Irish priest John Brendan Hart dies after serving Utah parishes — and U.S. troops — for more than half a century

The Rev. John Brendan Hart Born: May 10, 1935 Died: July 27, 2018

The Rev. John Brendan Hart, a newly minted Catholic priest from Ireland, arrived in Utah in September 1960 and would serve in the Beehive State for virtually the rest of his life.

But Hart, who died in Salt Lake City on July 27 at age 83 after a long illness, was the embodiment of all things Irish — the accent, the folk tales, the football (a cross between soccer, rugby and American football), the hearty laughs, the stubbornness, the generosity.

When the Utah priest petitioned to become a bona fide, full-fledged American, he was forced to give up citizenship in his home country. Still, a phrase in the U.S. “oath of allegiance” stopped him: Would he swear to “bear arms” in defense of the country?

“Absolutely not. I will never pick up a gun,” the Irish clergyman told the surprised federal clerk, recalled retired Monsignor J. Terrence Fitzgerald, of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, who was there.

Clerk and cleric huddled in the hallway, and, after some debate, Hart returned to the ceremony and grudgingly said he had “misunderstood the question.”

It was no small irony, then, that, by 1972, Hart had joined the naval reserve and two years later entered the Utah National Guard, providing Catholic chaplaincy for the military reserves.

In 1990, the Utah-based priest would find himself on active duty in the Gulf War, Fitzgerald said, assigned to the 144th Evacuation Hospital Unit during Operation Desert Storm. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

When Hart first landed in Utah, Fitzgerald said, he brought with him a sense of Irish education, where “you don’t speak, move or breathe until the teacher tells you to.”

The Irish priest “found out in a hurry that wasn’t the way here,” Fitzgerald said. “He was a disciplinarian, but the kids loved him.”

Most of Hart’s service, however, focused on pastoral care in Utah parishes.

As associate pastor, he served at St. Joseph in Ogden, Notre Dame de Lourdes in Price, and Utah Catholics’ mother church, the historic Cathedral of the Madeleine in downtown Salt Lake City, the diocese wrote in an obituary. “He generously accepted temporary assignments as pastor in Moab, Copperton and Park City.”

He became a full pastor at St. Francis Xavier in Kearns, where he remained five years and then spent two years as pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes in Salt Lake City and St. Joseph the Worker in West Jordan.

After his military service, Hart returned to St. Joseph the Worker, where he remained until 1999. After that, he was assigned as chaplain at Christus St. Joseph Villa, for the Carmelite nuns, as pastor of St. Christopher in Kanab and temporarily at Ogden’s Holy Family Parish.

The long-serving priest retired in 2006 and spent some of his declining years at St. Joseph Villa.

That is, Fitzgerald said, until the day Hart got stuck in the elevator there. When he emerged, the priest packed his bags, called a cab and moved to another care facility near downtown.

When he made up his mind, Fitzgerald said, “there was no talking him into or out of anything.”

Eventually, U.S. laws changed, and Hart could have applied for dual citizenship.

Fitzgerald wasn’t sure whether his friend ever did that, though the two did travel there at least twice. Either way, Ireland remained part of Hart’s psyche until the day he died.

And that is where his remains will lie — next to his Irish parents.