ST. GEORGE — The 150-year-old St. George Tabernacle on May 2 was filled with men and women in their Sunday best, not for a worship service but rather to commemorate a historic event: On May 25, 1879, Father Lawrence Scanlan, then a missionary priest and later the first Bishop of Salt Lake, celebrated a High Mass in The Church of Latter-day Saints meetinghouse (see 1879 Mass in St. George Tabernacle an example of interfaith cooperation).
Among those at the Historic Interfaith Tribute were the Most Rev. Oscar A. Solis, 10th Bishop of Salt Lake City; Elder Craig C. Christensen, General Authority Seventy, President of Utah Areas; Elder Steven E. Snow, General Authority Seventy, Church Historian; Msgr. Terence M. Moore, a retired priest of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City and representatives of various faith organizations in the area. Also present were descendants of John MacFarlane, who invited Fr. Scanlan to celebrate the Mass in the tabernacle and who directed the St. George Tabernacle Choir, which provided the music ministry for the Mass.
At the tribute, an interfaith choir under the direction of John Ribera sang Mozart’s “Ave Vernum” and Beethoven’s “Hallelujah.”
Bishop Solis was the keynote speaker for the event. In his closing remarks, Elder Craig C. Christensen said that the pulpit at which the bishop stood for his presentation had been used by every president of the LDS church since Brigham Young, including President Russell M. Nelson.
“We honor you to join this long list of servants of God, of friends, men and women of God, to stand here and to teach us and share with us your message of hope and salvation,” Elder Christensen said.
Prior to Bishop Solis’ address, Snow told the story of how the 1879 Mass at the tabernacle came about. He said Bishop Scanlan was “a hero of mine. He traveled great distances in difficult circumstances to minister to a flock that was scattered throughout the Utah Territory.”
Snow’s great-great-great-grandfather, LDS Apostle Erastus Snow, gave permission for the Mass. Quoting a line that Fr. Scanlan said that day in 1879: “I think you are wrong, and you think I am wrong, but this should not prevent us from treating each other with due consideration and respect,” Snow said, “I think that kind of counsel is every bit as effective in today’s world.”
Snow said he grew up hearing the story of the Catholic Mass at the LDS tabernacle, but a few years ago he heard “the rest of the story.” In 2015 he received an email from a stake president in Italy, who said that in 2013 he visited the island of Sardinia, which was part of his area of responsibility. In the email, Alessandro Dini-Ciacci wrote that he met Alfredo Filippella, “a good Catholic man who played the organ for us at church the Sunday I was visiting.”
After the service, Dini-Ciacci spoke with Filippella, who said he was playing the organ to return the favor done in 1879, when the St. George Tabernacle music director ordered the music sheets in Latin for the Mass celebrated in the tabernacle.
Filippella said that when he read about this act of kindness in a book, “he felt great gratitude for those Mormons who helped his Catholic brothers and sisters worship as they felt they needed to. He determined that he should pay it back,” Dini-Ciacci wrote to Snow.
Filippella asked the branch president if he could play the organ during LDS sacrament meetings. His offer was accepted, so he plays for the LDS service on Sunday mornings and for his Catholic parish 40 kilometers away in the afternoon.
Dini-Ciacci asked that this story be passed on to the people at the St. George Tabernacle.
“I am sure that the descendants of those choir members would love knowing how far their ancestors’ act of kindness has gone,” he wrote.
Concluding the story, Snow said, “I love how acts of kindness can come back even after 140 years and make a difference in the lives of people of faith.”
Before introducing Bishop Solis, Msgr. Moore spoke of his enduring relationships with members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“In my 52 years in Utah, it always seemed that in every assignment that I received from my bishop we were always able to engage in very positive and fine interactions with our brothers and sisters in your church,” he said.
Beginning his remarks, Bishop Solis said he was proud to represent the Catholic community in Utah during “another interesting and inspiring story of community-building among peoples of different faith affiliations.”
The close fellowship between the Catholic Church and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been by Divine Providence, the bishop said, adding that “it has a deep spiritual foundation, which gives it great significance.”
For a Catholic priest to celebrate the Eucharist in an LDS tabernacle in 1879, given the culture at the time, “is quite surprising and inconceivable to so many,” the bishop said, but “nothing is impossible for God.”
“Every interfaith gathering is a blessing from God, and it provides an important venue to build bridges and relationships among people of different faith affiliations and also foster strong partnerships among people in our community in order to build an important civilization of love, justice and peace,” the bishop said.
The tribute to the historic event was an inspiration “to remain faithful to our sacred responsibility and ministerial commitment of serving the people of God entrusted to our care and in pursuit of their welfare and common good,” Bishop Solis said, adding that it “helps convince us that any small amount of good rendered to one another is noble in the eyes of God.”
“The interfaith relationship born between Catholics and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1879 is a model of productive dialog, mutual understanding, respect and close partnership among people of faith to bring harmony and peace that continue to the betterment of our society and the wellbeing of our community,” he said.
Echoing Bishop Solis, in his closing remarks Elder Christensen recalled the work that the two churches do together in local charitable efforts.
“We feel it is a blessing to receive you here in this historical tabernacle and to work side by side moving forward, to bless many of the children of God, mostly those who most need our help,” he said.