Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day, perhaps the greatest Catholic women of the 20th century, came to Utah some 50 years ago. Both went to the same place: the old Trappist monastery in the Ogden Valley.
Mother Teresa visited Holy Trinity Abbey in Huntsville in October 1972. I was there at the same time. I was only 11 years old, but my family and the monks were friends. The Trappists tipped us off about the historic moment.
We all know Mother Teresa’s name now. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 and got a state funeral to rival her friend Princess Diana when they both died in 1997. Pope Francis canonized Mother Teresa a saint in 2016, but she was not nearly as well-known back in 1972.
When she got off the plane at the Salt Lake City airport, a large crowd was there. The throng, however, hoped to see the singing Osmonds who had arrived home at the same time. No one noticed the small Albanian nun who cared for the sick and dying on the streets of what was then called Calcutta, India’s largest city.
As explained in “Monastery Mornings,” my 2021 book about my unusual boyhood growing up at the Utah abbey, we attended morning Mass with Mother Teresa and the monks. We sat in the upstairs church balcony, just behind her.
She arrived wearing a black sweater, her trademark simple white sari robe with the blue trim, and sandals with socks. As I watched her from behind during the first part of Mass, I noticed how tiny she was. At my young age, I was already taller than her.
Her face was worn and wrinkled, her nose was bulbous, and you could not see any of her hair. Still, even I could detect that she radiated with an intense inner beauty.
While in Huntsville, Mother Teresa visited with her Utah Trappist friend Brother Nicholas Prinster, who had worked with her in Calcutta. She stayed at the monastery’s family guesthouse for a few days and also met with some of her volunteers.
Mother Teresa’s message
While in Utah, Mother Teresa told the monks and her co-workers that the work of caring for the poor must be centered in Jesus. Ever practical, she said people should look first to help the poor in their own neighborhoods before seeking to help the poor in far-flung places.
She also reminded them that what she called “the work” can and should begin in a small way, by doing even just “one thing” that may lead to more meaningful things. She told volunteers to always thank those who help them and explained that every person of any means — rich or poor — can share in the work.
Finally, she emphasized that although she and others chose to be poor in order to understand them, the work must be done with joy and a smile notwithstanding the poverty. (Read more of what Mother Teresa said in Utah 50 years ago at “Mother Teresa in Utah — in her own words (part 1)” and “Mother Teresa in Utah — in her own words (part 2.”)
Two years before Mother Teresa’s visit, Dorothy Day came to Utah. Unfortunately, I did not get to meet her, but I have heard a lot about the visit.
Day, a mother, wife, journalist and the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, was an activist for the poor. Like Mother Teresa, her reputation grew during the years that followed her Utah visit.
My alma mater, the University of Notre Dame, awarded her its prestigious Laetare Medal. The inscription commended her for “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” The Catholic Church has designated her a “servant of God,” just a few steps away from sainthood.
Pope Francis, in his 2015 speech to the U.S. Congress, said Day “shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people.” The pope explained that Day’s “social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith and the example of the saints.”
Day’s visit to the Mormon Tabernacle
Day described her 1970 Utah visit in The Catholic Worker, the newspaper she edited. Day came here to attend the funeral of her friend Ammon Hennacy at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Salt Lake City.
Like Mother Theresa, she arrived in a cloak of relative anonymity. Hennacy died unexpectedly, in the middle of another protest, so Day scrambled to catch what she called the “milk plane,” so named because it made so many stops along the way.
Day had sent Hennacy to Utah in 1961 to start and operate a homeless shelter. Hennacy — a pacifist and devoted advocate for the poor — often was arrested for civil disobedience. Afterward he once quipped, “I wasn’t disturbing the peace. I was disturbing the war.”
Day’s news column about her 1970 Utah trip mentioned that she also “had time to visit the famous Mormon Tabernacle and not only hear the choir on Sunday but also attend one of the symphony concerts.” Later she went to the Ogden Valley abbey where, by one account, all the monks fell in love with her.
Day prayed in the Quonset hut church, heard the monks chant, spoke with some of the Trappists, browsed through the monastery bookstore, and blushed when she saw that the monks stocked her 1952 autobiographical book, “The Long Loneliness.” She told them to put it away in the backroom.
I also heard that the woman who gave up all claim to worldly goods asked the monks for bus fare to get her back to Salt Lake City. The Trappists gladly obliged.
In 1978, New York Catholic writer and activist Eileen Egan visited the Huntsville monastery, too. Egan was friends with both Day and Mother Teresa. After the visit, Egan sent some famous Utah Trappist wheat bread and honey to Day.
Day thought enough of the gift to mention it in the September 1978 edition of her newspaper: “Eileen Egan sent out homemade bread and creamed honey from Holy Trinity Abbey, Huntsville, Utah…. The monks sent promises of prayers. Since our beginnings in the Thirties, Trappists have been close to us, and we depend on their prayers.”
In June 1979, about a year before Day died, she met with Mother Teresa at Maryhouse, the Catholic Worker facility where Day lived in New York. Photographer Bill Barrett (who died in February 2022) captured a lovely image of the two women holding hands while they spoke together.
The photo is poignant not only for the great work both women did but also because at times they wrote about often feeling intensely lonely in the process. In her autobiography, Day explained, “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”
For a few brief moments, Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa found that much-needed community with each other.
And remarkably, a half-century ago, just like many of the rest of us, they also found that love and community visiting three dozen Trappist monks at the old Huntsville monastery in the Catholic backwoods of northern Utah.
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.