SALT LAKE CITY — As the eighth Bishop of Salt Lake City, the Most Rev. George H. Niederauer deepened the local Catholic Church’s relationship with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other major religions in Utah; his pastoral skills led to a wonderful spirit in the parishes and an excellent morale among the priests, all of which meant he left “very big shoes to fill because he was just so wonderful in every way – a real man of the Church,” said his successor, the Most Rev. John C. Wester, now Archbishop of Santa Fe.
Archbishop Niederauer’s motto, “to serve and to give,” encapsulated his personality, and “he was a tremendous presence in the Church, but you can’t talk about George Niederauer and not talk about his sense of humor,” Archbishop Wester said. “He was erudite and witty.”
Faith and humor – these two traits are inevitably mentioned when people talk about their memories of Archbishop Niederauer, who served as Bishop of Salt Lake City from 1995 to 2006; he was installed as the eighth Archbishop of San Francisco on Feb. 15, 2006 and retired in 2012. He died May 2, 2017 at Nazareth House in San Rafael, within the Archdiocese of San Francisco, at the age of 80 of interstitial lung disease.
Archbishop Niederauer “was a great churchman, accepting each position he was given with humility and generosity. During the 11 years he was bishop of Salt Lake City, he was known for his kindness, ecumenical spirit and embrace for the least important of the community,” said the Most Rev. Oscar A. Solis, the 10th Bishop of Salt Lake City.
“I loved his humor,” said Holy Cross Sister Genevra Rolf, diocesan episcopal liaison for women Religious in the Diocese of Salt Lake City, who also recalled the archbishop’s hospitality, especially the occasion on which he hosted the sisters at his residence. The sisters cooked the dinner, he had the table set with china and silver, and after dinner they sat around the fire and visited, Sr. Genevra said. “He was just gracious and hospitable, welcoming, easy to be around.”
Archbishop Niederauer was “an accessible and kind man who supported my vocation to the priesthood,” said Father Omar Ontiveros, pastor of Saint Joseph Parish, who was ordained in 2006 by the archbishop. “I thank God for the time he was with us. … Bishop Niederauer was supportive of the Hispanic community as it was growing rapidly in our diocese.”
The archbishop was unflappable in a crisis, said Shirley Mares, who served as his assistant for his tenure in Utah. “Any crisis that happened, he would just handle it. He would say, ‘Uh-oh. We have a car crash. Luckily, no one has died.’ … It was a joy to go to work every day when he was in the office. He would make me laugh.”
Archbishop Niederauer also “knew what to say for every moment,” Mares added, recalling the time when he was giving her spiritual advice and quoted from the movie The Princess Bride, saying one’s response to God should be that of the character Wesley to the princess: “As you wish.”
The archbishop’s ability as a homilist was one reason that Clara Brennan enjoyed the pilgrimage he led to the Holy Land in 2005.
“The thing about the trip was his incredible sermons in the place where we were. He could reveal Jesus so beautifully,” she said. “Without his input on that trip I don’t think I would have come away from it the way I did. He totally, totally had a way with words and bringing you right to Christ on that spot, and I shall not forget it.”
During the 11 years he was in Salt Lake City, the archbishop regularly played bridge with a group that included St. Vincent de Paul parishioner Cam Harmston. She recalls that her pastor called her and told her that the bishop was very upset because he’d been in the diocese for a year and no one had asked him to play bridge. The pastor thought of Harmston because he knew she played the card game, and she agreed to host an afternoon at her home. That was the beginning of regular Monday bridge games with the archbishop.
“The bishop took us to the Alta Club when it was his turn to host,” said Harmston, adding that she kept in touch with the archbishop after he left the diocese, and he was always prompt with writing notes and thank-you cards.
Archbishop Niederauer was a very good bridge player, and often played Archbishop Wester’s family. “One of my mom’s fondest memories is when George and my mom bid and made a small slam, and after they made it, Archbishop Niederauer high-fived my mother,” Archbishop Wester said.
Harmston also has fond memories of the Monday card games. “Everyone was so delighted with him because he always had a little joke or two to tell us, always something very nice. Just a perfect gentleman and just a nice, nice man,” she said. “The minute he walked in my home we were all friends.”
One of the archbishop’s first assignments after being ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1962 and earning a doctoral degree in English literature was at Saint John’s Seminary College in Camarillo, Calif., where he taught English and served as spiritual director. While there, he met Monsignor J. Terrence Fitzgerald, a priest from the Diocese of Salt Lake City who then was working at Mt. Angel Seminary in Oregon and is now vicar general emeritus of the diocese.
“Bishop Niederauer was one of the easiest people to work with that I have ever known,” said Msgr. Fitzgerald, who served as the bishop’s vicar general during his 11 years in Salt Lake City and collaborated with him on many projects, including the building of the Skaggs Catholic Center, the fine arts addition to Saint Joseph Catholic High School, the establishment of the Madeleine Choir School and the transition of three missions into parishes. “He respected the talents and abilities of other people, and was always the first to recognize their contribution. … He was well loved and well respected because he loved others and he respected others.”
That respect extended beyond faith boundaries, said Pastor France Davis of Calvary Baptist Church, who worked with Archbishop Niederauer on various religious and community issues.
“He was very open to sharing with other clergy as well as the people of his own diocese,” Pastor Davis said. “He was willing to put aside whatever differences we might have had in order to work on community issues like housing for the homeless and veterans.”
One instance that particularly struck Pastor Davis was the time in 1998 when Archbishop Niederauer joined a group of other clergy in installing a headstone on the grave of the last African American to be lynched in Utah; that occurred in 1925 in Price, and the man, Robert Marshall, was buried in an unmarked grave.
“We went down and marked the grave, which was not very pleasing for the Price community,” Pastor Davis said, adding that Archbishop Niederauer’s presence helped show “that it was an issue for the whole community, not just for [the Baptist] community, which Robert Marshall was a part of. It showed that he was concerned not just about his community and was willing to risk. It was dangerous, but he was willing to do something no one else was willing to do.”
Another indication of Archbishop Niederauer’s ecumenical collaboration came from the First Presidency of The LDS Church, which offered condolences to his family and community and issued a statement that read in part: “For more than a decade we witnessed and admired his ministry to members of the Salt Lake diocese. We had many opportunities to learn from his remarkable example of charity, authenticity, and humility. We join with scores of others who have been touched by his words and deeds and recognize a legacy of love and compassion for all who came in contact with this noble follower of Jesus Christ.”
Similarly, Gov. Gary R. Herbert, in a statement, said that Bishop Niederauer’s passing “will be felt by many in the state of Utah. As the eighth bishop of the Salt Lake City Diocese, Bishop Niederauer made an indelible mark on our community through his spiritual leadership. His 10 years of service here were marked with great collaboration in the faith community. His loss is felt deeply.”
Archbishop Niederauer is survived by his cousin, Anne Arthofer of Gulfport, Fla.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated on Friday, May 12, at 11 a.m. at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco. Interment will be at Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery, Colma. This liturgy will be livestreamed on the homepage of the Archdiocese of San Francisco website, www.sfarchdiocese.org.
Donations may be made to the Priests Retirement Fund of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, 1 Peter Yorke Way, San Francisco, CA 94109.
A Memorial Mass for Archbishop Niederauer will be celebrated Monday, May 15 at 5:15 p.m. in the Cathedral of the Madeleine, 309 E. South Temple, SLC. Bishop Oscar A. Solis will preside.