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A birthday for Salt Lake City's magnificent cathedral

SALT LAKE CITY — This past Wednesday, on Aug. 15, a religious edifice in downtown Salt Lake City revered for its architectural magnificence, spiritual significance and magnetism for the faithful had another birthday.

Nope, not that edifice.

The other one.

The Cathedral of the Madeleine — the Catholic Church's Romanesque masterpiece that stands sentinel on South Temple a mere four blocks east of the Salt Lake Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — turned 109.

It's incalculable to know just how many Masses have been celebrated, how many confessions have been heard, how many parishioners and visitors have passed through the "bishop's church" since it was dedicated Aug. 15, 1909, following nine years of construction. (The Salt Lake Temple, which took 40 years to build, had been dedicated just 16 years earlier.)

The magnificent Cathedral of the Madeleine as seen from South Temple in Salt Lake City.

Lee Benson, Deseret News

The magnificent Cathedral of the Madeleine as seen from South Temple in Salt Lake City.

There was no official birthday party this year for the cathedral, according to archivist Gary Topping of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, for a couple of reasons. One, Aug. 15 is also a Holy Day of Obligation, when Catholics celebrate the solemnity of the assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven. Two, they typically don't hold a party for the building anyway.

"Unless it was the centennial or something like that, we wouldn't plan anything," Topping says.

But every year that passes stands as a tribute to the vision of the early Catholics who came to Utah and instead of considering themselves an endangered species stepped up to be counted.

There were only 800 Catholics in all of Utah — then the Territory of Deseret — when an Irish priest named Lawrence Scanlan arrived in 1873. It was Scanlan who organized and grew the Catholic mission until it became a diocese comprising all of Utah and he was named its first bishop in 1891. First thing he did was buy the building lot on 331 E. South Temple and start raising money for a cathedral. (Every diocese gets one cathedral, aka the bishop's house.)

By 1900 he had enough funds to get started. Nine years and $344,000 later ($9 million in 2018 dollars), what was initially christened as Saint Mary Magdalene's Cathedral was completed and dedicated.

"He was able to build the cathedral when there were few Catholics in Utah," says Topping, marveling. "To put together that kind of financing was some feat."

It helped, Topping notes, that silver strikes in Park City and Alta brought non-Mormons to Utah who happened to be Catholic and happened to get really wealthy really fast. Men like Thomas Kearns and John Judge contributed heavily to the cathedral cause.

This display in the inner sanctum of the Cathedral of the Madeleine houses a relic of Saint Mary Magdalene.

Lee Benson

This display in the inner sanctum of the Cathedral of the Madeleine houses a relic of Saint Mary Magdalene.

"But it wasn't just rich miners," Topping adds. "Scanlan was good at tapping the little guys, too. On payday at the mines he'd be there reminding the miners they owed something to the church."

The name was changed to Cathedral of the Madeleine by Bishop Joseph S. Glass when he came to Utah after the death of Bishop Scanlan in 1915. Glass preferred the French spelling of Magdalene.

Topping, who has a doctorate in history from the University of Utah, has a theory on why the cathedral is named after Mary Magdalene, the woman who was with Jesus at his crucifixion and at the empty tomb.

It goes back to 1866 when Father Edward Kelly established the first Catholic meeting house in Salt Lake City on the eastern end of Social Hall Avenue and chose to call it the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene.

"The feast day of Saint Mary Magdalene is July 22," Topping explains, a date just two days ahead of the traditional Pioneer Day celebrations that commemorate the arrival of Mormon pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley on July 24.

Coincidence? Topping thinks probably not.

The interior of the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City is Gothic. The exterior Romanesque.

Lee Benson, Deseret News

The interior of the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City is Gothic. The exterior Romanesque.

"I think Father Kelly wanted the Catholics to have something to celebrate, too," says Topping. "Of all the hundreds of thousands of saints to choose from, why Mary Magdalene? I think that might be why."

To bolster his speculation, Topping notes that Salt Lake is the only cathedral in the United States dedicated to Mary Magdalene — and one of only two in the world (the other is in France.)

Soon after the cathedral's dedication, the diocese was able to secure from the Vatican a relic of Mary Magdalene — a class A relic, according to Topping, meaning it's a body part of some sort.

Every year on July 22, the relic is brought out as the centerpiece of the annual Feast Day celebration enjoyed by Utah Catholics.

The rest of the year, the relic of Saint Mary Magdalene is open to view in a display case in the inner sanctum on the north side of the cathedral behind the altar. Right below the relic, incidentally, rests the tomb of Bishop Scanlan, who was buried in the cathedral in 1915.

A fitting tribute to the man who got it all started.