After 150 years, Utah’s second oldest church stands as a symbol of progressive Protestant influence in LDS Zion

St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral to celebrate its sesquicentennial in the heart of Salt Lake City.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Inside the chapel of St. Mark's Cathedral in 2003. The historic church in the heart of Salt Lake City is marking its 150th anniversary this September.

In the mid-19th-century Mormon theocracy ruled by pioneer-prophet Brigham Young, plans by smatterings of Episcopalians to carve out their own religious niche in the Utah Territory seemed audacious.

But, in July 1867, two decades after Young had led Mormon pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley, newly consecrated Episcopal Bishop Daniel Tuttle — having first paid a courtesy call to the leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — presided over his church’s first services in Salt Lake City’s Independence Hall.

These pioneering Episcopalians went on to establish one of the earliest organized, permanent Protestant presences in Utah.

“You could characterize it as both a gamble and a miracle, but it’s also what love does — it spreads out and drenches every nook and cranny [of a community],” says the Rev. Tyler Doherty, dean and rector of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah’s Cathedral of St. Mark, which is celebrating its sesquicentennial in September.

(St. Mark's Cathedral archives) Scaffolding embraces the stone shell of what will become St. Mark's Cathedral, circa 1870.

Utah’s Episcopalians, he suggests, took their cue from first-century Christians in how they settled and grew in the shadow of the region’s predominant faith. The outsiders worked to become accepted as community insiders, building a solid reputation for civic improvement projects and interfaith cooperation.

“That’s the story of the Book of Acts, [where] the ever-dilating eye of love includes more and more people,” Doherty recounts. “God shows no partiality and reaches out in love to everyone, [saying] ‘Yes! They, too, are my beloved daughter, my beloved son.’

“Tuttle simply went where Jesus would go — to the wilderness places to stand with and walk alongside,” he adds. “Gamble? Yes, but it’s what it means to walk by faith and not by sight. Even here? Yes, even here.”

On July 30, 1870, buoyed by congregational growth and donations from Episcopalians back East, Tuttle’s fledgling flock laid the cornerstone for the Cathedral Church of St. Mark in downtown Salt Lake City. Even Brother Brigham pitched in $500 toward its construction.

The bishop and his parish held the first service Sept. 3, 1871, in the nave of the then-still-under-construction house of worship.

Completed and consecrated May 14, 1874, the 500-seat cathedral of native red sandstone and timber at 231 E. 100 South was designed by noted 19th-century architect Richard Upjohn, the founder of the American Institute of Architects who crafted New York’s renowned Trinity Church. In fact, Trinity was Upjohn’s first church design, and St. Mark’s was his last.

The Gothic Revival cathedral now stands as Utah’s second oldest church — after the famed Tabernacle on Temple Square — in continual use and has earned a spot on the National Register of Historical Places.

“As the first Protestant church to be established in the valley, the Cathedral Church of St. Mark has a rich history in Utah,” the LDS Church said in a statement. “The beautiful St. Mark’s Cathedral is integral to the cultural and spiritual growth in the community. We wish our Episcopalian friends well on this significant milestone and look forward to the next 150 years.”

A changing celebration

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune The Rev. Scott B. Hayashi, Episcopal bishop of Utah, speaks before a march against gun violence by more than 60 Episcopal bishops and and about 2,000 in all in 2015.

Until COVID-19 hit — suspending in-person gatherings in the cathedral from March 20 to Aug. 23 of 2020, and thereafter restricting services to small groups of masked, socially distanced worshippers — expectations were that St. Mark’s sesquicentennial would be ushered in with pomp and fanfare.

The faithful envisioned a series of public events and services that might be capped with a visit by the Most Rev. Michael Curry, presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church.

Pandemic-related scheduling challenges, however, have pushed tentative plans well into early or mid-2022 for Curry’s return to Salt Lake City, where he was elected as the first African American presiding bishop during a Triennial General Convention in 2015 and then came back in 2017 to mark the denomination’s 150th anniversary in Utah.

Certainly, Utah Episcopal Bishop Scott Hayashi treasures Curry’s first-ballot election at St. Mark’s as having “a special place” both in the cathedral’s history and his 11-year stint overseeing the diocese’s 25 congregations.

Another visit by Curry in 2022 would be something of a career-capper for Hayashi, who earlier this year agreed to put off his planned September 2021 retirement a year to shepherd the diocese’s revival from coronavirus-related disruptions.

(Rick Bowmer | The Associated Press)Bishop Michael Curry waves to the crowd after being elected the Episcopal Church's first African American presiding bishop at a 2015 convention in Salt Lake City. Curry may return to Utah next year to celebrate St. Mark's Cathedral's sesquicentennial.

