Utah, Catholic Church in
UTAH, CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
Utah Catholicism emerged out of harsh frontier conditions and fractious cultural differences. Accordingly, Utah compiled a religious history marked by strife, played out against a background of mountains and valleys. As a result, the Catholic faithful of Utah took on characteristics often associated with the American West—hardy spirit and personal courage.
Early History. Utah, bordered by Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado (north and east), New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada (south and west) came, as a political entity, to encompass 84,990 square miles of western land, much of it marked by the extremes of desert and mountain environments. But long before those political boundaries were drawn, native tribes—including the Ute, Southern Paiute, Gosiute, Shoshone, and Navajo—ranged widely across the area, claiming it as their homeland. These indigenous people followed the spiritual cadence of their own native religions, but each group drew the attention of various Christian denominations. Whether the Shoshone (located in the northern part of the state) and Navajos, Utes, and Southern Paiutes (commonly found in the eastern and southern regions) brushed against Catholicism through early trade with other tribes—those touched by French Catholics to the north or Spanish Catholics to the south—remains uncertain. Regardless, Catholicism officially entered Utah in the fall of 1776 with the religious and geographic expedition of two Spanish Franciscans, Francisco Atansasio Dominguez and Silvestre de Escalante, charged by their superiors with assessing possible Indian mission sites and marking a trail to California.
For several decades following the departure of these friars, whose explorations ended on an inconclusive note, Catholicism lacked permanence in Utah. While Catholic fur trappers, among them Kit Carson, Etienne Provost, and Thomas "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick, drifted in and out of the region and while such mountain men on occasion married Native American women converts, it could not be said these individuals advanced the presence of the church. Their personal histories, which show them to be transients pursuing western profits as trappers and traders, do not suggest they promulgated the faith in any systematic or significant manner.
The 1847 arrival into this territory—over which a distant Mexico City claimed questionable control—of the first representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints heralded dramatic changes for the religious legacy of Utah. Driven out of Nauvoo, Illinois, following escalating clashes with neighbors over several provocative issues and the murder of church-founder Joseph Smith, the Mormons, as they refer to themselves, proceeded under the leadership of Brigham young, to seek safety in the Far West. Young's site selection nestled along the Wasatch Front of the Rocky Mountains and close to the Great Salt Lake, eventually proved an excellent choice. Although the first years in Utah's Great Basin exacted bitter suffering from the settlers, as had their epic winter trek from Illinois, successful European proselytizing by LDS missionaries resulted in an influx of fresh workers. Many of the Mormon converts came from Scandinavia, bringing the farming and carpentry skills that facilitated community building, but also giving a northern European flavor to the state that persists to the present day.
As they carved out their settlements—the principal one Salt Lake City—north and south along the spine of the Wasatch Mountains, the Mormons placed an indelible religious stamp on the region. Their vision for doing so mixed their secular and religious values into a tightly woven communal lifestyle that gained strength with each passing year. Scarred by the political events and physical dangers that had forced them from the United States, the Saints set about to transform their desert retreat into a self-sufficient, productive world, where they could practice their new religion, without interference.
To accomplish this goal of social, economic, and political independence, Brigham Young devised a plan of diversification that included both industrial and agricultural pursuits. Though industry—for example, iron manufacture—showed Mormon innovation, it was agriculture, based on an extensive system of irrigation, especially through the sugar beet crop, that set state-wide economic underpinnings, which continue into the 21st century. Mormon social and political initiatives centered on construction of tabernacles for civic and religious gatherings in small towns, while in Salt Lake City, building a temple, a replacement for the one lost in the tumultuous events at Nauvoo, focused community energies.
Though these newcomers to the Great Basin hoped to avoid interaction with non-church members, by 1848, the Mormons found themselves once again living under the American flag, a result of the U.S. acquisition of Mexican land through the Treaty of Guadalupe. The following year, the California gold rush dramatically altered the personal futures and economic goals of the nation's citizenry. Increasingly, migrants of every persuasion turned to the West, but looked to the national government for assistance and protection, especially in the form of the U.S. Army. Utah, once a barren non-welcoming desert, now, with its Mormon oasis of Salt Lake City, seemed an attractive path for miners, merchants, and pioneers headed for the gold fields and new settlements of the far West; it also became a camp site for military troops sent to secure U.S. sovereignty in Utah. For the Mormons, the speed of national events, alteration of East/West travel routes, and success of their own enterprise overtook them; "Gentiles," as they labeled everyone not of their faith, entered their "Zion in the Wilderness," and the resulting encounters were frequently contentious.
