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About Us > History




The National Catholic Rural Life Conference was founded on November 11, 1923, the third day of a gathering of bishops, priests and laity in St. Louis, Missouri. They shared common concerns about Catholic rural life and determined it was time to form an active organization.

Father Edwin V. O'Hara, then director of the National Catholic Welfare Conference's Rural Life Bureau, was the spirit and energetic guide behind the National Catholic Rural Life Conference. Through his study of Catholic rural education, O’Hara saw that the rural Church was underserved in terms of priests, churches, hospitals and Catholic schools. He felt this was part of a pattern of overall neglect in which Church authorities gave little attention to the social, economic or religious problems of rural Catholics.

Throughout the latter half of the 1920s, the Conference was primarily interested in religious education for rural Catholics and the challenge of anchoring Catholics to the land.


During the Great Depression, the economic plight of farmers occupied a great deal of attention of the plan” which asserted that the most pressing need of American agriculture is an increase in the price of farm products.

Catholic agrarians gave qualified support to most of the programs of the New Deal. Their critical discussions questioned the capitalistic system with its end for money rather than serving human needs. They could see the devastating effects of an unfettered market system on the family during the Depression. 

Despite the hard times, the 1930s and early 1940s were a hopeful period for the NCRLC. It was during this time that the Conference attracted more people as members than at any other tine in its history. In addition, it started a network of diocesan rural life directors.


In 1940, Monsignor Luigi G. Ligutti became NCRLC’s first full-time executive director. One of his initial actions was to locate the main office in Des Moines, Iowa. He purchased a large home at 3801 Grand Avenue; this remained NCRLC headquarters until 1979. (The office relocated to a smaller house on the outskirts of Des Moines, where it still remains.)
By the time Ligutti resigned as executive director in 1959, he had become the most important spokesman for Catholic rural life. Many thought of him as the personal symbol of the Catholic rural life movement.


During this decade, NCRLC made an extensive effort to train and educate rural leaders at the diocesan and local levels. However, even with its considerable success, its message was not reaching the average Catholic farmer. Perhaps the Conference's most successful method of reaching the rural laity was through its spiritual program of liturgical revival, retreats and devotions. It developed its own Rural Life Prayerbook, stressed Rogation Day processions and blessings for fields and farm, and claimed St. Isidore as the official patron of farmers and NCRLC.


Reverend Edward O'Rourke of Peoria, Illinois, became the new executive director during this decade. He was a strong supporter of self-help projects to aid the poor; he also favored non-governmental over government aid because he believed that governmental aid could suddenly end with a change of political parties.

He urged Catholics to join the Peace Corps and Papal Volunteers for Latin America. Land reform was one of the most important common denominators in social unrest throughout Third World countries. Earlier than most groups in the United States, NCRLC called attention to the need for land reform, mainly through the advocacy efforts of Ligutti and O'Rourke.

The growth of commodity exports in the 1960s led to intensive farming and irrigation use domestically. A natural consequence was soil erosion and the dropping of water tables in the aquifers of our nation. NCRLC heightened its efforts for responsible stewardship and greater care of natural resources. The Conference also exercised its leadership in bringing together growers and farm workers in California to discuss common problems.


Monsignor O'Rourke remained at the Conference until 1971 and his appointment as Bishop of Peoria. Reverend John J. McRaith joined the Conference on January 1, 1972. He believed that NCRLC's role should be that of "people changer" not "problem solver." He shifted direction from O'Rourke's emphasis on social and economic issues to focus on bringing the Christian Gospel to rural people. He wo

rked at building up the NCRLC organization: more active diocesan directors and increasing membership (though it never reached 4,000).


McRaith inspired many during those years not to give up on the rural church, insisting that food and land and other natural resources must be understood and treated as gifts from a loving Creator to meet the needs of all. In the mid-70s, the NCRLC Board of Directors adopted major policy statements that reflected on land use, energy and water.
Under the leadership of Bishop Maurice Dingman, NCRLC President from 1976-1979, the NCRLC played a leading role in a three-year process called the Heartland Project. Under the direction of Dr. John Hart, the pastoral letter “Strangers and Guests: Toward Community in the Heartland” resulted and was signed by Midwestern bishops of 44 dioceses on May 1, 1980.

