Para leer este artículo en español, haz clic aquí.
This small shrine on Salt Lake City’s east side is built on miracles, and some parishioners are praying for one more.
Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church isn’t exactly in limbo but since it went up for sale last October, along with Judge Memorial Catholic High School and two adjoining properties, the future of the ornate sanctuary — and whether it’ll eventually be demolished — remains unknown for now.
Longtime devotee Kathy Scott welcomed visitors one morning with a promise of peace and refreshing rest within the 110-year-old building, known to generations of worshippers for such quiet respite and the large stained-glass windows splashing color over its blond wood pews and ciphered arches.
Scott is one of many deeply bonded to the church on a corner lot at 670 S. 1100 East who are campaigning to save it, at times putting them at odds with the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.
“This little church is a gem,” Scott said as she recounted stories of its venerable marble altar and depictions on its windows and walls of the life of Jesus and of Catholic saints.
“It’s a treasure that should not be sacrificed,” the retired longtime Catholic educator added, “merely for the money that could be raised from the sale of the property that the church sits on.”
Clara Brennan, 89, lives outside the parish but has traveled regularly across town much of her life for Sunday Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes, where she has attended since the 1940s. Her three daughters all married there, among so many life rituals binding older parishioners such as her to its sacred spaces.
“I would love to see it kept as is,” Brennan said wistfully. And even if the parish is closed, she said, “let’s keep the building intact and use it for educational purposes.”
Why sell Our Lady of Lourdes?
Tucked next to Judge Memorial, Our Lady of Lourdes elementary school and a rectory, the church was put up for sale and possible redevelopment as the diocese explores how much money the 8.29-acre campus around Judge might raise.
The hope, according to senior Catholic leaders, is that sale proceeds and a related fundraising campaign might generate upward of $150 million needed to relocate the two schools into new state-of-the-art buildings on parish property near St. Ann Catholic Church, 2119 S. 400 East in South Salt Lake.
The diocese’s superintendent of schools, Mark Longe, told parishioners last fall on behalf of Bishop Oscar Solis that the aging and cramped buildings at Judge Memorial no longer were adequately serving the needs of its students and that “renovations are cost-prohibitive.”
But Scott and others were “deeply wounded,” as one put it, to learn that Our Lady of Lourdes would be included in the sale offer. Built in 1913, the tawny brick church is in good repair and the parish is financially sound, they said, with a vibrant and diverse community around it.
“I haven’t heard a specific explanation from the diocese regarding the economics of including or excluding Our Lady of Lourdes Church from whatever deal is made,” said parishioner Rob Rice. “The question needs to be asked, ‘What is the economic value in the decision versus the value of the faith community itself?’ And I respect that that’s a really hard decision for the diocese to make.”
Declining church attendance is driving difficult choices
The Judge Memorial site, located in a residential portion of east Central City, is being marketed as an assemblage of properties rather than individual parcels. Although it makes up about 5% of the total acreage, the church’s strategic spot on a corner adds value to the entire site for prospective developers.
Several sources within the church said that after soliciting bids since last fall, the diocese has now extended its sale exploration for another three to six months.
A key hurdle, according to a senior adviser to Bishop Solis, is that the two schools will need to lease their buildings back from a buyer for up to three years after any sale, while new facilities are constructed at St. Ann.
Monsignor J. Terrence Fitzgerald, the diocese’s vicar general emeritus, said the church was included in the sale offer to maximize chances of raising enough cash to make Judge’s relocation a success.
“Our advisers tell us most people want the corner,” he said.
Fitzgerald also confirmed the fate of Our Lady of Lourdes is wrapped up in future consolidation of Catholic parishes across the Salt Lake Valley, in light of shifting church attendance and a priest shortage. The same “inevitable” issues, he said, confront Catholics across the country and, like many churches, congregant numbers at Our Lady of Lourdes have declined steadily over the years.
The diocese is now embarking on a full study of its demographics, he added, in hopes of clarifying how best to reshape how it serves faithful members.
“We have five parishes within a mile and a half in the Salt Lake area, and our Catholic population is growing out south,” Fitzgerald said. “We really need a couple more parishes down there. We really need churches in Riverton and in Herriman. We have some property in those places, but we don’t have any money to build with. As a diocese, we live year to year.”
Solis, according to Fitzgerald, is approaching the matter openly. “There are no secrets,” he said. “And I can tell you that absolutely no decisions have been made as yet.”
Fitzgerald, who is 86, noted that he grew up attending Our Lady of Lourdes, received the Catholic sacraments of First Communion and Confirmation there and offered his first Mass at the church.
“So it isn’t that I don’t care about it,” he said. At the same time, the influential cleric said some Our Lady of Lourdes parishioners are mistakenly equating a church building with Catholic community — “and they’re not the same.”
“People need to be realistic,” the vicar general emeritus said. “It’s not just about the church. It’s about the community, and the community certainly will be saved.
“What will happen to the building? We don’t know.”
Campaign put supporters in awkward spot
Solis met with worried parishioners in December, but Scott said, “We were not sure our concerns were heard.”
Hundreds have since written letters and sent postcards, she said, and a petition drew “a couple thousand signatures.” Yellow yard signs in support of Our Lady of Lourdes now dot the lawns of nearby homes.
The diocese has sought to curtail some of those efforts, ordering information removed from the church’s website, lourdes-slc.org, “because,” Fitzgerald asserted, “it was not accurate.”
Scott said supporters also were asked to take down signs near the church and to not hand out any more postcards or petitions. “Nor can we put anything in our bulletin,” she said, “so it’s a bit frustrating.”
In a January letter, Preservation Utah urged Solis to save the church, saying it “embodies a century of Utah’s Catholic heritage and helps preserve and foster an understanding of that heritage to the broader community today and in the future.”
If it no longer can serve as a house of worship, Kristian Kallaker, the group’s executive director, asked that the church be sold with preservation covenants to “ensure it remains standing well into the future.”
The church is listed as a contributing structure in the surrounding Bennion-Douglas Historic District. That, Scott and Kallaker noted, could afford a future owner tax rebates if Our Lady of Lourdes were kept and converted to other uses.
Scott also evoked the church’s namesake, which stems from the Catholic belief in a series of miraculous apparitions in 1858 by the Virgin Mary at the opening to a rock cave in Lourdes, France.
“We, as faith-filled people, believe our church is open to such miracles,” she said. “And It would be a minor miracle if the diocese comes to the realization — quickly — that this isn’t a good choice in the interest of the parish, the community or the city of Salt Lake.”
Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.