Catholics Among The Mormons

Carol Ann Morrow

The state of Utah is a unique testing ground for faith. Laboring alongside the Latter-day Saints, the Catholic community is a small mission Church, but one rich in history and gifts.


UTAH BELONGS TO THE MORMONS. Or so it appears. NBA star Dennis Rodman made national headlines last spring bad-mouthing Utah’s majority. More often, Utah tourists encounter Mormon missionaries or simply wonder about the American-born Church. Where, Catholics may ask, is their church?

The Catholic Cathedral of the Madeleine is not tops on the sightseers’ route in Salt Lake City, though it is well worth the walk five long blocks east of Temple Square. The state capital is visually dominated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) and its own version of the Vatican. Three extra-wide downtown streets all named Temple (North, West and East) border Temple Square. The Mormon Tabernacle, shaped much like an airline hangar and home of the renowned choir, is also in this complex. So is the Salt Lake Temple, its six spires well lit and widely visible, but open only to Latter-day Saints. One spire is topped by a golden statue of the Angel Moroni.

Moroni is said to have delivered the tablets of The Book of Mormon to founder Joseph Smith, Jr. That text, sacred to Mormons, is subtitled Another Testament of Jesus Christ. It is as likely to be found in a Utah hotel room as the Gideon Bible.

What is it like to be Catholic in a land settled and populated mostly by Latter-day Saints? Special challenges to the Catholic community develop special strengths, agree Salt Lake City Catholics in interviews with St. Anthony Messenger last May. Elder Alexander B. Morrison of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also spoke with St. Anthony Messengerabout the Church he helps to lead.

What’s the View From the Pew?

Utah Catholics live in one of the largest dioceses, square-mile-wise, in the United States. Bishop George H. Niederauer’s diocesan borders are the state’s boundaries. Officially, Catholics are four percent of the state’s population of less than two million. Among Utah’s seasonal and service workers are many additional Roman Catholics, uncounted in any official census but part of the flock to whom the Church ministers.

Charles Fratto is a native Utahn whose grandparents immigrated from Italy in 1920. Charlie says he’s an all-around minority. He quips, “How many Italians live in the state of Utah?” As a lifelong Catholic and a member of St. Ambrose Parish in Salt Lake City’s suburbs, Charlie is also a religious minority.

So, too, is Epifanio (“Eppie”) Gonzales, a member of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, also in Salt Lake City. Eppie, a retired house painter, and his wife have raised seven children. He has been a teacher of religion at his parish for more than 30 years and obviously relishes it.

Despite medals for his military service and high expectations of postwar harmony, Eppie found his Mexican ancestry made it hard for him to buy a home and begin civilian life in Salt Lake City. “According to the Mormons, a dark complexion is a curse,” he explains. In The Book of Mormon (2 Nephi 5:21), the hard-hearted offspring of Laman (Lamanites) were punished with a “skin of blackness.” For Eppie, being thought a Lamanite “is a plague in my life. It lowered my self-esteem.”

His faith raised it again. One of Eppie’s favorite biblical passages is Mark 11:25: “When you stand to pray, forgive anyone against whom you have a grievance, so that your heavenly Father may in turn forgive you your transgressions.” This passage inspires his favorite prayer, “Give me a forgiving heart.”

He knows that today’s Latter-day Saints have repudiated racism. In 1987, the LDS Quorum of the Twelve Apostles deplored “the abhorrent and tragic theory of the superiority of one race or color over another.” That is too late for Eppie’s children, though. They were refused admittance to the Wasatch Plunge, then the popular swimming pool, and restricted to the balconies of both theaters. Even though discrimination against minorities was rampant in the nation while his children were young, Eppie had expected better of a state settled by people seeking freedom from prejudice and persecution.

Charlie Fratto, cofounder of a very successful regional business, knows most of his Utah customers are Latter-day Saints. All his life he’s tolerated what he terms Mormon “fanaticism” while appreciating their friendliness and business acumen. He’s not alone in recounting stories of Mormons favoring their own. Both Charlie and Eppie find this especially true in Utah, where majority LDS beliefs often meld with civic practice and cultural ambience.

