Father Robert J. Dwyer: The Only Utah–born Priest to Become an Archbishop

Friday, Jul. 20, 2018
By Gary Topping
Archivist, Diocese of Salt Lake City

Several bishops who were appointed to the Diocese of Salt Lake City have gone on to become archbishops: John J. Mitty and George H. Niederauer in San Francisco (in 1932 and 2006, respectively) and John C. Wester in Santa Fe (in 2015).  However, only one of our native priests has gone on to preside over an archdiocese: Robert Joseph Dwyer, who first became Bishop of Reno, then Archbishop of Portland, Ore.

Dwyer was born in Salt Lake City in 1908, the only child in a solidly middle-class Catholic family, and grew up in a spacious home on Second Avenue. A shy and bookish child with a lifelong dislike of athletics, he worked his way through his father’s extensive library of English literary classics with single-minded intensity. From it, he gained an immense vocabulary (he loved to stump his mother with big words), but also a rather archaic prose style. He had an early fascination with architecture and sculpted intricate church models in clay.

He graduated in absentia from Judge Memorial Catholic High School, for he had run away from home, to his parents’ considerable consternation, to enter the seminary (they later reconciled themselves to his vocation). He was ordained in the Cathedral of the Madeleine in 1932, as Utah’s first native-born priest. Assigned to the cathedral for his first pastorate, he flew into his duties with an energy appalling to those of us with mere human capacities. Among his endeavors, in addition to his responsibilities at the cathedral, were teaching classes at Judge and at St. Mary of the Wasatch College, directing the Newman Club at the University of Utah, and editing the Intermountain Catholic, where he not only contributed two editorials per week but also wrote most of the news stories. Later in the decade, he earned a Ph.D. in history from Catholic University. His dissertation, published as The Gentile Comes to Utah, was an immediate classic in Utah historical writing, and he served as an official of the Utah State Historical Society.

From the days of the Right Rev. Lawrence Scanlan, first Bishop of Salt Lake City, the official policy of the diocese toward the Mormons was one of tolerance and, where possible, cooperation on projects promoting the common good. Dwyer didn’t buy that for a minute. He held Mormonism in contempt, and sometimes let it show in his editorials. Most notoriously, in 1947 he wrote that Mormonism “definitely places itself outside the realm of rational inquiry and rests its case upon a philosophical impossibility.” Not surprisingly, that aroused a howl of protests in the Deseret News, but when even the Catholic-owned Salt Lake Tribune objected, Bishop Duane G. Hunt saw removing Dwyer from the editorship temporarily as the only hope for restoring good relations.

In 1952 Dwyer was named Bishop of Reno, Nev., the only Utah priest to date to have been elevated to the episcopacy. While in Reno, the most important of his activities was that he attended all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council. Although known by then as an arch-conservative culturally and theologically, he voted for every one of the reforms and apparently spent the rest of his life repenting what he had done when he saw what he regarded as the excessive ways in which the reforms were implemented.

In 1967 he was named Archbishop of Portland, Ore., serving there until his retirement in 1974.  It was his Purgatory. Those, of course, were the years of the vast protests against the Vietnam War, and Dwyer had the temerity to defend the war in one of the most liberal cities in the country. Perhaps his lowest moment came on one Good Friday: after he had finished his homily, a group of protesters burst into the cathedral and staged an antiwar skit right in the center aisle of the church.

Dwyer had had heart problems, and stresses of that kind did his health no good. He retired to a sprawling house in Piedmont, Calif., where he spent the last two years of his life with his immense library and art collection, his private chapel, his little lap dog Minette, and his housekeeper Tomi Taniguchi, whom he had known since she was a college student in Salt Lake City and lived with his parents.  

Dwyer died with his boots on. Faithful to the end, he was correcting page proofs of his last publication while he was being driven to the hospital where he died on March 24, 1976.

Gary Topping is the archivist for the Diocese of Salt Lake City.

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