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End of an era

The day the bells of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church don't chime in a working-class neighborhood near downtown will end an era of Roman Catholic presence in Provo.

The maize-colored mission-style building with the red bar tile roof is up for sale to raise funds to construct a new church in neighboring Orem. The historic church is worn out and too small to handle a burgeoning though extremely small Catholic population in the heart of predominantly Mormon Utah Valley.A bronze statue of St. Francis on the front lawn, which has beckoned those seeking spiritual nourishment, now seems to be pointing them toward a new place.

Longtime parishioners are contemplating the pending move with equal measures of melancholy and eagerness.

"It'll be a sad day and a happy day when it all happens," said Mary Bowers, who has attended St. Francis since relocating to Provo during World War II.

The date of the move or even the groundbreaking for the new church at about 500 N. Main in Orem remains uncertain. Parishioners had hoped to start construction on Oct. 4, the Feast Day of St. Francis. But the Rev. William H. Flegge, the church's pastor, is looking toward next spring.

The church is working to assemble the estimated $4 million it will take to build the modern facility featuring pews to seat 650, a religious education wing and a gymnasium. St. Francis already gave up a piece of its heritage about three years ago with the sale of its former school in east Provo. The $1.4 million made there will be combined with proceeds from the sale of the church and pledges from parishioners.

"We're asking them to make some real sacrifices," said Deacon Kevin Crowell. "I really have faith this parish is going to come through."

The latest effort marks St. Francis' third or fourth attempt to build a new church in the past 10 years. Staying in Provo was the first choice, but the escalating price of land prompted church leaders to opt for a piece of ground the Salt Lake diocese bought in Orem years ago. Plans initially called for parishes in both cities.

Catholic presence in what is now Utah Valley dates back to Fathers Escalante and Dominguez, two Franciscan friars who ventured north from Mexico in 1776. Priests ministered at Camp Floyd, a military encampment west of Utah

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Lake, as early as 1858.

A parish has existed in Provo since 1892 when St. Peter's Catholic Church was organized at the corner of 100 North and 100 East. Because numbers were few, the diocese sent a priest from Salt Lake City to say Mass. Parishioners dwindled after the turn of the century and services faded out.

Catholics bought property at the site of the present church at 172 N. 500 West in the 1920s.

Those early parishioners literally laid the foundation for what is now St. Francis. The building began as a daylight basement church and evolved from a Romanesque look to its mission architecture over the years.

In 1945, it was dedicated and consecrated under the patronage of St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of an order devoted to preaching and caring for the poor and the sick - the same order to which Frs. Escalante and Dominguez belonged. Franciscans ran the parish until two years ago.

In addition to St. Francis, there are three other Catholic churches in Utah Valley: St. Peter's in American Fork, San Andres in Payson and the San Isidro Mission in Elberta, an area hundreds of migrant farm workers call home each summer.

The Rev. Flegge arrived in Provo from St. James in Ogden determined to preserve his new parish.

"We did want to save it because it's dear to the hearts of many people, but that's just not going to be possible," he said while recuperating from hip replacement surgery at his home adjacent the church.

St. Francis spent thousands of dollars to find out it would cost millions to remodel and upgrade the antiquated building. The 300-seat worship area is too small for the growing congregation. The tiny parking lot can't accommodate churchgoers, nearly all of whom drive across town or from Orem and outlying cities to attend Mass. Few parishioners live within walking distance.

Saturdays and Sundays are busy at St. Francis. The Rev. Flegge oversees four weekend Masses in English, while the Rev. Javier G. Virgen, the parish's parochial vicar, conducts three in Spanish.

Christmas Mass is so popular that tickets are required to attend. Parishioners come from all walks of life from college professors to migrant workers.

In many ways, St. Francis is two separate parishes - one Anglo, one Hispanic. Cultural and language differences make integrating the two groups difficult. The parish council consists of both as do the administrative staff, committees and ministries. Activities such as the annual parish picnic later this month help build unity.

"We are trying very hard to break down the some of the cultural barriers," said Joseph Morrow, who heads St. Francis' Life Teen ministry, a faith-building program for young people.

Cultural hurdles aren't the only obstacles Catholics, regardless of nationality, struggle to overcome in Utah Valley where more than 90 percent of the population belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Catholics make up about 2 percent.

"It's a challenge," said Julie Boerio-Goates, a chemistry professor at, of all places, LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University.

People generally assume everyone is LDS, she said. "One of the first questions you get when you meet someone new is `What ward are you in?' "

Stories about parents telling their children not to play with Catholic youngsters are true, said Boerio-Goates, the mother of two. Catholic teenagers can have a difficult time finding dates because the social pool is shallow.

Boerio-Goates said one boy told her only bad people drink coffee. She said she asked him if he eats hot dogs on Friday. When he answered in the affirmative, she said she tried to explain that different beliefs don't make people bad.

"Whether people agree or not, they ought to respect our belief system," Crowell said. "It's worked for 2,000 years so there might be something to it."

The Rev. Flegge describes the atmosphere in Utah County as tolerable. "The basic thing for us is to have a positive attitude, and I hope people find that in us. I think they have."

"All my Mormon friends have tried to convert me," said Bowers, 71, who worked as Cub Scout den mother while her two boys were growing up. Scout troops and dens are largely affiliated with LDS Church wards in Utah. "I think they've given up now."

Because Catholics are such a minority, they tend to gravitate toward members of other faiths as well as cling to their own church. "It's sustained me through a lot of crises in life," Bowers said.

People who care about their faith become much stronger and more active in it, the Rev. Flegge said. They build their lives around it.

And for more than a half century, they've identified themselves with the old church on 500 West, a place they've come to cherish. Parishioners hope that its new owner keeps it intact for some community use rather than raze it for apartments. A mission-style motif and bell tower will be incorporated into the new building as a tie to the past.

"The building has a lot of sentimental value for me," said Boerio-Goates, who has attended the parish during her 16 years in Utah. "This is a representation of who I am."

Orem resident Tina Martinez, 72, has attended mass at St. Francis each Sunday for 53 years. Six of her seven children were baptized there.

"The most sacred things in people's lives happen here. They get married here. They are buried here. The find meaning and hope in their lives from what they learn. People have their children baptized here. Really, all the important things in life happen around church, so they have many memories," the Rev. Flegge said.

Although parishioners are emotionally attached to the church, the Rev. Flegge said they recognize there are no alternatives to moving.

"The spirit has led us to the Orem property," Boerio-Goates said. "There must be reasons for it so we're working with it."

Morrow, the youth minister, said the Life Teen program is looking forward to the move. There will be more space, a gym and better sound system for the upbeat Mass, complete with electric guitars and drums for teenagers each Sunday evening.

Makeshift arrangements in the old church have kept people away, Bowers said. Modern facilities could attract parishioners and spawn a new beginning.

"I think it will be a rejuvenation of the Catholic Church in Utah County," she said.

Like one parishioner told Crowell: "You go to church where it is."