The burgeoning American West invaded Utah, bringing with it Roman Catholics, whose numbers, while few, continued to grow throughout the remainder of the century. The spiritual needs of those Catholics who lingered among the Mormons captured the attention of church administrators, but delivering the clerical personnel to provide religious leadership remained difficult. Bishops in all parts of the West struggled with the challenges created by great distances, limited numbers of clergy, and scant resources. In addition, missionary priests, typically recruited from beyond the United States, often found the physical exigencies of the American West overwhelming and begged for assignments in more salubrious climes. While some plunged into the West with a pioneer optimism that turned to love of the wilderness, others found the poverty and loneliness to be debilitating. In 1853, Joseph Sadoc Alemany, archbishop of San Francisco, accepted administrative oversight for Utah, but he could do little to secure a corps of mission priests, or change the circumstances of Catholics who continued to live surrounded by a hostile geography and a forceful counter religion.
The ongoing concern of Alemany and other clergy about missions for native people and the irregular adherence to the faith by Catholics saw successive fitful attempts, some colored by confusing disputes between frontier bishops, to carve out a manageable ecclesiastical space. The remoteness of the region remained only one of the problems, as the 19th-century Mormon community at large expressed its reluctance to welcome other religions; thus, success depended on courting favor with Brigham Young, who directed the secular and religious life of Utah. Mormon hesitation to embrace outsiders stemmed from the vitriolic attacks by civic and religious leaders concerning the practice of polygamy (correctly, polygyny—one husband with multiple wives), a custom that had caused public censure since the troubled days in Nauvoo; further, Mormon leaders, still stung by the economic drubbing taken in Illinois, determined their church would not again be vulnerable to "Gentile" business pressures. Individual priests visited this challenging arena on a sporadic basis, but it was not until 1866 that Father Edward Keller attempted to open the first Catholic chapel. Despite Keller's efforts, including careful negotiations with Brigham Young, Utah did not have its first permanent church until 1871, when Father Patrick Walsh oversaw completion of St. Mary Magdalene, the forerunner of the magnificent Salt Lake City Cathedral of the Madeline that stands today as a beacon for Utah Catholics.
The transformation of Utah Catholicism from missionary outpost to institutional church began with the 1873 appointment of Lawrence Scanlan, as priest for Utah. On his arrival, the Catholics in the two main municipalities, Ogden and Salt Lake City, numbered about 90. In 1879, Scanlan became vicar forane and in 1886 he was elevated to vicar bishop for the Vicariate of Utah; the Holy See named Salt Lake City a diocese, under the patronage of St. Mary Magdalene, and Scanlan as its bishop on Jan. 28, 1891, just less than five years before Utah entered the Union as the 45th state, on Jan. 4, 1896.
Lawrence Scanlan, who presided over the diocese until his death in 1915, built a legacy as the quintessential frontier priest. His travels took on a mantle of heroism, as he journeyed the breadth of his domain, establishing parishes and bringing Catholicism to the far reaches of Utah. A skilled diplomat who negotiated the Mormon terrain with grace, Scanlan sought not to supplant the LDS majority, but rather provide a Catholic sanctuary for the children of Rome. Growth of the railroads in the 1870s and expansion of the mining industry in the 1880s inflated the numbers of his scattered, beleaguered flock, as foreign Catholic laborers, especially Italians and Irish, moved into the eastern outlying industrial areas of Carbon, Sanpete, and Sevier counties. Often disadvantaged by low wages or language barriers, these immigrants encountered the usual volatile labor troubles associated with western industry. Scanlan perceived the needs of Utah Catholics as two-fold: monetary resources to build a Catholic infrastructure in the midst of poverty and human resources to nourish a spiritual life in the midst of isolation. While Scanlan used detailed, articulate annual reports to extract the former, financial support from the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, it was through his convincing efforts with religious congregations that he reached his far-flung, increasingly culturally diverse Catholics and set a solid spiritual foundation for the future.
Religious Men and Women. In 1875, four sisters of the Congregation of the Holy Cross from Indiana journeyed to Utah to open St. Mary's Academy and Holy Cross Hospital. Over the next 125 years, sisters from nearly two dozen congregations, including Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, Daughters of Charity, Mexican Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, and Sisters of the Holy Family, answered the call to aid Utah's Catholic people. While nuns met opposition, often writing to a distant motherhouse about loneliness and withdrawing from extremely difficult venues, they were also welcomed by Catholics and non-Catholics, perhaps inspired by Brigham Young, who sent some of his daughters to St. Mary's Academy for schooling. Early occupations of the various communities centered on schools, hospitals, and orphanages, but as the role of sisters changed in the 20th century, so too did women's ministry. Their outreach embraced the Utah Hispanic community, included religious education and pastoral work, Native American affairs, care of the elderly and the handicapped. By 2001, the number of religious women in the state totaled fewer than 75, supporting one another through a diocesan sisters' council. In the post–World War II era, a small number of religious brothers, including Dominicans, Jesuits, and Franciscans, brought their ministries to Utah, as did at least a dozen different communities of priests. In 1947, Trappist monks founded the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity, in Huntsville, Utah, where currently approximately 30 men continue to live under the Cistercian rule. In 1952, four nuns of the Order of Discalced Carmelites moved from California and established a small cloister in Salt Lake City; over the next five decades, their number hovered between five and 13. Their courageous spirit was mirrored in 1998 when 11 Benedictine sisters, each with long service in the Beehive State, separated from their Minnesota abbey and opened, in an outpouring of public warmth, St. Benedict Monastery in Ogden, Utah.
