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Ligutti, Luigi Gino
(March 21, 1895–December 28, 1983)

–leader of the Catholic rural life movement in the United States—was born in Romans, Italy, the youngest of five children of Spiridione and Teresa (Ciriani) Ligutti. The child of peasants began study for the priesthood in Italy, and emigrated to America in 1912, traveling immediately to Des Moines, where he had relatives. After obtaining his bachelor's degree at St. Ambrose College, Davenport, in 1914, and studying at St. Mary's Seminary, Baltimore, Ligutti was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1917–at the time, the youngest priest in the United States. His superiors allowed him to cultivate his love for the classics with graduate studies at Catholic University, Columbia University, and the University of Chicago, and service as a Latin teacher at Dowling Academy in Des Moines. However, a shortage of rural pastors led to his appointment to Woodbine, Iowa, in 1920, and then to Assumption Parish in Granger, 15 miles northwest of Des Moines, in 1926.

    Ligutti's country pastorates exposed him to the various problems of rural life for Catholics. In 1924 he joined the newly formed National Catholic Rural Life Conference (NCRLC), which intended to be an advocate for the neglected rural segment of the American Catholic population. However, until the 1930s Ligutti was not a very active member. As the United States slipped into the Depression, Ligutti's search for the meaning of the distress led him to read social and economic tracts ranging from the social encyclicals of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI to radical socialist literature. Eventually, his interest was expressed in action.

    The turning point in Ligutti's life came with the Granger homesteads project in 1933. He secured a loan from the federal Subsistence Homesteads Division that settled 50 families of underemployed coal miners on two-to-eight acre subsistence plots. Combined with the formation of cooperatives, the project helped all of the families get off relief by 1935. As one of the most successful New Deal community projects, the Granger homesteads were honored by a visit from Eleanor Roosevelt. The project was extensively publicized in the Catholic press, and helped link the Catholic church and the Catholic rural life movement to the New Deal.

    The Granger homesteads project also helped launch Ligutti's rise within the Catholic rural life movement. In 1934 the young pastor was appointed the Des Moines diocesandirector of rural life and was elected to the executive committee of the NCRLC. The next year he was elected chairman of the diocesan directors' section of the conference, and in 1937 he was elected president. Ligutti was honored for his new prominence in the movement by receiving the title of monsignor in 1938.

    As titular head of the NCRLC from 1937 to 1939, Ligutti presided over the acrimonious severance of the grassroots-oriented conference from its Washington, D.C.-based executive secretary. The monsignor himself was appointed executive secretary (later titled executive director) of the NCRLC in 1940. In 1942 he moved the conference headquarters from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Des Moines, where it has remained ever since. Ligutti built up the organization of the NCRLC, multiplying its budget about 30-fold by the end of his 20-year tenure and increasing the staff to 18 full-time employees. He tried to reach the average American Catholic farmer through popular periodicals and massive distribution of literature on both social doctrine and devotions.

    Ligutti became the personal symbol for the Catholic rural life movement through his enthusiasm, energy, and unique style. The tall, balding cleric spread the Catholic rural gospel by frequent travel–throughout the United States by train in the 1940s, and throughout the world by airplane in the 1950s. In a typical year, he gave more than 200 lectures. The monsignor had a gift for expressing his homespun philosophy in pithy sayings that were dubbed "Ligutti-isms."They ranged from his humorous advice to farmer (" Ora et labora –and use a lot of fertilizer!") to his reflection to Pope Pius XII on the relation of rural life to Cold War politics: "When a poor family becomes the owner of a cow, then communism goes out the back door."

    After World War II, Ligutti mirrored the emergence of the United States as a world power with his expanding interest in international rural life. Ligutti joined the call for American participation in food relief for the many war-devastated countries. He also helped many refugees find homes on American farms. In 1948 the monsignor was appointed Vatican observer to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. He used that platform to lobby for increased food aid and technical assistance to developing nations. From 1950 to 1967 Ligutti helped convene nine international rural life conferences, which issued statements on issues such as hunger and land reform. In 1962 the monsignor presided over the formation of the International Catholic Rural Association, which included 124 organizations from 49 countries.

    By his participation in international rural life, Ligutti came into contact with the highest levels of the Catholic church. He developed personal friendships with Popes Pius XII, John XXIII, and Paul VI, and used those friendships to benefit rural Catholics around the world. Ligutti induced Pius to do several favors for the rural movement, and influenced the writing of the rural sections of John's and Paul's social encyclicals and a document of the Second Vatican Council. From 1969 to 1971 he served Paul as apostolic visitor to straighten out the financial affairs of the church in Malta.

    Due to financial difficulties within the NCRLC brought on in part by Ligutti's absorption in his international travels, the monsignor was removed as executive director in 1960. However, through his appointment to the new position of NCRLC director of international affairs, he continued to aid rural Catholics around the world until 1970, when he moved to Rome, eventually living in a home built by Chauncey Stillman, a philanthropist who had made many financial contributions to the NCRLC. In 1971 Ligutti fulfilled a longtime dream by founding Agrimissio, an organization dedicated to helping Catholic missionaries promote agricultural development. He served as the first chairman of its board of directors until 1981. Ligutti died in Rome after a short illness in 1983. He was buried among his former parishioners at Granger.
Sources Ligutti's papers are at Marquette University. See Vincent A. Yzermans, The People I Love: A Biography of Luigi Ligutti (1976); Raymond W. Miller, Monsignor Ligutti: The Pope's County Agent (1981); David S. Bovee, "Catholic Rural Life Leader: Luigi G. Ligutti," U.S. Catholic Historian 8 (1989), 143–61; Jeffrey Marlett, Saving the Heartland: Catholic Missionaries in Rural America (2002); and Dorothy Schwieder, "The Granger Homestead Project," Palimpsest 58 (1977), 149–61.
Contributor: David S. Bovee