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The other Pioneers

Many religions got early starts in Utah

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Utah's annual Days of '47 celebration honoring the Mormon pioneers who settled the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 makes it pretty obvious that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the first church to establish a permanent presence in the state.

Less obvious is which church was the second to formally organize a congregation in Utah.

Because Catholics are numbered as the state's second largest religious population, many think that honor goes to the Roman Catholic Church. After all, its magnificent Cathedral of the Madeleine has become an icon in Salt Lake City.

Closer examination shows, however, that the First Congregational Church was the first to hold regular non-LDS church services and to establish a building in Utah.

"People new to our church are always somewhat surprised to learn we were second," the Rev. Art Ritter of the First Congregational Church of Salt Lake City said. "But we have some pride in this accomplishment."

Norman McLeod, who founded the First Congregational Church, came to Utah from Denver by overland stage and preached the first sermon on Jan. 16, 1865, in the rented quarters of the Young Men's Literary Association on the second floor of Daft's store on Main Street.

Within a month, the church had established a Sunday School and had a regular attendance of more than 100 worshipers. By year's end, the church had purchased property on the south side of 300 West near Main Street, where it constructed Independence Hall. Seating was for 200 for the $5,000 church building.

Being the only non-LDS church in the valley made First Congregational a focal point for members of other faiths, who willingly lent support. Research by Mary Dawn Coleman of the First Congregational Church shows that prominent area Catholics and Jews were early trustees for the building project.

"They all met together," Ritter said of the various faiths.

Louise York, another Congregationalist, moved to Utah from New England 27 years ago. She too found it intriguing her church was the second to establish here. She's also fascinated by the high interest religion in general has among most Utahns.

Today, the Congregational Church has 300 members, a stable group, though it hasn't grown much over the years. First Congregational is the denomination's lone presence in Utah.

The Rev. Ritter said the Congregational Church is very lean when it comes to written creeds. He said while members believe in Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, the church emphasizes individual faith rather than corporate faith.

"We all have our paths," the Rev. Ritter said. "We covenant together to support each other. We are tolerant of each others' beliefs."

The church, which has been located at 2150 Foothill since 1965, still has the original pulpit from the Independence Hall.

Few non-LDS people resided in Utah during its early years. While a number of Catholic priests administered at times to soldiers stationed at both Camp Floyd and Camp Douglas as early as 1859 and 1864, respectively, they did not establish a permanent local congregation.

The first Catholic property in Utah was purchased in 1866 and the first church, St. Mary Magdalen, opened on Nov. 26, 1871. Holy Cross Hospital opened in 1875, and the Cathedral of the Madeleine was finished in 1909.

During the transcontinental railroad construction years, 1869-1870, the city of Corinne in Box Elder County became home to many non-LDS churches. The Episcopal Church had its start there in Utah. The denomination erected St. Mark's Cathedral — another downtown Salt Lake landmark, at 231 E. 100 South in 1870-71.

Presbyterians and Baptists were also active in Corinne. Presbyterians came to Salt Lake City in 1871, and the First Presbyterian Church building on the corner of South Temple and "C" Street opened in 1906.

The first Jewish services were held in Salt Lake City in the mid-1860s, with about 50 members. The first synagogue was built in 1883. Lutherans became established in Salt Lake City in 1882 and in Ogden in 1888.

The Greek Orthodox Church established its first Salt Lake congregation in 1905 and used a bank as a building for its meetings while it constructed its first building. The current Holy Trinity Cathedral opened in 1925.

Many churches also established schools as they sought to increase their presence in the valley.

It is estimated that there were 1,000 non-LDS church members in Utah during 1870. By 1971, that had grown to 100,000. Today, estimates say there are more than 600,000 non-LDS church members among Utah's 2.2 million residents.

There are at least 85 different faiths currently represented in the Salt Lake metropolitan area.

E-mail: lynn@desnews.com