Yet Charlie’s family, faith and business thrive in this environment which, he grants, has benefited from the LDS influence. “The Word of Wisdom,” a health code Joseph Smith promulgated in 1833, disallows tobacco, alcoholic beverages, tea and coffee. “The Word of Wisdom” also encourages general physical and spiritual fitness. “Low crime, slower pace, a clean city with less drinking and smoking”—Charlie counts these among the pluses of raising his children in the land where Mormon pioneer Brigham Young staked a claim 150 years ago.

For many Catholics, another plus is the very effort required to live the Catholic faith in a diocese where both human and financial resources are in short supply. Charlie Fratto says with pride, “There are very few nominal Catholics in Utah.”

The entire state has 43 parishes and 13 missions, two Catholic high schools and nine Catholic elementary schools. Utah has no Catholic college, university or seminary. A new parish with both a parochial school and a nearby diocesan high school is on the boards for Draper, an area of explosive growth south of Salt Lake City. A wealthy Catholic couple is funding both the purchase of the property and the construction of both school facilities.

Eppie Gonzales and Charlie Fratto delight in being Catholic. Both love the rosary. Eppie has built a marble grotto in his yard to honor Our Lady. Charlie takes special pride in the work of Catholic Community Services (CCS), the diocese’s social-service arm. St. Vincent de Paul Center, under CCS auspices, provides noon meals and medical and dental services for Salt Lake City’s poor and homeless people. “The Catholic Church is a shining light in helping the needy, supporting strong programs both financially and with volunteers,” he says.

Charlie has chaired development drives for both his parish and the diocese and notes that the social services which his fund-raising undergirds are for people of any or no faith. This universal assistance contrasts with the LDS welfare system which “is for their own,” in Charlie’s words. In the same breath, he adds that the Latter-day Saints support CCS financially. The Mormons also contribute food and organize LDS volunteers to serve the lunches at St. Vincent de Paul once a week.

Catholic Community Services has an annual banquet to honor those who have contributed to the well-being of the community. Charlie finds this evening “one of my favorites.” Why? An estimated 800 people pack the hall and in every direction Charlie looks he sees other Catholics! That doesn’t happen to Eppie Gonzales or to Charlie Fratto very often.

How the Situation Looks From Headquarters

Utah’s Diocesan Pastoral Center, in a former school building sharing a courtyard with the cathedral, is a cluster of Catholic leadership. Bishop George H. Niederauer’s office, just inside the front entrance, is a hub for many Catholic ministries and information services.

The bishop’s right-hand man, Vicar General Msgr. J. Terrence Fitzgerald, is a native Utahn of Irish ancestry. For the year between the move of former Bishop William K. Weigand to the Diocese of Sacramento, California, and the installation of Bishop Niederauer, Msgr. Fitzgerald was administrator of his home diocese. He racks up as many as 8,000 miles a month traveling to his home state’s farthest reaches.

Interviewed on the run, Msgr. Fitzgerald doesn’t waste a minute as he quickly provides a panoramic overview of the Catholic Church in Utah. He describes distant, isolated, small pockets of rural Catholics; a fast-growing population—with a corresponding increase in Catholics—in Salt Lake City itself; and, lastly, the Church’s relationship with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including a mostly-Mormon legislature and an economy driven by Mormon interests.

Msgr. Fitzgerald senses a Catholic influence on the Mormon worldview. He believes that Catholics have helped the LDS community to open up and be more ecumenical, “to see the value of broader relations with people of other faiths, nationally and internationally.” The ongoing Catholic dialogue with Latter-day Saints, which Msgr. Fitzgerald sees as a dynamic shaping Utah’s Catholics, helps Latter-day Saints to be more broad-minded and Catholics to be more fervent.

The vicar general tells a story of Bishop Duane G. Hunt, who led the diocese from 1937 until his death in 1960. As the bishop waited at the Cedar City train station to be taken to a parish Confirmation, he enjoyed a chat with some residents of the southern Utah town. The topic turned, as it often does in Utah, to religion. When the bishop said he was Catholic, one woman shook her head and exclaimed, “All these new religions springing up all over the place!”

Spanish Franciscans practicing this “new religion” were the first non-Native Americans to cross the borders of the present Utah. During a five-month expedition beginning July 29, 1776, Fathers Francisco Dominguez and Silvestre Escalante circled from Santa Fe, New Mexico, through western Colorado, through Utah and back through Arizona to their starting point.

