Cathedral of the Madeleine marks 100 years as spiritual home for Utah Catholics

Published: Saturday, Aug. 8 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Artwork within the cathedral depicts the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ and other sacred scenes.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

The dream of a young missionary priest to build a cathedral in the heart of Mormon country will be remembered in story, song and sermon as Utah Catholics celebrate the Cathedral of the Madeleine's 100th birthday with weeklong festivities beginning Sunday.

A stately matron whose presence in downtown Salt Lake City is partially obscured by the trees that line South Temple, the cathedral will be feted by religious and community leaders not only as the spiritual home of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, but as a center for education, the arts and humanitarian outreach.

Though it was 45 years from the time the first known Catholic Mass in Utah was celebrated at Camp Williams in 1864 until the cathedral was dedicated in 1909, the young Rev. Lawrence Scanlan saw potential in the blossoming desert. About 800 parishioners populated the Utah Territory upon his arrival in 1873.

Much of the early history of Catholicism in the Beehive State is intertwined with the cathedral's conception, construction and completion, made possible not only with church funds from San Francisco, but by the contributions of mining families who flocked to the territory's outlying areas in search of wealth and a new life.

Historical accounts reflect the tenacity that Bishop Scanlan brought to the task.

Though Scanlan's predecessor, the Rev. Patrick Walsh, built the Church of St. Mary Magdalene at the corner of Motor Avenue and Second East in 1871, within 20 years it was abandoned and later torn down as the new cathedral came alive at South Temple and C Street.

Consecrated as bishop of the new Diocese of Salt Lake City in 1891, Bishop Scanlan had purchased the site for the new cathedral two years earlier at a cost of $39,000. The first architectural plans called for "a plain sandstone church, unadorned by towers and designed in the Romanesque style," according to Dwyer.

Initial funding came from two sources: $124,080 from diocesan organizations in San Francisco and nearly $88,000 collected from Catholics in Utah and Nevada during the first five years of the building's construction.

Ground was broken July 4, 1899, and the cornerstone was laid on the Feast of St. Mary Magdelene a year later. Preferring to build as he was able to raise money, Bishop Scanlan "refused to attempt the decoration of the interior and the completion of the towers. Instead, he fitted up the basement auditorium as a place for Mass," as crowds had outgrown the old St. Mary's Cathedral, Dwyer wrote.

The structure was fitted with altars of central Utah marble and stained glass windows manufactured in Germany, though the rest of the interior was featured unadorned plaster walls painted green with pillars painted white.

By the time the cathedral was dedicated in 1909, about 10,000 Catholics resided within the Diocese of Salt Lake City, which covered 153,768 square miles of Utah and Nevada, making it the largest diocese in the nation at that time, according to diocesan archivist Gary Topping.

His new book, "The Story of the Cathedral of the Madeleine," chronicles the construction, embellishment and restoration of the cathedral during its first 100 years.

Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore presided over the dedication ceremonies, which drew Catholic leaders from throughout the nation.

Once the building was dedicated, Topping wrote, the bishop found his strength waning and he became more of a "passive spectator" in the events of the diocese as health problems overtook him. After his death on May 10, 1915 at the age of 72, he was buried in a crypt under the cathedral sanctuary at his own request.

His successor, Bishop Joseph Glass, "spent far ahead of his resources" in contrast to his predecessor, Topping wrote. He made plans to complete the interior of the cathedral, and in 1917, the work of completely renovating the interior began.

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