Another major event for the NCRLC and Bishop Dingman was the most welcomed visit of Pope John Paul II to Living History Farms, Des Moines, Iowa on October 4, 1979. Ten NCRLC members from across the country were official representatives of the Conference at this great moment for rural life.


Greg Cusack, a former state legislator from Davenport, Iowa, was hired as executive director in 1981. During his tenure, NCRLC once again became active in impacting national food and agricultural policies. NCRLC testified at numerous legislative hearings and collaborated nationally with a number of rural life groups.

The early 1980s was a rough period for farm families. Fluctuations in the farm economy, along with the economic and farm policies of the Reagan Administration, took their toll. In the late 70s, farmers were told to expand. But by the early 80s, interest rates doubled and tripled; farm prices fell dramatically. Many farmers who were heavy in debt could not cash flow. Farm foreclosures became common; farmers were severely stressed. Emotional hardships within families were added to the financial problems.

Rural life directors and NCRLC groped for ways to respond pastorally to farmers who were either in danger of losing their farms or had already lost their farms. Members organized or became part of rallies on courthouse steps to stop foreclosures. Dioceses with an active rural life director or a commitment to a social concerns office developed one-on-one and family counseling programs. Some trained and developed peer counseling programs, retreat programs for farm couples, support groups. Efforts were made to become more active in changing food and agriculture policies on both the state and national level that had been detrimental to farmers.

In 1987, the Board hired Joseph Fitzgerald as the new executive director. His main charges were to strengthen grassroots efforts at diocesan levels, renew confidence among rural life directors, and to improve the structure and membership of the NCRLC Board.


Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Washington, was selected President of the Board of Directors, continuing the long tradition of episcopal leadership of the Conference. In 1994, the Board of NCRLC appointed Brother David Andrews, CSC as executive director. Brother Andrews brought fifteen years of experience in rural Church affairs, having taught in seminaries and in college courses in rural ministry; he was also former director of the Edwin O'Hara Institute for Rural Ministry Education and the Director of the Rural Ministry Collegium.

In one of his first acts as director, Brother Andrews re-launched the Catholic Rural Life magazine; he also produced other publications and spoke at events around the country. In 1997, the NCRLC Board of Directors called for a moratorium on large-scale livestock and poultry animal confinement facilities. As the new century began, Br. Andrews initiated NCRLC signature’s campaign, “Eating is a Moral Act”, which remains widely popular.

2000 to Present

Robert Gronski, Policy Coordinator, joined NCRLC in July 1999; Tim Kautza, Science and Environmental Specialist, joined the staff in 2001. NCRLC began devoting significant time and resources to partnering with sustainable agriculture organizations and advocating for a new kind of Farm Bill beyond subsidies and commodity production. The Conference also began its work on environmental justice and climate change. NCRLC initiated its weekly electronic bulletin in 2002 and expanded its website as an information source for agriculture, food and the environment in light of Catholic social teachings.

At its peak during this time, NCRLC had eight full time staff and program areas included: 1) Grassroots Rural Ministry; 2) Eating is a Moral Act; 3) Religious Communities on the Land; 4) Green Ribbon Campaign for Family Farms; and 5) Rural Community Support Program.

In April 2008, James Ennis became the executive director. NCRLC launched a strategic planning process to guide the organization’s future. But in the fall of 2008, the nation faced a severe economic crisis and the beginning of a recession. Donations, contributions and grants dropped off; NCRLC was forced to operate on a greatly reduced budget.

A ray of light shone in October 2009 during the 30th Anniversary Celebration of Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to Iowa, which NCRLC hosted with the Diocese of Des Moines and Living History Farms. This was an opportunity to explore the role of the Catholic Church in agriculture and stewardship of the land for the common good.

In 2010, NCRLC completed our strategic plan and now is carrying out new programs and activities as expressed throughout our website.



Board of Directors