The friars wanted to establish missions among the indigenous Ute and Laguna tribes who had welcomed them. But as Spain lost its political foothold, its rulers also withdrew support for missionaries.

Msgr. Fitzgerald explains that the railroad and the mines—coal, silver, copper—drew Catholic immigrants to the Utah territory. Today, 80 percent of the state’s Catholics live on the Wasatch Front (the western base of the Wasatch Range of the Rockies), close to the industries which drew their forebears to the area.

They may not be eking out a living from depleted mines, but Catholics still find it “hard to get ahead” in Utah, Msgr. Fitzgerald believes. He recalls a Catholic woman who worked at the Hotel Utah. (Now LDS offices, the Hotel Utah was once the state’s grandest lodgings, owned and operated by the Latter-day Saints.) She felt she had to become Mormon to keep her job. “She never left in her heart,” Msgr. Fitzgerald relates, recalling his deathbed visit to her. Wearing her scapular, holding her rosary, she was calling for a priest.

Others do leave, Msgr. Fitzgerald admits. Youthful Mormon missionaries witness powerfully to their beliefs and gain many for their Church. One effect among the Catholic faithful is a resistance not only to being evangelized but also to being evangelists themselves. It is most often through the schools and through social services that the Catholic message reaches others unfamiliar with the Church.

“We believe... that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent.”

—LDS Articles of Faith


Perspective of a Latter-day Saint

The Utah territory held many Catholic mountain men and trappers in its early years of settlement (1776-1847), including the famed Kit Carson. Jesuit missionary Father Pierre Jean De Smet, who came close but probably never set foot in Utah himself, is rumored to have met Brigham Young (perhaps in Council Bluffs, near the Iowa/Nebraska border) and recommended that Young head toward the valley of the Great Salt Lake.

After an arduous journey from Winter Quarters (now part of Omaha, Nebraska), 143 Mormon men, plus a few women and children, arrived there on July 24, 1847. Young declared of the arid valley, “This is the place!” Within a week, exploration, plowing and irrigation were under way. By the end of the next year, many more Latter-day Saints had come by wagon train or pulling handcarts to make the territory their home.

Mormon Elder Alexander B. Morrison was appointed by President Hinckley in 1987 to be one of the Quorum of 70 (see Luke 10:17, where some versions speak of 70 and others of 72 disciples). At the request of President Hinckley, Elder Morrison moved to Salt Lake City, where he serves as area president of North Utah.

Interviewed in his spacious, paneled office, Elder Morrison, father of eight, grandfather to 20, wears a suit and tie, but seems more benevolent than businesslike. Originally from Canada, where he was a university department chairman, the Mormon leader also served in Canada’s Department of Health and Welfare. Among his many responsibilities, he cochairs, with Holy Cross Sister Margo Caine, the Utah Governor’s Conference on Families.

A pleasant conversation sketching some of the common concerns of Catholics and Latter-day Saints prompts the question, “What are the stumbling blocks between Catholics and Latter-day Saints?” Elder Morrison responds, “We believe there is a prophet on the earth today—President Hinckley. Coupled with that is, of course, the notion of revelation. God does speak to the world through the prophets.”

Latter-day Saints wish to be considered Christian, although their concept of Christianity is unique and Christian theologians debate that issue. Joseph Smith’s vision of God troubles “traditional Trinitarians,” admits the elder. But, he asserts, “Christ is our Savior, our Redeemer, the atoning Messiah.” Latter-day Saints, however, “see our life here upon this earth as just a stopping-place on the eternal journey. We believe we lived before we came to earth and [will live] after we leave this earth. We are eternal beings,” he says.

Polygamy among the early Mormons created much controversy and opposition, even though Latter-day Saints cited biblical precedents in the lives of Old Testament patriarchs. Under severe pressure from the federal government, LDS President Wilford Woodruff issued an 1890 “Manifesto” banning the practice.

Sacramental practice contrasts with Catholic belief. Latter-day Saints have a sacrament meeting each Sunday at the ward house. Communion is seen as a renewal of covenant but is open to unbaptized children in attendance. At the meeting, several speakers—men or women—deliver prepared remarks on a spiritual theme. Baptism, typically received at the age of eight, is seen as a cleansing from sin and may be repeated if the baptized falls away from the faith and returns later.

