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Bishop Carolyn Tanner Irish, first woman to lead a major denomination in Utah, dies at 81

The Right Rev. Carolyn Tanner Irish.
The Right Rev. Carolyn Tanner Irish announces that the Rev. Canon Scott Hayashi has accepted the bishop position, completing the Episcopal Diocese of Utah’s election process for its 11th bishop in 143 years at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Salt Lake City on Saturday, May 22, 2010. Bishop Tanner Irish died Tuesday at age 81.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The Right Rev. Carolyn Tanner Irish, the 10th bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah, died Tuesday at the age of 81.

The Right Rev. Scott Hayashi, who replaced Bishop Tanner Irish in 2010, said in a statement that she passed surrounded by family in her Salt Lake City home.

Bishop Tanner Irish paved the way as the first female bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah and the first woman to lead a major denomination in the Beehive State. She was also the first individual female recipient of the Giant in Our City Award from the Salt Lake Chamber. She was involved in philanthropy and Utah politics, championing environmental protection and immigration reform, among other causes.

The daughter of prominent businessman Obert C. Tanner, she was raised as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. Her family’s deep connection to the church dates back to its earliest days.

She endured loss from an early age, as three of her five siblings died of unrelated causes before they reached adulthood. Later in life, she went through a divorce and alcoholism. Her struggles led her to a long journey to find faith that led her to the Episcopal Church. In 1979, she enrolled in seminary as a single mother with four children under 10.

“She was a person of great resilience,” Bishop Hayashi said. “And for her to be as unfailingly generous as she was after all she had gone through — it speaks volumes.”

In 1996, she was elected bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah, the third female diocesan bishop ever elected in the United States and the fourth in the world. Before the election, she received notes and calls from Latter-day Saint women asking what they could do help her get elected, explained Bishop Hayashi.

“They were so excited to see a Utah woman being considered for this office,” he said. “She reached across religious lines just with her election, and that's not even the tip of the iceberg.”

After almost four decades living away from her childhood home, she returned to Salt Lake City to lead over 6,000 people comprising 22 parishes across Utah and northern Arizona. She was a pioneer for women in the Episcopal Church, nominating Katharine Jefferts Schori for election as bishop, and Schori went on to become the presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church of the United States.

And in finding her faith and her place in the world, she also found a happy life after all her struggles.

“I love my life,” Bishop Tanner Irish told the Deseret News in an interview in 2004. “I have four great children. I have a wonderful husband. And I love my work.”

Her legacy was one of generosity, said Bishop Hayashi.

“When she gave, which she did often, there was no sense that she wanted anything in return. It was freely given throughout the entire state of Utah, to all religious faiths and traditions. That is a testament and a sign of her generous, giving heart and soul,” he said.

The Episcopal Diocese of Utah has not yet released the details concerning her funeral.