During a recent walk in Salt Lake City’s lovely Mount Calvary Catholic Cemetery, I was surprised to stumble upon not one, but two headstones honoring priests named O’Brien.
I knew that many Irish priests had served Utah’s Catholics, but, with St. Patrick’s Day approaching, I wondered just who were these men who shared my family name?
Father Timothy: Loved by orphans
The Rev. Timothy O’Brien arrived in Utah first, in 1911. Born in County Cork in 1868, he was educated and ordained in 1889 at St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth, near Dublin. He worked in various parishes in Australia, Denver and Los Angeles before finding a new home in Utah, where the clean mountain desert air helped alleviate his asthma symptoms.
He was the first priest of the brand-new (at least in 1917) St. Therese of the Child Jesus Parish in Midvale. Father Timothy celebrated Mass for his St. Therese community in private home parlors, a tavern, even a mortuary. His parishioners traveled by horse-drawn carts from as far away as Riverton — a two-hour round trip — to attend.
Utah Catholics best knew Father Timothy, however, from his work at the Kearns-St. Ann’s orphanage in South Salt Lake.
The orphanage opened in 1890 with support from the Kearns family, prominent in the mining and banking businesses. Father Timothy lived there and tirelessly cared for the orphans for almost a decade. He also visited prison inmates, tended to patients at a county hospital, and helped establish St. Ann’s as a parish while serving as its first pastor.
In 1919, at age 51, Father Timothy O’Brien contracted pneumonia. A victim of the global influenza pandemic, he died five days later at Holy Cross Hospital. He left his life savings to his parish’s building fund, a small but meaningful endowment from a priest who always thought of others first.
At his funeral, a section of the Cathedral of the Madeleine was reserved for St. Ann’s orphan children who, according to news accounts, “greatly loved” him.
“He lived not for glittering gold,” a friend and fellow Irish priest said in a eulogy, “but for the things that appertain to God.”
Father Timothy was buried at Mount Calvary, where I met him almost a century later.
Father Morgan: Served the Tooele faithful
A few steps from his final resting place, I found the grave of the Rev. Morgan O’Brien, born in Mitchelstown, County Cork, Ireland, in 1894.
Shortly after his priestly ordination, Father Morgan arrived in Utah in September 1920, joined the Knights of Columbus and started work at the Cathedral of the Madeleine, his first ministry assignment in the United States.
In addition to his service as one of many young Salt Lake Valley priests, Father Morgan served some more far-flung members of the Catholic community. He worked in my boyhood hometown of Ogden for a short time before becoming pastor at St. Marguerite Church in Tooele. Bishop Joseph Glass had reassigned the previous Tooele pastor, Father John Simon, to work in Eureka.
Father Morgan’s assignment at St. Marguerite paid dividends for the bishop, the young priest, and the small community of 400 Catholics in the area. Diocesan archives include a century-old letter — dated Nov. 23, 1922 — that Bishop Glass sent Father Morgan expressing “the greatest joy and satisfaction” to the priest for paying off the last of the parish debt.
A 1926 history of the parish describes Father Morgan as a man of “simple faith, humility and piety.” Louis J. Fries notes in his “One Hundred and Fifty Years of Catholicity in Utah” that at a time of “business depression” in Tooele, the young priest “shared the hard lot of his people uncomplainingly” and worked to help them with “enthusiasm and zeal.”
Sadly, what might have been a long and fruitful relationship between the young Irish priest and Utah Catholics was cut short in October 1923, when Father Morgan O’Brien got typhoid fever, a common affliction of the early 20th century. Two weeks later, he died at Holy Cross Hospital. He was 28.
Although their years of service were limited, these two O’Brien priests lived at an interesting time — really the dawn of Utah’s Catholic Church. They witnessed some remarkably important events and rubbed elbows with several legendary figures of Utah Catholic history.
For example, on June 30, 1913, The Salt Lake Tribune reported that Father Timothy O’Brien assisted his fellow Irishman and Utah’s first bishop — Lawrence Scanlan — at a ceremony laying the cornerstone for the “new” Our Lady of Lourdes Church on the corner of 1100 East and 700 South. At the same event, they celebrated Scanlan’s 26th anniversary as bishop.
A few years later, on Sept. 19, 1915, the newspaper reported how former Utah Sen. Thomas Kearns and his wife, Jennie Judge Kearns, traveled from the Kearns mansion on South Temple (which now houses Utah’s governors) to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary at the St. Ann’s orphanage with Father Timothy O’Brien, the orphans, and others.
Contemporaneous news articles said Father Timothy was a close friend of the senator.
On June 26, 1921, The Tribune published a story about a wedding at the Cathedral of the Madeleine performed by Utah’s second bishop, Joseph Glass. Two new young priests assisted him — Father Morgan O’Brien and Father Duane Hunt, who was ordained a year earlier. Raised as a Nebraska Methodist, Hunt went on to serve as Utah’s fifth bishop, from 1937 to 1960.
Although Father Morgan O’Brien’s promising priestly ministry was cut short, his friend Father Hunt performed several important jobs in the diocese: newspaper editor, radio spokesman, cathedral rector, diocese chancellor, and second-in-command as vicar general. He also established a close friendship with leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
And, in July 1947, Hunt brought the Trappist monks to northern Utah. The now-closed Huntsville monastery, of course, is a wee bit of Catholic history that yet another Utah Irish Catholic O’Brien would happily write about some 75 years later.
Editor’s note • Michael Patrick O’Brien is a Catholic writer and attorney living in Salt Lake City. His book “Monastery Mornings: My Unusual Boyhood Among the Saints and Monks,” about growing up with the monks at a former Trappist monastery in Huntsville, was published by Paraclete Press in August 2021. O’Brien often represents The Salt Lake Tribune in legal matters.