From 1940 to 1977, Father John A. Labranche was one of the most beloved and effective priests in the Diocese of Salt Lake City, most notably during his terms as pastor of Holy Rosary Parish in Bingham, Notre Dame de Lourdes Parish in Price, and St. Joseph Parish in Ogden. His extensive correspondence that has been preserved in the Diocesan Archives reveals a man with a spontaneous sense of self-deprecating humor and a profound dedication to his ministry.
Thus it was that the Most Rev. Duane G. Hunt, fifth Bishop of Salt Lake City, who had ordained Fr. Labranche, found himself in a tough spot when he was compelled to deny such a devoted priest a leave of absence from the Bingham parish.
Deacon John Keyser recently found the following letter from Bishop Hunt in the Labranche papers. It is undated, but probably is from the early 1950s. It overflows with such kindness and regret, and also with an eloquence that reminds us that the bishop had been a professor of rhetoric at the University of Utah before his ordination to the priesthood.
“Dear Fr. Labranche
“Your letter was received in New York the other day. Come to see me next week, any day after I have returned.
“Suppose that you were the Bishop of Salt Lake City, entrusted with the sacred and very serious duty of seeing that parishes were adequately staffed. Suppose that the pastor of Bingham asked for a leave of absence. Suppose that this pastor was doing splendid work, had built up the parish to a new, all-time high level. Suppose that he gave great consolation to you as Bishop, by his devotion to duty & his efficiency. Suppose that at the moment there was no one to put in his place. Suppose that you were short of priests. Suppose that you needed two more priests at once, one as assistant at St. Ambrose and one as second assistant in Our Lady of Lourdes. Suppose that you expected to lose two priests within a year: [two priests named].
“Suppose that you had written to every Bishop in Ireland, trying to borrow a priest. Suppose that you had made a special trip to Montreal for the same purpose. Suppose that you had no success in either place.
“Under those circumstances what would you say in reply to the pastor of Bingham?
“Sincerely in Christ
“D G Hunt”
I draw two lessons from this remarkable letter, besides the conspicuous lesson in eloquence. In the first place, I learn the lesson Bishop Hunt wanted to impress upon Fr. Labranche: some appreciation for the pressures under which a bishop of a perennially understaffed diocese has to operate. Beyond that, though, I appreciate the extent to which Bishop Hunt was willing to go to provide the same quality of pastoral care to his priests that he expected them to give to their parishioners.
Fr. Labranche’s reaction to the letter is undocumented. I can imagine, though, that he returned to his pastoral duties with a renewed assurance that his bishop’s heart was in the right place even when he had to say no.
Gary Topping is the archivist for the Diocese of Salt Lake City.