The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Dingman, Maurice John
(January 20, 1914–February 1, 1992)

–sixth bishop of the Des Moines Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church (1968-1986)—was known for his commitment to the principles of Vatican II and for using his office to advocate a more horizontal understanding of the church as the people of God.

    Born on a farm near St. Paul, Iowa, in Lee County, to German Catholic parents, Ding-man was educated in Catholic schools and graduated from St. Ambrose College. He took graduate courses at the Vatican in the late 1930s and became a priest in 1939. He served multiple functions for the Davenport Diocese, usually occupying several positions simultaneously: high school teacher, principal, and diocesan superintendent of schools; chaplain for several convents, the naval air base in Ottumwa, and Davenport's Mercy Hospital; secretary to the bishop, vice-chancellor, and chancellor. He also spent three years studying canon law at Catholic University. As chancellor, he signed a vow of secrecy regarding a child abuser priest, James Janssen. This was standard practice, but meant that Janssen would be transferred to other parishes, where he would repeat his offense.

    On June 19, 1968, Dingman was consecrated bishop for southwestern Iowa. "Our Protestant bishop," sneered traditionalists at a 1981 protest. Indeed, Dingman fostered closer contact with Iowa Protestants and strengthened the power of the laity and of priests and nuns. Two pastoral letters issued by U.S. bishops during his term–the regional "Strangers and Guests" advocating for the family farm and the national "Challenge of Peace" questioning dependence on nuclear weapons–put the hierarchy on record affirming the progressive spirit of Vatican II. Dingman went beyond lip service on both issues. He readily approved a staffed diocesan department, Catholic Peace Ministry, which still exists, but its official status did not long outlast Dingman's tenure. He spoke at civil disobedience actions at the Strategic Air Command headquarters near Omaha, site of nuclear weapons targeting, and hoped to engage in civil disobedience there with other bishops, but a stroke intervened. Dingman instinctively connected U.S. intervention in Central America with the land tenure policies of those countries. He frequently gave the invocation at farm crisis protests, denouncing "the maximization of profits [that] is truly sacred in this country!" From 1976 to 1979 he was president of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, headquartered in his diocese, which initiated the "Strangers and Guests" process. His most visible act publicizing rural issues was his engineering of the 1979 visit of Pope John Paul II to rural Norwalk and to Living History Farms in Urbandale.

    Not all of his visits with the pope were so rewarding. Dingman had, by default, been the U.S. bishop who pursued dialogue with advocates of women's ordination. The pope's order to cut off discussion pained Dingman, being contrary to his leadership style of listening. Not all Catholics in the diocese welcomed Vatican II changes, and Dingman, who hated conflict, was hurt by the intensity of traditionalists' opposition to his leadership.

    The bishop struggled with Catholics' withdrawal from Des Moines' inner city, well under way by the time he arrived. Dowling High School and Bishop Drumm Care Center both fled to the suburbs under his watch. His reaction was primarily personal: he opened his south-of-Grand mansion to church use, and moved to an inner-city apartment. In October 1983 he was abducted at gunpoint by two assailants who first demanded money; coming up empty, they took him and his car to Waterloo. Dingman would advocate for the two juveniles in court.

    On April 17, 1986, Dingman suffered a debilitating stroke and resigned as bishop. The last years of his life were marked by pain and frequent depression. He was cared for by family in St. Paul, and then in Johnston at the Drumm Center. He died in Des Moines at age 78.
Sources The 12 boxes of Dingman Papers in the archives of the Diocese of Des Moines had not been processed as of this writing. Other sources include Shirley Crisler and Mira Mosle, In the Midst of His People (1995); Jubilee of Faith (1986); David Polich, "Catholic Peace Ministry's 25th Anniversary," Catholic Peace Ministry 11 (July 2006); Des Moines Register, 2/2/1992; Witness, 2/9/1992; and Mary Kay Shanley, "Meet the Bishop," Iowan 34 (Fall 1985), 4–9, 59–62.
Contributor: Bill R. Douglas