Laity. Despite the commitment of these hard working religious men and women, the laity of Utah recognized the state would never see the army of religious found in other Catholic locations. Accordingly, lay Catholics responded in the manner typical of frontier people, becoming religious activists on their own behalf. Living and working amidst a powerful theocracy, with which relations would always be tempered by significant doctrinal differences, Utah Catholics have been notable for their strong spiritual family. In the late 19th century, Catholics families around the state routinely hosted visiting priests in their homes and prepared a place for the celebration of mass. In the early 20th century, small towns, like Helper, Utah, welcomed the Chicago-based Catholic Church Extension Society's St. Peter, a railroad car outfitted as a chapel, with altar, confessional, Stations of the Cross, and a "circuit rider" priest who brought sacraments and solace to rural people. With no permanent parish at hand, Utah Catholics have organized themselves into Bible study and prayer groups that gather in private homes. They have raised surprisingly large sums for the construction or renovation of mission stations and parishes and, following the example of Joseph the Carpenter, they have donated their labor to see these holy places become a reality. The rise in the 1970s of the permanent diaconate movement throughout the United States proved a boon to Utah, where deacons and their wives shouldered considerable responsibility for Catholic parish life.
The second bishop, Joseph Sarsfield Glass (1915–26) encouraged a close association between clergy and laity and, starting in 1899, promoted diocesan communication through the Intermountain Catholic newspaper. Men and women, together and in their own church organizations, have sustained Catholic action in this vast western region. The Knights of Columbus, Catholic Women's League, Legion of Mary, League of the Sacred Heart, Christian Family Movement, Diocesan Council of Catholic Women, Cana and Pre-Cana Conferences represent only a few of the organizations through which the laity infused the diocese with Catholic life. Children and youth were central to the initiatives of lay leaders, as seen in the Catholic Youth Organization, Confraternity of Christian Doctrine program, Catholic Big Brothers and Sisters, Salt Lake Chapter of Serra International for the promotion of vocations, and the state-wide college centered Newman Club, which in 2000 had almost 200 student members at Brigham Young University alone. Lay organizations—Cursillo, Ancient Order of Hibernians, Guadalupana Society, and the Utah Basque Club—point to the growing cultural diversity of Utah Catholics. Since 1976, Saint Jude's parish has served the Maronite Rite Lebanese Catholics throughout the Intermountain West. The growing Hispanic community brings greater attention to Spanish Catholic customs and more frequent occasions for dual language services.
As American Catholics face the challenges of the 21st century, Utahans are well acquainted with some of the dilemmas that concern the national church. They have long known the difficulties of stretched resources, human and monetary. Priests, brothers, sisters, and parishioners have always wrestled with the problems of building a spiritual network for people spread across a great expanse of rugged land. Yet, Utah Catholics, even the urban residents, are accustomed to the rhythms of rural life, they know how to extract the most from their spiritual opportunities, and they enjoy some unique advantages. While the modern diocese of Salt Lake City lacks the grand institutions—hospital, academy, college, or seminary— that are visual, public markers of large Catholic populations, it embraces an active and loyal constituency. The impact of living amidst an opposing religious majority, regardless of how well early differences have yielded to a modern ecumenical spirit, forged a deep bond between the Utah church and its members. With the Diocese of Salt Lake City supporting over 60 parishes and mission stations, with church membership approaching the 110,000 mark and with longstanding strategies in place for managing the peculiar demands of western space and cultural environment, Utah Catholics appear headed for a vibrant future in the 21st century.
Bibliography: l. j. arrington, Great Basin Kingdom: Economic History of the Latter-Day Saints, 1830–1900 (Lincoln, Neb.1958). a. m. butler, m. e. engh, s.j., and t. w. spalding, c.f.x., eds., The Frontiers and Catholic Identity (Maryknoll 1999). a. m. butler, "Western Spaces, Catholic Places," U. S. Catholic Historian (Fall 2000) 25–39. b. mcgloin, s.j., "Two Early Reports Concerning Roman Catholicism in Utah, 1876–1881," Utah Historical Quarterly 29 (October 1961) 33. b. m. mooney, Salt of the Earth: History of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, 1776–1987 (Salt Lake City 1987).
[a. m. butler]