SALT LAKE CITY — The Most Rev. George H. Niederauer, who led Utah Catholics from 1995 until 2005, died Tuesday at his nursing home in San Rafael, California, according to the Diocese of Salt Lake City.
The diocese stated that the 80-year-old archbishop died of pulmonary fibrosis.
"He left his footprint on our state. I think he'll be remembered for his kindness, ability to embrace all kinds of people and understanding of where they were coming from," said Monsignor J. Terrence Fitzgerald, who served as the former bishop's vicar general.
Archbishop Niederauer was ordained in the Cathedral of the Madeleine on Jan. 25, 1995, as the eighth bishop of Salt Lake City. The Utah Catholic community grew 50 percent under his supervision — from 80,000 members in 1994 to 120,000 in 2004.
Just before his ordination, he joked with the Deseret News about his unexpected calling from the sunny shores of California to the mountains of Utah.
"Why I'm at peace with this big move is I didn't seek it and it's not my idea. So I figure, if God got me into it, God is going to have to get me through it," he said. "As to Utah, well, it's a stretch, of course, for a 58-year-old Californian."
He embraced life in the Beehive State, logging hundreds of miles up and down I-15 during his first month as bishop. He was surprised and excited by the diversity of his new community and learned Spanish in order to better serve his flock.
"He had good relationships with leaders of other religions, especially with the LDS community," Monsignor Fitzgerald said.
The First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints expressed sympathy and condolences after learning of the archbishop's death.
"For more than a decade, we witnessed and admired his ministry to members of the Salt Lake diocese. We had many opportunities to learn from his remarkable example of charity, authenticity and humility. We join with scores of others who have been touched by his words and deeds and recognize a legacy of love and compassion for all who came in contact with this noble follower of Jesus Christ," it said in a statement.
Gov. Gary R. Herbert shared similar sentiments, noting the mark Archbishop Niederauer made on Utah's faith community.
"As the eighth bishop of the Salt Lake City Diocese, Bishop Niederauer made an indelible mark on our community through his spiritual leadership," he said in a statement.
Archbishop Niederauer grew up in Long Beach, California, as the only child of devout Catholic parents. He enrolled at Stanford University after high school as a political science major, but soon dropped the school and academic focus in favor of a holier vocation.
"I decided really that I thought (seminary) was what I wanted to do and what I was called to do," he said in 1994. He finished his freshman year at Stanford and then enrolled at St. John's Seminary College in Camarillo, California.
After completing his seminary studies at St. John's, he pursued his love of English literature. He received a master's in English literature from Loyola University, Los Angeles, in 1962, and a Ph.D. in the same subject from the University of Southern California in 1966. He was ordained a priest on April 30, 1962.
Around the same time, Archbishop Niederauer began teaching at St. John's, passing on his love of reading to seminary students.
"I knew him when he was there. He was a marvelous teacher," Monsignor Fitzgerald said.
From 1979 until 1987, Archbishop Niederauer served as St. John's spiritual director. He later took on the role of rector, honing the leadership skills that would serve him well as a bishop and archbishop.
In addition to being a strong leader and man of great faith, Archbishop Niederauer will be remembered for his sense of humor and love of books and movies, Monsignor Fitzgerald said.
"He was brilliant and quick with his wit. He could quote all kinds of literary figures — how he remembered it all, I don't know," he said. "He was very much a people person and loved movies."
After a decade of service to the Diocese of Salt Lake City, Archbishop Niederauer was installed in 2006 as the archbishop of San Francisco, where he oversaw more than 400,000 Catholics. He retired in 2012.
Throughout his more than 55 years of ministry, Archbishop Niederauer witnessed many difficult moments in Catholic Church history, such as the clergy sex abuse scandals and declining church membership. While in Utah, he participated in debates over abortion rights, the death penalty and same-sex marriage.
"For many, George H. Niederauer (came) to symbolize the heart of what is right about their faith in a world that often questions it," he said on the 10th anniversary of his ordination as a bishop.
A funeral mass for Archbishop Niederauer will be held Friday, May 12, at 11:00 a.m. at Saint Mary Cathedral in San Francisco.