The first Catholic priests to visit Utah came with the 1776 Escalante expedition. Unless others passed through anonymously on their way west, the next did not visit until 1863, when John Baptist Ravardy called on soldiers at Camp Douglas. The first to spend time here was the Rev. Edward Kelly, whose remarkable 1866 mission laid a permanent foundation for Catholic worship and education in Utah.
Kelly was dispatched by Sacramento’s Bishop Eugene O’Connell in May. Tradition reports that he first celebrated Mass at the Mormon Tabernacle late in June, but new research reveals that for five weeks before that date he had been holding services at Independence Hall twice each Sunday, and lecturing there on weekday evenings. Kelly also counseled visitors who called at his Fourth South boarding house.
Kelly left Utah for several weeks that summer to tend to business in Austin, Nevada, where he was building the church of Saint Augustine. He returned to Salt Lake in September, celebrating Mass at Independence Hall on Sunday mornings and at Camp Douglas on Sunday afternoons. He planned for the future of Utah’s Catholics, seeking a suitable piece of land for a church and a school.
He located his site on the northwest corner of First South and Second East, where a Mr. McGrath sold a house and lot for $2,500. (Because the building erected there served the parish of Saint Mary Magdalene, some histories confuse this site with that of the present Cathedral of the Madeleine, which is on South Temple.) Kelly hired workers to enlarge the house for teachers from the Sisters of Charity. He solicited subscriptions from citizens of all faiths: Ben Holladay of the Holladay Express Co. contributed $500, as did Brigham Young; citizens who attended Kelly’s lectures on subjects ranging from revelation to literature paid 50 cents per lecture. By December, Kelly had raised nearly $3,000 in pledges and hard cash.
Kelly was called upon twice in October to minister in uncommon cases. Robert Sutton murdered Frederick White in Tooele County. Kelly visited the condemned man a few days before Sutton’s October 10 execution, to baptize him and help him make a confession of regret. Two weeks later, Kelly preached one of the sermons at the Salt Lake funeral of murder victim John King Robinson, a Protestant.
Kelly’s relations with the Mormon majority were cordial. He called on Brigham Young upon arrival in the spring, and Young tendered the Tabernacle pulpit to the priest both for Catholic services and to speak to Mormon congregations. Later, when a cloud appeared on the title to the land purchased by Kelly, the matter was referred to Young for arbitration; he ruled that the land did indeed belong to the Catholic parish.
One night a note was slipped under Kelly’s door, threatening the priest’s safety and warning that his chapel would be destroyed. As Kelly himself later related to a Nevada newspaper, something about the note suggested that its author was not a Mormon, but someone trying to cause trouble between the priest and his neighbors. Kelly went immediately to Young, who assured the priest of his welcome. To publicly demonstrate the good feeling existing between the two men, Kelly attended Mormon services the following Sunday. Young came down from the stand to greet Kelly, who graciously accepted his invitation to take the Mormon leader’s usual seat on the stand.
Late that year, a Catholic council in Baltimore created the new Utah-Colorado diocese. Kelly returned to Nevada, leaving behind him the well organized roots of today’s Utah Catholic congregations. His reports to his superiors and curious inquirers painted a generally favorable picture of conditions in Utah. Upon hearing of those reports, one Mormon, speaking for us all, wrote that “It is gratifying to know that he has the boldness when distant from us, to speak of us as he found us.”