Utah's first Catholic church, Saint Mary Magdalene, was built in the middle of SLC

Friday, Apr. 12, 2013
Utah's first Catholic church, Saint Mary Magdalene, was built in the middle of SLC + Enlarge
Utah's first Catholic church, Saint Mary Magdalene (shown) was built in 1871; it was demolished in the early 1900s.Courtesy photo/Diocese of Salt Lake City archives
By Special to the Intermountain Catholic

Gary Topping

When Father Edward Kelly arrived in Salt Lake City from Austin, Nev. on May 21, 1866 in response to a sick call, perhaps neither he nor anyone else realized that his visit would lead to the establishment of the first permanent Catholic presence in the territory.

The youthful Chicagoan, who had been ordained in San Francisco only the previous July, might have seemed an unlikely choice to build a Catholic church in the Mormon capital right under the nose of the fearsome Lion of the Lord, Brigham Young. But one would underestimate Fr. Kelly only at his own peril, for he was, in the words of his bishop, "a most prepossessing clergyman," whom he regarded as "the windfall from Chicago."

Once Fr. Kelly, upon his return to California, had sold the idea of a Utah church to his bishop, the next item of business was finding an appropriate property in Salt Lake City. In that he was most fortunate, for a Catholic couple sold him a lot on Second East between South Temple and First South, at the eastern end of the one-block Social Hall Avenue. It was right in the midst of the bustle of Salt Lake City: prominent Mormons like Joseph Young and Hosea Stout were neighbors, the Social Hall, Salt Lake Theater and City Hall were each an easy walk away.

Fr. Kelly seems even to have had the presence of mind to research the prevailing winds, for the Wells Fargo stables were directly across the street to the east, and an east wind would have filled his new church with an unintended incense!

The price of the lot was $2,300. As one could imagine, with reportedly only four Catholic families in the city, Fr. Kelly struggled to raise the money. Also, he learned that the couple who had sold the lot to him did not themselves have clear title to it. There is a legend that Fr. Kelly, to avoid dragging his little mission through a lawsuit, went directly to none other than Brigham Young for arbitration. In fact, records show that the case did go to court, but it would have been one of the Mormon probate courts of which the Utah legal system consisted at that time, and Young’s influence may well have been decisive. In any event the court ruled in favor of Fr. Kelly.

The church property included a small adobe building, more a shed than anything else, which became Utah’s first Catholic church. Fr. Kelly’s plan was to enlarge it to become a convent school in conjunction with a church he was going to build, but he was unable to find nuns to staff the school, so he apparently used the enlarged building for church services. (Brigham Young had reportedly offered him $500 if he would build a school, but it never happened.)

As energetic as he was, Fr. Kelly suffered from some unspecified chronic illness, and had to be withdrawn from Utah before most of his ambitious plans could be realized. It was a successor, Father Thomas Walsh, who built the church of Saint Mary Magdalene, the first building in Utah actually constructed as a Catholic church.

Photographs of the church, both interior and exterior, reveal a red brick Gothic structure of delicate beauty, 84 x 34 feet in size, topped with a cupola and a large gilt cross. The entire structure cost some $9,000.

The church was dedicated on Nov. 26, 1871, by San Francisco Archbishop Joseph S. Alemany, assisted by Fr. Walsh. Although the miniscule number of Catholic attendees was dwarfed by non-Catholic spectators, Archbishop Alemany’s comments were filled with optimism about the future of Utah Catholicism. Perhaps indicating the rough-hewn nature of some of his parishioners, Fr. Walsh admonished them, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, to "get more of the grace of God and less of the spirit of intoxicating drinks."

By the time Father Lawrence Scanlan (later the first Bishop of Salt Lake) arrived in 1873, the capacity of the little church was already being severely taxed by the influx of largely Irish Catholics, and he soon began contemplating a larger church. Shortly after completion of his new Cathedral of Saint Mary Magdalene (now the Cathedral of the Madeleine) in 1909, the original little church was sold and demolished. A great piece of Utah Catholicism had passed into history.

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