Over 200 years ago, the first Catholic priests traveled from New Mexico through Utah looking for an overland route to the Pacific Ocean. Today, Catholics in Utah number well over 300,000 (10% of the state population), and are served by over 41 priests in 69 parishes and missions, and 17 Catholic schools. An area of nearly 85,000 square miles comprises the Diocese of Salt Lake City.
It was in 1776 that Franciscan friars Francisco Dominguez and Silvestre de Escalante crossed this territory with the help of local Native American guides. Six months later, diminishing supplies and threatening weather forced their expedition to return to New Mexico. It would be nearly 100 years before Catholic priests would formally establish their first foundation in Utah Territory.
In 1871 Fr. Patrick Walsh built the first Catholic Church in Utah, dedicating it to St. Mary Magdalene. Father (later Bishop) Lawrence Scanlan arrived in 1873 to become pastor. Soon he would be given responsibility for the pastoral care of the Catholic military men, immigrant miners and railroad workers who numbered in the hundreds. Small churches, schools, an orphanage and a hospital were built, staffed by clergy and Holy Cross Sisters, to serve the growing Catholic population.
From that time to the present, this diocese has been blessed with assistance from Catholic Mission Societies such as the Catholic Church Extension Society, U.S. Bishop's Committee on Home Missions, the Black and Indian collections and the Catholic Communication Campaign.
As the nineteenth century came to a close, it was clear that the Catholic community in Salt Lake City was rapidly outgrowing the small church of St. Mary Magdalene. The time had come for the Catholics to erect a landmark of faith in downtown Salt Lake City.
In 1890 Fr. Scanlan purchased a lot where the present Cathedral stands for $35,000. The Vicariate of Utah became the Diocese of Salt Lake a year later, and a rectory was built on the site by Bishop Lawrence Scanlan, the first Catholic bishop of Utah.
Ground was broken for the new church in 1899. Construction for the building would last nearly a decade, costing a small fortune for the estimated 3,000 Catholics in Utah at the turn of the century. In 1917, the interior was artistically enhanced and the church was renamed the Cathedral of the Madeleine.
Seventy years later, in the 1990's, the inside of the Cathedral was renovated and restored over a three-year period, costing 9.7 million dollars. It stands today as a beautiful monument to the early Catholic Church in Utah, and is listed on the Utah State Register of Historic Sites as well as the National Register of Historic Places.
As the Catholic population in the nineteenth century grew, the number of religious women and men increased dramatically. The Holy Cross Sisters opened schools as well as Holy Cross Hospital where they ministered for over 100 years. Benedictine Sisters arrived in Ogden from Minnesota to establish a hospital and priory. The Christus-St. Joseph Villa was opened for the care of the elderly by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word from Texas.
Trappist monks arrived in 1947 to build their monastery in Huntsville. Discalced Carmelite nuns from California founded Carmel in 1952, now located in Holladay. There were Franciscans, Jesuits, Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, Vincentians, Dominicans and the Blessed Sacrament Community. In addition to the Holy Cross Sisters, there were Daughters of Charity, the Mercy Sisters, the Mexican Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and communities that catechized in the Missions: Sisters of the Holy Family, Our Lady of Victory Missionary Sisters and Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement. So too hundreds of lay women and men dedicated their lives in service to the missionary Diocese in Utah.
Today in the Diocese of Salt Lake City there are 13 religious orders. There are 145 priests, deacons, brothers and women religious serving across the state, as well as thousands of lay ministers. Varied ministries reach out to people of different ethnic backgrounds, especially Hispanic people, who make up a large percentage of the growing Catholic population. Catholic Community Services (founded in 1945) helps refugees, the homeless, the poor and other marginalized members of society. The Intermountain Catholic weekly newspaper (founded in 1899) provides a network of communication to a vibrant community of faith.
Following in the footsteps of two brave Franciscan explorers, the Diocese of Salt Lake City has grown from its humble roots as a missionary diocese of miners, immigrants and railroad workers, to an important presence on the Utah landscape. The Catholic Community of Utah continues to grow and flourish into the new millennium.