· Published: May 12, 2017 Updated: August 03, 2017
In 1994, George H. Niederauer seemed an unlikely candidate to become the eighth bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.
An only child and a lifelong Californian, the then-monsignor was witty and well-educated, read The New Yorker, played bridge and had a passion for artsy films with subtitles. He consorted with celebrities and had a reputation as a lively raconteur. Would he find Mormon-dominated Utah a backwater?
Yet Beehive State Catholics — as well as Latter-day Saints and others — discovered their gregarious bishop to be an amiable fit for the wide-ranging diocese. Priests loved his collaborative style. Parishioners loved his warmth and openness. And all loved his self-deprecating jabs and laughed with him as he mangled attempts to speak Spanish.
Niederauer, the archbishop emeritus of San Francisco who led Utah's 300,000 Catholics for more than a decade, died Tuesday of pulmonary thrombosis at a Catholic care center in San Rafael, Calif. He was 80.
His predecessor was "a great churchman, accepting each position he was given with humility and generosity," Utah's recently installed bishop, Oscar A. Solis, said in a statement. "During the 11 years he was bishop of Salt Lake City, he was known for his kindness, ecumenical spirit and embrace for the least important of the community."
Niederauer was "guileless," recalled Monsignor J. Terrence Fitzgerald, vicar general under the former bishop. "He was the soul of goodness. He was generous in his service and his ministry. He loved God and the church."
The bishop from 1994 to 2005 "left his footprint on the diocese," Fitzgerald said Tuesday, in the parishes, schools and the building of the 57-acre Skaggs Catholic Center in Draper, home to Juan Diego Catholic High School.
Shirley Mares, who served as the bishop's assistant during his 11-year tenure, said her boss "made going to work every day a joy."
Clearly, Niederauer was "an intellectual, but could relate to people on all levels," Mares said. "His wonderful sense of humor and love just radiated all around him."
One day, the bishop realized Mares, a mother of four, had taken care of many personal chores for him, so he laughed and said, "I bet you think of me as your fifth child."
From that day on, she said through tears, "he called me 'Mom.' "
Born in Los Angeles in 1936, Niederauer came of age in Southern California, where Catholics were vastly outnumbered among an increasingly diverse religious populace.
Niederauer's parents drove him across town to Long Beach's all-male St. Anthony High School, where he met William Levada, a future Catholic cardinal, and where priests became the most potent forces in their lives. Teachers, mentors, confessors, counselors — these men of the cloth modeled a kind of life that left indelible imprints on the boys.
It was his high school band director who first introduced Utah's future bishop to the arts.
"I was a dreadful musician,'' Niederauer told The Salt Lake Tribune in 1995. "Whenever they had four trombones, I was the fourth. When there were five, I was fifth."
The band wasn't all that good, but "we had a lot of elan," he said. "And the band director "instilled a love of literature as well as music."
Niederauer next entered St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, where fellow classmates included Levada; another future cardinal, Roger Mahony; and another future bishop, Tod Brown.
Niederauer was ordained May 1, 1962 — a day after Mahony — then worked in a parish for a few years, while pursuing graduate work in literature. By 1966, he had earned a doctorate from the University of Southern California — with a dissertation on 18th-century satirical plays, no less — and, a year later, returned to teach literature and moral philosophy at St. John's. He stayed 27 years, eventually becoming seminary rector and wrestling with how best to train the rising generations of priests.
When he left St. John's, Niederauer's friends gave him a first edition of Oscar Wilde's "Importance of Being Earnest."
In Utah, the bishop built trust in the priests with his team approach, easily delegated responsibilities and encouraged lay participation. Plus, his sermons were striking.
In 2002, as the Catholic Church's sexual abuse crisis was exploding, Niederauer was selected to head the committee revising church standards on reporting abuse and dealing with abusive clergy. At a tense meeting in Dallas, many bishops dodged the news media, but the Utah leader took questions from reporters, answering with unexpected candor.
Unknown to many Utahns, when Niederauer was tapped as archbishop of San Francisco in 2004, he had a reputation as "gay friendly," based on the fact that he refused to blame the church's sex-abuse scandal on homosexuality, wasn't in favor of barring all gay men from seminaries and didn't support Utah's amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
In San Francisco, Niederauer became the first U.S. bishop to state publicly that he'd even seen the 2005 film "Brokeback Mountain," let alone liked it.
Niederauer did defend his church's anti-gay-marriage stance and even enlisted Mormon leaders to help pass California's Proposition 8 ban on same-sex unions.
While in the Bay Area, the archbishop dealt with the closing of inner-city Catholic schools, abuse lawsuits, and whether to deny Communion to pro-abortion-rights politicians like Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
He didn't turn them away.
The garrulous Niederauer retired in July 2012, sharing a house with his buddy, Levada.
His final Utah sermon was vintage Niederauer — a little wordplay, some personal anecdotes, a retelling of scripture with surprisingly contemporary allusions, including a quote from "The Sound of Music."
He spoke about Jesus' compassion, his willingness to heal the sick and lift the despairing, the future archbishop said. Though he suffered much, Jesus did not die a failure but triumphed over death.
Priests have a special role to play in spreading the "good news" of the Christian gospel, he said. That's what he had been doing in Utah.
"It's been my task, my privilege and my job to serve the local Catholic diocese. I was welcomed by Catholics, by LDS and by everyone," he told the standing-room-only crowd. "You have been the good news in my life. ... I promise to pray for you always."
As Niederauer left the Cathedral of the Madeleine, the congregation burst into prolonged applause — a sentiment that still echoes today.