historic Vatican II meetings, and died when his plane crashed on a runway leaving Rome.

On Oct. 4, 1979, Pope John Paul II agreed to a request by farmer Joe Hays, of Truro, Iowa, to visit Iowa. He spent 42 minutes at St. Patrick Church near Irish Settlement and then celebrated a Mass before the largest Iowa crowd in history, estimated to be 350,000 people, at Living History Farms in Urbandale. A logo representing the seasons, fields and planted seeds was created for the event and continues to be the diocesan logo today.

Since the 1970s, the Diocese of Des Moines has been welcoming refugees and newcomers. The effort began with refugees fleeing from Vietnam and Laos, and continued by including refugees from Bosnia, Sudan and other African countries. In addition, the diocese has worked to meet the pastoral and social needs of immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala and other Central American countries.

A complete history of the diocese, "The Catholic Church in Southwest Iowa" by Father Steven Avella, can be obtained online or through Divine Treasures bookstore in Des Moines.

The Diocese of Des Moines currently serves 108,581 Catholics with a total population of 876,785 through 80 parishes.