ST. GEORGE — When Silver Reef was bustling with miners 140 year ago in the area then known as the Utah Territory, the first Catholic Mass was held at the St. George Tabernacle. It was an act of interfaith friendship between Catholics and Latter-day Saints that was revisited Thursday night as the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City spoke from the pulpit of the tabernacle.
“I am here tonight on the gracious invitation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to express my gratitude on behalf of the Catholic church in Utah for giving us the voluminous space and opportunity to celebrate the first holy Mass here,” Bishop Oscar Solis said.
Solis was appointed by Pope Francis on Jan. 7, 2017, and oversees the Catholic church in Utah. He is also the first Filipino-American to be consecrated a bishop, and he recently celebrated 40 years in the Catholic priesthood, according to the Intermountain Catholic newspaper.
Solis addressed a diverse crowd of LDS and Catholic church members, as well as the Hispanic community and other faith leaders and civic officials who filled the tabernacle’s main floor.
On the stand surrounding him were fellow clergy from the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, as well as representatives of the LDS church, including Elder Steven E. Snow and Craig C. Christensen, both General Authority Seventies of the LDS church. Members of the St. George Interfaith Council were also present.
More than just observing the 140th anniversary of Utah’s first Catholic Mass, the event at the St. George Tabernacle was also a celebration of the collaboration, friendship and unity that can be achieved by interfaith activity.
“Any interfaith gathering is a blessing from God,” Solis said.
While expressing gratitude for the relationship between the Catholic and LDS churches, particularly in relation to the LDS church’s support toward humanitarian aid, Solis pointed back to what started it all: the first Mass in Utah and Catholic bishop Lawrence Scanlan.
Bishop Scanlan and the first Catholic Mass in Utah
Snow, who is also the LDS church’s chief historian, related the story of Scanlan prior to delivering the keynote address at the interfaith event. While it was a story known to many longtime St. George locals, it is not so well known by others, Snow said.
“The more I learn about Bishop Scanlan, the more he becomes a hero of mine,” he said.
Scanlan was an Irish Catholic bishop who came to shepherd the Catholic flock dispersed throughout Utah, Snow said. From his home in Salt Lake City, Scanlan would ride a horse across the territory to meet with the groups of Catholics wherever they may be – even it meant riding hundreds of miles to do so.
One such group was composed of miners located in Silver Reef, a mining boom town that sprang up just north of Leeds during the 1870s.
While in Silver Reef, Scanlan met and befriended an LDS surveyor named John Menzies Macfarlane. MacFarlane also happened to be a choir director for an LDS church congregation in the St. George area, Snow said, and is perhaps best known by modern-day LDS church members as the author of the Christmas hymn “Far Far Away on Judea’s Plains.”
When Macfarlane learned that a Catholic church being built in Silver Reef wouldn’t be finished in time for a scheduled Mass, an idea came to mind: Why not allow it to be held in the St. George Tabernacle that had been completed the year before?
Scanlan went along with the idea, and the request was taken to Erastus Snow, a member of the LDS church’s Twelve Apostles who oversaw church activity in the area at the time.
Erastus, who is an ancestor of of Snow, approved the request.
“I’m proud of him for that,” Snow said.
Macfarlane taught his choir the Catholic hymns in preparation for the Mass, which was attended by Catholics and Latter-day Saints alike. When Scanlan spoke during Mass, he noted their differing approach to faith yet added it shouldn’t be a reason for disrespect and division.
“I think you’re wrong, and you think I’m wrong,” Scanlan is recorded as saying, “but this should not prevent us from treating other with due consideration and respect.”
Snow said he believed Scanlan’s counsel 140 years ago “is every bit as effective in today’s world.”
Returning the favor
Fast-forward 136 years and an ocean away in Italy, where a man named Alfredo Filippella meets a pair of LDS missionaries and becomes curious about their church. In an effort to learn more, he found a book about the church and read Scanlan’s story. Being Catholic himself, Filippella felt compelled to return the favor after reading about the Mass held at the St. George Tabernacle.
Filippella decided to express his thanks for what the Latter-days Saints had done for his Catholic brothers and sisters so long ago by volunteering to play the piano for an LDS congregation that he knew had no pianist.
Filippella, who also played the organ for Catholic services, arranged to play for the LDS congregation in the morning and his own church in the afternoon.
Filippella’s generosity reached LDS church leaders in Italy, who related the story to Snow.
This act has since led to LDS choirs participating in Christmas and Easter Masses, along with other examples of interfaith fellowship.
“I love how acts of kindness can come back even after 140 years and make a difference in the lives of people of faith,” Snow said.
Together in commonality instead of separated by difference
Solis told the group gathered Thursday that he believes there is more good that people of different faiths have in common than differences that separate them.
In the 140 years since the first Mass in Utah, the relationship between the Catholic and LDS church has blossomed, he said, once more mentioning the support the LDS church provides to Catholic Community Services of Utah, a local branch of the Catholic Relief Services.
“That is a strong witness of our collaboration of serving humanity and serving man,” Solis told news media following the interfaith event. “It is a very strong witness to the world that when we pull ourselves together, what a difference that it makes in creating a better world for everyone.”
While speaking to the crowd, Solis also reiterated Scanlan’s sentiments, saying God created humans with a need to seek relationships and that harmony and peace can develop as mutual respect and understanding takes hold and common goals are pursued. This can lead to betterment and well-being of society, even by small means, he said, adding that interfaith relationships are examples of that.
“Any small service rendered to one another is good the eyes of God,” he said. “Through our interfaith partnerships, the impossible becomes possible.”
Solis said that people should look at differing faiths as sources of wisdom and knowledge.
“Let us continue to pray together that God will enhance our friendly dialogue and commitment to friendship and cooperation,” Solis said. “May we all be one family, one community, and brothers and sisters to everyone.”
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