Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Father Edward Kelly: Irish Priest in Brigham’s Zion

Father Edward Kelly: Irish Priest in Brigham’s Zion

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 17, 2008

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.”



  1. Ardis this is great. There has been so much misinformation about the relationship between the Catholics and the Mormons in early Utah, it is nice to have it well researched. I am not sure if the guides at the Beehive House still tell the story that Catholic nuns came to Brigham Young’s house to teach his children or that Brigham Young gave the land on South Temple to the Catholics to build their cathedral. (Completely the wrong time period.) The truth is much more interesting. Of course you know I am going to ask for footnotes about the note under the door.

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — June 17, 2008 @ 8:32 am

  2. What a nice story. It’s interesting what happens when mutual respect and cordiality are present.

    Comment by Ray — June 17, 2008 @ 8:59 am

  3. Glad you both enjoy this. I like the spirit of cooperation, as far as it can go — both Father Kelly and Pres. Young had their limits with how far either would endorse the other’ beliefs or goals, but neither one would willingly be played by some malicious troublemaker.

    Jeff, the source for the note under the door is my buddy TBHStenhouse, in his newspaper Semi-Weekly Telegraph of 14 March 1867, reporting an interview with Kelly himself. He writes: “Father Kelly procured the deeds to a very fine piece of property, city lot, for a moderate price, on which to construct a Church and School. He had been regularly holding divine service and preaching for several months, when one morning he discovered a note, slipped under his door. It was written badly, misspelt and unpunctuated.” So there! /g/

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 17, 2008 @ 9:24 am

  4. Thanks for another great post!

    Comment by Edje — June 17, 2008 @ 9:39 am

  5. Brigham Young was a friend to the Jewish community as well. Louis B. Zucker gave an address entitled A Jew In Zion (published in Sunstone, October 1981) and says the following:

    The Church has done the Jews deeds of kindness: in the early days, the gift of the Jews’ original cemetery, incorporated now in the larger B’nai Israel cemetery, and the loan of Church buildings in Temple Square for High
    Holyday worship before there was a synagogue– Brigham Young, the benefactor in both ways;

    Comment by Mark IV — June 17, 2008 @ 1:42 pm

  6. Nice little vignette; thanks, Ardis. I finally got around to reading the BYU Studies article by Walker. Excellent!

    Comment by BHodges — June 17, 2008 @ 3:25 pm

  7. That was nice. Interesting that Brigham Young donated $500.00.

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — June 17, 2008 @ 8:43 pm

  8. Thanks, Edje and BHodges and Stephen M — do you know how reassuring it is to know that someone is reading these posts, even with a simple acknowledgement like yours? I really appreciate it.

    Mark IV, I’ve got some letters between Brigham Young and various Jewish individuals or the Hebrew Benevolent Society arranging for the use of church buildings for Jewish observances. That would make a great post — thanks for the idea, as well as this Jewish/BY parallel to the Catholic/BY story.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 17, 2008 @ 9:23 pm

  9. I’m sure you know that many people read these posts and say nothing. Mostly because (in my case)being new to Mormon history, I feel unequal to the task of adding anything.

    What I can’t figure out is where you find the time to research and post daily. :)

    Comment by BruceC — June 18, 2008 @ 8:45 am

  10. BruceC — I don’t have a real life, that’s how! Really, I do research for a living — I read old newspapers and diaries and letters and minute books all day long, and come across the ideas for posts in the regular course of business. Some of the posts are recycled from earlier writings; and for the rest I take an afternoon every now and then and write up half a dozen posts to hold in reserve for days that are too busy to write.

    Thanks for commenting, even to say you read from time to time. I want Keepapitchinin to be a friendly place where nobody has to compete to say the most brilliant thing, and a place where people who do want to draw connections to their own reading can feel free to offer them.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 18, 2008 @ 10:01 am

  11. My knowledge of Catholics in 19th century Utah comes from two sources.

    First, the Great Brain books by John D Fitzgerald, and in particular, The Great Brain at the Academy. It’s one of the best books in the series and narrates his brother Tom D Fitzgerald’s chaotic education at the Catholic boy’s school in Salt Lake City.

    The other source is non-fiction: Ralph Richard’s fascinating book Of Medicine, Hospitals, and Doctors. It has a couple of chapters on Holy Cross hospital. Bishop Lawrence Scanlan is one of the major figures in this information.

    And that’s it! So thanks for this little article on Father Kelly. I’ll tuck that away in my mind.

    Comment by Researcher — June 18, 2008 @ 10:24 am

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