In what will become his encore ecclesiastical leadership year, Hayashi says his prime focus will be on recovery, but he stresses that, with new COVID-19 variants cropping up, the diocese must realize “we’re not out of the woods yet.”

Hayashi says his eventual successor will need “skills and strengths based upon the experience of the pandemic … adaptability to think beyond traditional ways of doing things, and to move the church and its people to follow that.”

Foreshadowing that attitude of adaptability has been the forced reconsideration of how St. Mark’s 150th will be commemorated.

“There’s no question in my mind that the pandemic changed what would’ve been planned,” says Craig Wirth, diocesan communications director. “There would have been concerts, observances and other events looking back at the past of the cathedral.”

While planning remains tentative, any specific celebratory events will be announced on the cathedral’s website, newsletter and social media as they develop.

Officials do expect to emphasize St. Mark’s spiritual and temporal outreach to a community that has become more and more religiously, ethnically and socially diverse over the past century and a half.

That Episcopal tradition of service included the 1867 opening of St. Mark’s School, Salt Lake City’s first non-Mormon educational establishment and one that quickly enrolled Latter-day Saint students as well due to its reputation for excellence. Rowland Hall, a boarding school for girls, followed in 1880.

In 1964, the two private schools merged into Rowland Hall-St. Mark’s and were reorganized as an independent, coeducational entity. Today, Rowland Hall (the abbreviated name by which it is more commonly known) teaches about 935 preschool through high school students on its two urban campuses.

(St. Mark's Cathedral archives) Bishop Daniel Tuttle, circa 1873.

Utah Episcopalians also opened Utah’s first hospital, St. Mark’s Hospital, on April 30, 1872. Launched with sixs beds, one physician and all male nurses, it occupied a rented adobe building at 500 E. 400 South. Overseen by Tuttle, the facility saw demand explode from the start.

“Each succeeding month has brought a larger number to us than the one preceding,” the bishop recorded in his journal, according to a history by its current owner, necessitating numerous relocations through the years.

Sold by the diocese in 1988, the nearly 320-bed hospital at 1200 E. 3900 South is now part of the MountainStar Healthcare system.

Causes and community

(Paul Fraughton | Salt Lake Tribune) Trees surround St. Mark's Cathedral in 2012. The historic church is celebrating its 150th anniversary.

Episcopal outreach also extended to other religious, civic and cultural communities, says Josie Stone, current head of St. Mark’s sesquicentennial committee and former chair and longtime member of the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable.

Today, St. Mark’s nearly 600 members (Utah’s diocese overall has about 5,400 members) are often at the forefront of a variety of progressive social justice causes, actively advocating for immigration reform, gun-violence prevention, LGBTQ causes (including same-sex marriage and gay clergy), expansion of Medicaid coverage to the poor and uninsured, and a range of health, educational and counseling services to the region’s growing homeless population.

“Homelessness is one of Salt Lake City’s biggest problems, and we are looking at that with other people working in that from different directions,” Stone says. “One idea is to help support [building] ‘tiny homes.’”

No decisions have been made, but the St. Mark’s congregation may join Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s recent proposal for a tiny-home village, a pilot project envisioned to offer not only 40 of the 400-square-foot residences to the chronically homeless but also access to mental health and other services in a community setting.

Since the early 1980s, St. Mark’s cathedral grounds also have been home to Hildegarde’s Food Pantry, where those in need can obtain groceries and personal care items. In partnership with organizations such as the Utah Food Bank, the Grocery Rescue program and the LDS Church’s Welfare Square, the pantry serves some 2,000 households a month.

Another example of Latter-day Saint backing for the Episcopal-led ministry is the gifting of commercial-grade freezers and refrigerators when the pantry facility expanded in 2006.

Even as St. Mark’s past contributions are remembered and celebrated, the cathedral and its parishioners have their vision firmly set on future horizons.

“We are looking at what our role is today,” Stone says, " . . . and how we can absorb the fascinating history that the cathedral brings to our community [with] where we are going forward.”

(St. Mark’s Cathedral archives) St. Mark's, right, circa 1940. To the left of the cathedral is the old Masonic Lodge.

As the 21st century continues to unfold, Doherty adds, the foundational mission of St. Mark’s — and others of faith and goodwill — remains unchanged.

To Doherty, a good part of “building the Kingdom of God” on earth is an interfaith and collaborative community uniting to “figure out ways for us to live from and share the abundance that we have so that nobody goes without food, shelter and health care.”

“Following Jesus takes you to uncomfortable places,” he says. “The practice is always to stand in solidarity where Jesus stands …. That’s mostly about bearing witness to what’s right in front of our noses, but what we too often don’t see.”