By Barb Arland-Fye
Civil rights and social justice groups threw a surprise party for Msgr. Marvin Mottet on Nov. 17, honoring him for his dedication to bettering the lives of people of all races, creeds and cultures.
Someone may have inadvertently tipped him off — “It’s a hard thing to keep a secret from Fr. Mottet,” emcee Dan Ebener said — but the 83-year-old Davenport priest wasn’t expecting the party to be all about him!
“They said this was going to be about Cook’s Point,” Msgr. Mottet told the gathering at LULAC in Davenport as they greeted him with hugs and cheers. Cook’s Point, a Mexican-American barrio in southwest Davenport, had been forced to close by the city in the early 1950s to make way for industrial development. The plight of the families facing eviction came to the attention of the labor priests who taught at St. Ambrose College in Davenport and other civil rights activists. The priests rallied seminarians, including Marvin Mottet, and lay students to help move the families to a site north of their existing homes. One of the families had pooled its money to purchase the land. Fr. Mottet and others helped build a road into the area, dig basements and cesspools. The grateful families provided Mexican food and beer to keep them going.
“I met people there who remained friends for the rest of my life,” Msgr. Mottet said. He learned the theological and practical aspects of social justice at St. Ambrose, and commended the university for its continuing commitment to social justice.
Phyllis Terronez, whose extended family pooled its money to help themselves and others move from Cook’s Point, recalled how her mother Mary Terronez had been a civil rights activist along with Charles and Ann Toney, Fathers Bill and Ed O’Connor, and Msgr. Mottet (who prefers to be called Father Mottet).
“The only way we can thank Fr. Mottet is to carry on that torch. Social justice isn’t something you leave dormant. It’s something you’ve got to practice,” Phyllis said. She was among several speakers who shared stories about Fr. Mottet that revealed the root system he helped expand in the field of civil rights and social justice.
“Father was an inspiration for a lot of people,” said former Iowa Sen. Pat Deluhery of Des Moines, who learned about social justice from the priest in high school religion classes at St. Ambrose Academy. Along with field trips and service learning, Fr. Mottet also required extensive reading and book reports. “If you teach young people and inspire them, who knows what will happen?” added Deluhery, who in addition to his public service career also taught at St. Ambrose.
“Fr. Mottet is a man for all seasons,” said Jim Collins, a member of Sacred Heart Cathedral, Davenport, and retired president of John Deere Foundation. He told of how Fr. Mottet, then pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport, and parishioner Andrew Edelen formed the first St. Martin de Porres Society in the Quad Cities in 1985. St. Martin, born in Lima, Peru, in 1579, was canonized a saint in 1962, and was designated the patron saint of universal brotherhood, Collins said. The St. Martin de Porres Society at Sacred Heart remains a social action arm of the Church that supports the food pantry, clothing ministry and reaches out to the neighborhood, Collins added.
In 2000, Fr. Mottet served as one of the capital campaign leaders for the African American Museum of Iowa in Cedar Rapids. Three years later, the museum celebrated its grand opening in a new building. “Last year, thousands of tourists from throughout Iowa and the nation visited the museum.” Looking towards Fr. Mottet, Collins added: “You are truly a representative of the St. Martin challenge to all: we are to be servants to one another.”
Judy Morrell, director of the Davenport Civil Rights Commission, said Fr. Mottet is very well known in the Latino and African American communities for his work in helping to bring about safe, affordable, sanitary housing in Davenport. Much of his work has been done behind the scenes, she noted. “He continues to inspire me every day in the work I do as Civil Rights director.”
Vera Kelly, president of the Davenport NAACP, observed that Fr. Mottet “didn’t have to take on the task he did for the people of color. He took those two feet (of Christian Service, a term he coined to identify the need for direct service and institutional change) and used them for walking. He walked everywhere he could. He made a difference. On behalf of the NAACP, we love you; we are so proud you are a member,” she told the priest.
Loxi Hopkins, diocesan director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and Catholic Relief Services, shared how a chance meeting with Fr. Mottet ultimately transformed her life. Once a housewife who went out for coffee with friends, she became a social justice activist who converted to the Catholic faith. “Everything I do now is because of Fr. Mottet.”
Artist Katie Kiley created a calligraphy piece of the “Two Feet of Social Justice” that Msgr. Mottet signed during the party honoring him. The piece will be displayed at St. Ambrose University.
Betty Torres shared a humorous story about the less-than-ideal quarters in which she and Fr. Mottet worked when he opened the diocese’s first Social Action Office. “He’s not only a great leader; he’s a hard worker,” she said.
Rita Bawden of Davenport shared a letter from her older brother, Mike Ceurvorst, a retired U.S. diplomat. In part, Ceurvorst wrote: “The friendships we formed — literally in prayer, scripture, and heated topical action-oriented discussion in our homes — bonded a group of us in a way that has persevered over 50 years, even as our lives developed in different locales, jobs, professions, and even convictions. We learned that life is more than about our achievements, that we are intimately involved in realizing the gospel vision wherever we were or are, and that this is a shared, communal enterprise. We learned to pray together and separately, a habit important in a lifetime of development.”
Sponsors of the event honoring Msgr. Marvin Mottet on Nov. 17 were the Davenport Civil Rights Commission, League of United Latin American Citizens, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and St. Ambrose University, Davenport.