Santa Fe-bound Archbishop Wester says tearful farewell to Utah Catholics

Hospitable • “I’ve had that word in my heart and brain ever since.”

Archbishop John C. Wester warned 800 Utah Catholics on Sunday that he might cry during his final homily as their bishop.

So it was no surprise when, quoting poet T.S. Eliot about journeys, Wester faltered. "I warned you," he said, pausing for several moments before going on.

"For me, this is my starting place. If I could, I'd put you all in a headlock and tell you that I love you," Wester said, recalling an anecdote about two teenage brothers he met in his eight years as the leader of Utah's 300,000 Catholics.

A reception followed the Mass of thanksgiving at downtown Salt Lake City's Cathedral of the Madeleine, and an evening reception took place at the Little America Hotel.

Wester is to be installed as archbishop of the Santa Fe Archdiocese on Thursday. His appointment by Pope Francis was announced in late April.

It will be several months before Wester's replacement is named; he will return to Salt Lake City's cathedral June 26 to ordain two men to the priesthood.

Wester used the story of the two brothers — the older one put his brother in a headlock when he said he loved his big brother — as a human reflection of the trinity. Sunday was Holy Trinity Sunday for Catholics worldwide.

While theological explanations of the Trinity are "mere glimpses," God as a communion of three persons can be seen throughout the Old and New testaments, Wester said.

"God is, in his very nature, relational," Wester said. "In order to speak about God, we must speak about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

Wester thanked Utah Catholics for their generosity of time, talent and treasure. "You have helped me to grow as a person and a bishop."

When he first arrived, Wester said, Monsignor Terrence Fitzgerald, then-vicar general for the diocese, told him to expect Utahns to be hospitable.

"I've had that word in my heart and brain ever since," Wester said, "and he couldn't be more correct."

The cathedral choir, orchestra and Madeleine Choir School choristers performed a Mozart Mass and the moving piece "Abide in Me," commissioned in 2007 for Wester's installation as the ninth Catholic bishop of Salt Lake City. "Abide in Me" is Wester's episcopal motto.

Students from each of the diocese's schools brought single roses to the bishop as gifts before communion, and 20 priests and deacons from around the diocese helped celebrate the Mass.

Wester said he had seen so many examples of selfless giving by Utah Catholics, but Lynn Johnson, a deacon at the cathedral, recalled later that Wester led by example.

The two were once late for a parish visit in Draper and driving through rush-hour traffic in downtown Salt Lake City. A heavy man in a wheelchair had tipped over. Pedestrians streamed past, ignoring his predicament.

Wester ordered Johnson to pull over, although there was nowhere to park. It took the two of them — and a pedestrian Johnson recruited — to lift the man back into his chair.

It was then the man saw Wester's clerical collar.

"Are you a father?" he asked Wester, Johnson said. When the bishop said that he was, the man said, "Well, I am, too."

Salt Lake City resident Irene Castillo, who attended Wester's farewell Mass, said she always will remember the clergyman for his "love for the poor, the homeless and immigrants."

"We will miss him forever."

Her friend, Grace Troost, said she'll remember Wester's work to unite Mormons and Catholics in the public sphere. "That was really important to me."

A testament to those multifaith ties was on display at Sunday evening's reception, where LDS apostle M. Russell Ballard expressed his sadness at seeing Wester leave Utah.

"You are losing your wonderful bishop," he told the crowd gathered in a Little America ballroom, "and I am losing one of my very dear friends."

In recent years, the two men, along with Ivory Homes founder Ellis Ivory, were regular golfing buddies.

Besides sharing a few jokes and laughs, "we talked about community issues and concerns over values," Ballard said. "It was a marvelous experience for me."

The three, he said, have committed to playing golf again in Utah.

Until then, "I asked Heavenly Father to watch over you and protect you," Ballard said, adding that he was sure the people of Santa Fe "would fall in love with you as we have."

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, along with first lady Jeanette Herbert, called Wester's departure "bittersweet," saying he was "grateful to have had his dedicated service but sorry to lose such a great friend and special adviser."

Other religious leaders also talked of Wester's kindness and his ability to make the disenfranchised feel welcome.

Maria-Cruz Gray, director of the Salt Lake City Diocese's Hispanic Ministry, said she admired Wester for learning Spanish and attending traditional Mexican celebrations such as Christmas Posada.

"It was a true statement of his faith," she said. "He makes sure no one feels excluded from the family of Jesus."

Bishop Scott B. Hayashi, who heads up Utah's Episcopal Diocese, agreed. "The graciousness of Bishop Wester is what will remain in my heart. He is unfailingly kind and gentle. "

Kathy Stephenson contributed to this story.


Twitter: @KristenMoulton