The 50 Temples of the Latter-day Saints are not places of regular Sunday worship and are closed to nonbelievers. They are reserved for temple ordinances (esteemed like sacraments), including endowment (a covenant of obedience to God’s law), celestial marriages (marriages which will continue in eternity) and proxy baptisms for deceased ancestors. Church members believe that these ancestors must accept such actions on their behalf before the general resurrection before they can take effect.

Latter-day Saints care for their own. Elder Morrison says, “No Latter-day Saint need ever go hungry....We believe very strongly in the doctrine of work so we don’t give handouts. We think that any welfare system that is based on giving things without expecting people to contribute is destructive in the long run. Self-reliance is what they need.”

The Church has its own ranches, orchards, canneries and warehouses stocked with house brands of “everything from orange juice to beef to flour,” Elder Morrison explains. A member using this largess, he says, also receives education and/or assistance with job placement.

Latter-day Saints do not require similar initiatives from those who benefit from their substantial international humanitarian assistance. They often work closely with Catholic Relief Services to distribute financial aid, food, medical supplies and textbooks.

Currently, Latter-day Saints have 50,000 self-supporting missionaries working in pairs around the world. Asked if the U.S.-born Church translates well into other cultures, Elder Morrison says, “It falls on very receptive ears....We believe universal truths involved in that pioneer experience transcend the actual physical ordeals of the people and address such things as family unity, obedience, love, sacrifice, compassion....So when we talk about pioneers in Africa, we say they [the Africans] are the pioneers of their day.”

A Place to Call Home

Mormon pioneers were warned off from the Salt Lake Valley by famed scouts Moses Harris and Jim Bridger. Time proved both scouts poor judges of Mormon tenacity and courage. The Latter-day Saints survived early hardships to dominate the area.

In 1859, however, Conventual Franciscan priest Bonaventure Keller assembled a Catholic congregation for the first time in Utah. In 1866, Father Edward Kelly negotiated directly with Brigham Young for clear title to the property on which St. Mary Magdalene, Utah’s first Catholic church, was built.

In 1890, property was acquired for a cathedral. Now known as The Cathedral of the Madeleine, it is a church to make gentiles, as Mormons often call Catholics, proud.

Msgr. Francis Mannion, rector and diocesan ecumenical officer, was interviewed in the cathedral’s attached rectory. The house was obviously not included in the extensive cathedral restoration completed in 1993. Lath work shows through holes in the rectory’s high, plastered ceilings. Though the pastor seems tired of talking about the cathedral, having overseen its renovations, he warms to the subject.

It is an imposing and beautiful structure, a visual catechism which counters the message of the Latter-day Saints. Msgr. Mannion explains that the death of Christ is the main iconography within the cathedral. The Passion of Christ is a theme acknowledged but underplayed in LDS teaching.

Four prominently displayed Scripture passages stress Eucharist (John 6:54-55), the power of the keys (Matthew 16:18), the existence of two primary testaments (Galatians 1:8) and God’s action among the gentiles (Malachi 1:11). Of the last passage, Msgr. Mannion observes tongue-in-cheek that “Jews are gentiles here [in Utah].”

A representation of “Our Lady of Zion” depicts Mary as an intercessor within a land the Mormon pioneers called Zion. “We have an image of a western pioneer woman,” explains Msgr. Mannion, “a strong western pioneer woman. You can find evidence of that in her hands—very large working hands—and also in the very strong character of her features.”

“Catholics and Latter-day Saints share a pro-life, pro-family stance and cooperate to further these values.”

—Msgr. Mannion


Msgr. Mannion calls the cathedral the “most visible physical symbol” of the faith in Utah. He mentions that Thomas Monson, LDS First Counselor, brought greetings from his Church to the Catholic community assembled for the reopening of the Cathedral in 1993. (Monson, who is in line to succeed current LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley, is held in high esteem by many Utah Catholics.) The Latter-day Saints also contributed to the renovation fund.

“The Catholics and Mormons get along better than people might expect. A good sense of respect permeates relations and has done so over the decades. A strong pro-life, pro-family stance is something we share and we cooperate to further these values,” Msgr. Mannion says, seeing this as the big story in his diocese.

Catholic Faithful Embrace Challenge

Fewer than 100 priests and brothers, diocesan and religious, are on hand to serve Utah’s Catholics. The state census includes fewer than 100 women religious with neither a motherhouse nor a Catholic hospital.

