Utah’s Days of ’47: It’s a place for Latter-day Saints, of course, but Catholics, too

Did a Jesuit explorer help convert Brigham Young to settling in the Salt Lake Valley?

This Salt Lake Tribune photo shows Catholic Bishop Duane G. Hunt, left, with President George Albert Smith, leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, center, and Mahonri Young, monument sculptor, at the July 1947 dedication of the statute at what is now This Is the Place Heritage Park.

For many years, I thought Catholics had no role in the Days of ‘47, the annual Utah celebration of the Mormon pioneers’ arrival in the Salt Lake Valley.

A couple of historical markers taught me otherwise.

When Brigham Young entered the valley in July 1847, the man known as the “Lion of the Lord” reportedly emerged from his wagon and announced, “This is the right place. Drive on.” As a boy, I attended my hometown Ogden’s annual Pioneer Days Parade marking that arrival. I enjoyed the horses and floats, but, as a Utah Irish-Catholic, I did not feel any connection to the Mormon pioneers.

Perhaps I should have.

A large memorial dedicated in 1947 marks the spot of Young’s historic arrival. Surprisingly, the monument also includes Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, a 19th-century Jesuit missionary and explorer. Why is a Belgian Catholic priest on a monument to the Mormon pioneers?

A different historical marker back in Ogden explains: “Father De Smet became well acquainted with the region of the Great Salt Lake, and gave much valuable information to Brigham Young and the Mormon pioneers while they were at Winter Quarters, Nebraska, in November 1846.” A 1909 Intermountain Catholic newspaper article goes even further, concluding that Young “was probably induced to settle at Salt Lake by the Jesuit’s glowing account of the valley.”

That’s a fairly significant Catholic connection to the Utah holiday. And it is not the only one.

When Utah’s first Catholic bishop, Lawrence Scanlan, died on May 10, 1915, the Intermountain Catholic noted, “His relations with Brigham Young were always cordial and pleasant, and no antagonism between the bishop and any of the successors of Brigham Young has ever arisen.”

This Salt Lake Tribune image from August 1909 shows Catholic Bishop Lawrence Scanlan.

My friend Utah historian Gary Topping, however, has said he “doubts that the two men had much to do with each other.”

Scanlan arrived in Utah in 1873. Young died four years later in 1877. In his 2013 article about relations between Latter-day Saints and Catholics in the early years, Topping explained, “The Mormon prophet was in his declining years, and the young priest had his hands full trying to provide churches and priests and schools for his far-flung flock, scattered from Ogden to Silver Reef [in southern Utah].”

Thus, comity between members of the two faiths probably developed due to circumstances other than a personal friendship between the two church leaders. One factor may have been Scanlan’s consistently tolerant attitude toward the Saints.

Avoiding Catholic-LDS animosity

(Tribune file photo) Brigham Young, second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

In a 1952 Utah Historical Quarterly article, Utah Catholic Father Robert J. Dwyer described Scanlan’s attitude, “Early in his career in the stronghold of Mormonism, the young priest (he had just turned 30) seems to have determined a course of action toward the Latter-day Saints from which he rarely varied in all the subsequent years. He would live among them on terms of cordiality, avoiding intimacy on the one hand, and antagonism on the other. Among his predecessors, Father [Edward] Kelly seems to have shared some of the gentile bitterness toward Brigham Young and his followers, and occasionally, as time went on, Scanlan detected a like tendency on the part of several of his associates in the Utah priesthood. He never encouraged it. He took no part in the anti-Mormon crusade, although there was never any doubt as to his stand on the issue of polygamy.”

Perhaps it is this cordial demeanor that earned Scanlan an invitation to participate in the Days of ‘47 ceremonies dedicating the famous statue of Brigham Young in downtown Salt Lake City. The event occurred in July 1897, on the 50th anniversary of Young’s arrival.

This Salt Lake Tribune photo shows the 1897 dedication of the Brigham Young monument in downtown Salt Lake City and published 50 years later on the centennial of the Latter-day Saint leader's 1847 arrival in the Salt Lake Valley.

An online article about the monument’s history sets the scene: “The statue stood wrapped in an American flag on its new pedestal. Behind the statue, a platform to accommodate the pioneers had been erected 6 feet high and covered with an awning. Sitting in the front of the platform was LDS Church President Wilford Woodruff, who was the oldest living pioneer, his counselors, the Quorum of the Twelve [Apostles], Gov. Heber Wells, Bishop Lawrence Scanlan of the Catholic Church, and Judge John M. Zane. When recent presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan arrived, the crowd stirred with enthusiasm.” Brigham Young’s son — also named Brigham and a Latter-day Saint apostle — was present, too.

I have found no specific reports of what Scanlan said in his benediction, and newspaper accounts simply report the fact that he gave it. According to Dwyer’s article, however, Scanlan “referred with no little feeling to Young’s personal benevolence toward him and his fellow Catholics in the days when the church was struggling to obtain a footing in Utah.”

A time of strained LDS-Catholic ties

This Salt Lake Tribune illustration shows the 1897 dedication of the Brigham Young statue in downtown Salt Lake City.

Fifty years later, during the 1947 centennial celebration of Young’s arrival, another Catholic bishop helped unveil another statue depicting the Lion of the Lord. Bishop Duane G. Hunt, who served as vice chair of the monument commission, joined the dedication of the monument at This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City’s eastern foothills.

All those benevolent feelings crossing denominational lines would be sorely tested during the next year or two when — among other things — Trappist monks from Kentucky, with support from area Catholic leaders, established a new monastery in northern Utah in the backyard of David O. McKay, a Huntsville native who soon would be president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In the process, monastic leaders expressed some negative attitudes about the Latter-day Saints, and McKay told followers he feared that the Catholic Church was out to get them. I tell all about it in my new book-in-progress, tentatively titled “In the Valley of Monks and Saints.” That is, however, a story for another day.

A better sentiment for today comes from former Salt Lake Tribune columnist Tom Wharton, a fellow Catholic. Ten years ago, Wharton wrote, “A state holiday such as July 24th should be spent celebrating all of our many Utah roots, religions and cultures. It should be a day when non-Mormons not only honor the spirit of Brigham Young — who did indeed help the pioneers make the desert blossom like a rose — but [also] our own roles in shaping a state that, despite its quirks, remains a wonderful place to live and raise a family.”

Michael Patrick O’Brien (https://michaelpobrien.com) is a writer and attorney living in Salt Lake City who often represents The Salt Lake Tribune in legal matters. His book “Monastery Mornings: My Unusual Boyhood Among the Saints and Monks,” about growing up with the monks at an old Trappist monastery in Huntsville, was published by Paraclete Press in August 2021.