Utah does have a growing number of Catholic deacons. Deacon Silvio Mayo is chancellor of the diocese, and 26 other men have also been ordained since 1992. Holy Cross Sister Ellen Mary Taylor, head of diaconate formation, believes the next class may number 17. And she’s never had to recruit a single candidate. Utahns are willing not only to give many hours to diaconate studies, but also to travel great distances to participate.

To train Utah’s future deacons and also its lay ministers, Sister Ellen Mary leans heavily on the Loyola Pastoral Life Center in New Orleans. Loyola’s extension program serves dioceses with limited education resources—like Utah. LIMEX (Loyola Institute for Ministry Extension) uses satellite feeds for lectures, computer modems for library research and trained local coordinators.

Sister Ellen Mary says that she doesn’t find it necessary to tailor formation programs to assist Utahns with issues touching the Church of the Latter-day Saints. She does try to provide pastoral responses to questions regarding the validity of LDS Baptism and Matrimony, which can be complex situations.

Dee Rowland deals with complexities of another kind. The Salt Lake Tribune described her as the Utah Catholic diocese’s “point woman.” For 12 years, she has represented Catholic social teaching to legislative leaders. She also heads the diocesan peace and justice commission. In her small office, certificates of recognition vie with bumper-sticker justice slogans.

Dee, a mother of five, is a coalition builder and she enjoys it. “It’s always most advantageous to find common ground,” she says. She recalls the Pentagon’s failed attempt to cram Utah’s west desert with nuclear missiles. It’s important, she says, to keep information flowing. On that issue, Catholics and Mormons eventually cooperated to discourage such a project in Utah.

“My way of working,” Dee explains, “is to call issues to [LDS] attention.” When she has invited an expert to brief Catholics on an issue, she tries to arrange a briefing for other Church and civic leaders as well. All but 11 of the state’s 104 legislators are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Four are Catholic. “I continue to assert that some issues are religious issues, moral issues, that it’s not only legitimate for the Church to have a position but also essential....It makes sense to let [other Church leaders] know the issues we see.”

For instance, Catholics and Mormons are equally opposed to abortion. Dee works to link that life-respecting stance to other issues such as prenatal care, health care, violence, war and opposition to the death penalty. Dee credits Latter-day Saints with a stronger opposition to gambling and drinking than most Catholics would embrace.

The League of Women Voters drew Dee Rowland into political activism in Utah, where she’s lived for 23 years. “It’s a real privilege—this opportunity I have to open people to the practical application of faith day by day.”

So Much Faith in Zion

“Excellent” is Msgr. Fitzgerald’s word for relations between Church leaders of the Catholic and the Mormon faiths. Sometimes relations are strained in the political arena, in the schools (where most teachers are Mormon and adjoining “seminaries” provide “release time” religious education for LDS students) or among neighbors, especially in outlying towns.

“Vibrant” is the vicar general’s word for the condition of the Catholic Church. “It’s striking, what a small handful have done. [This smallness] has strengthened us. You have to be strong to remain Catholic.”

That strength, Msgr. Fitzgerald believes, is derived in part from the contemplative, mystical tradition of the Church. He includes in that tradition the celebrations of the great feasts and cycles, Advent-Christmas and Lent-Easter. He notes the great artists and musicians inspired by Catholic tradition while he acknowledges the business savvy, thrift and organizational skills of the Mormons. Sometimes people may leave “for local involvement,” but they “come back for the tradition.”

Charlie Fratto went to public elementary and high schools. As a freshman, he ran for class president. The LDS homeroom teacher told his classmates not to vote for him. That teacher was let go while Charlie won the election. He later became student-body president in a mostly-Mormon school. Now and then, his mother encouraged him by saying, “If all the Catholics go to Catholic school, how will the Mormons know that we are normal?”

The few, the normal, the proud, the strong, the faithful: The Catholics of Utah still pioneer in a land claimed for God under a different banner.

Carol Ann Morrow is an assistant editor of St. Anthony Messenger and editor of Youth Update, published by St. Anthony Messenger Press. Barbara Stinson Lee, her husband, and the staff of the Intermountain Catholic, Utah’s diocesan newspaper, were invaluable resources in the completion of this article.