Poplar Grove church is a symbol of diversity and service

Story and photo by JACOB RUEDA

In the heart of Poplar Grove lies St. Patrick Catholic Church, a haven of spirituality for the residents of this area of Salt Lake City. The parish located at 1040 W. 400 South serves not only as a host to communities from different parts of the world, but also as a steward in one of the roughest areas of town.

Father Anastasius Iwuoha hails from Nigeria and began serving as pastor of St. Patrick parish in August 2016. Before arriving at St. Patrick, he served in various parishes around the Salt Lake Diocese. He calls the difference between where he served previously and St. Patrick “glaring.”

While serving in another parish, “if you came to any of the masses, if there is any single person that is not Caucasian, you would spot the person immediately,” Iwuoha says. The range of nationalities represented at the parish is the most diverse he’s seen during his time in Salt Lake City. “St. Patrick’s is uniquely multiethnic, multiracial,” he says.

Built between 1916 and 1919, St. Patrick Catholic Church served European Immigrants. Image courtesy of St. Patrick Catholic Church.

In its early days St. Patrick served Italian and Irish immigrants to Utah, according to the Fall 2019 issue of The West View. Today, the cultural makeup includes people from the Pacific Islands, Myanmar, Philippines and Africa.

Rita Stelmach, 60, noticed the changing demographic of parishioners. She has attended St. Patrick since she was 19. “We have the most different mixture of cultures at St. Patrick’s,” Stelmach says.

Anthony Martinez, director of religious education and youth ministry, says some communities outgrew the parish and established themselves elsewhere. For example, the Vietnamese and Hispanic communities either built their own parish in other parts of the Salt Lake Valley or they settled in other parishes.

This May 24, 1919, article from the Salt Lake Tribune shows the old parish and the newly constructed church. Image courtesy of St. Patrick Catholic Church.

Salt Lake Diocese Bishop Lawrence Scanlan established St. Patrick in 1892, when it was originally located at 500 West and 400 South. The Salt Lake Tribune reported in April 1916 the purchase for the grounds where the church is today. Scanlan’s successor, Joseph Sarsfield Glass, bought the property from Bothwell & McConaughy Real Estate and Investment Company for $6,000 ($140,728.62 in 2019 value).

The parish experienced a number of events in its history, including fires in 1924 and 1965 that gutted the church but did not destroy it. In July 2019, St. Patrick celebrated its centennial and unearthed a time capsule containing fragments of the old parish, photographs and newspaper clippings.

Throughout its history, the parish has served the local community in different ways.

“We opened our hall and the hall was the center for the neighborhood meeting for a long time,” Iwuoha says. The parish served as neutral ground for town hall meetings where even the police came to participate. “They [came] here to decide the fate of the whole neighborhood,” he says.

In addition, church outreach projects focus on helping the homeless population in the area. Organizations like the Daughters of Charity and the Knights of Columbus work in conjunction with the parish, says director Martinez. They provide aid and donations for distribution to individuals experiencing homelessness. Likewise, students from J.E. Cosgriff Memorial Catholic High School donate food items during Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Martinez grew up in Poplar Grove and recognizes some of the stigma surrounding that area. “I’m beyond proud of where I come from,” he says, adding that people who are unfamiliar with the neighborhood judge it based on news reports and not direct involvement with those who live there.

Iwuoha echoes that sentiment, saying that his experience is different from what others told him it would be. “The impression I got when I came here was, here are a humble people, humble and vibrant people,” he says. “That’s my own personal treasure, not the one I got from [others].”

Roadsnacks.com reports the neighborhood around the church is one of the less reputable areas of Salt Lake City. However, statistics from December 2019 from the Salt Lake Police Department show a drop in overall crime.

The parish works to promote a “spirit of peace and good neighborliness” in the area through participation in church and local events as well as Sunday sermons. “When [people] come to church and when we preach and teach, they go back and become good citizens and good neighbors,” Iwuoha says. Additionally, the summer carnival brings the neighborhood together to show support for the church and the community.

The parish faces challenges despite community support. The structure of the main church and the surrounding buildings are crumbling due to age and wear. Cracks that are haphazardly patched are visible in the church walls and there is water damage from flooding. The biggest problem facing the parish is money.

“The greatest challenge St. Patrick’s has now is where to raise funds to replace some of the very aging and dangerous structures we have,” Iwuoha says. “The basement is virtually crumbling and the building is at risk.” The exact cost for repairs is unknown. The parish was able to repave its parking lot but “at a very huge cost,” Iwuoha says.

St. Patrick Catholic Church continues its tradition of diversity and service. Image by Jacob Rueda.

Setbacks aside, parishioners gather each week in the spirit of worship and community. In its 128-year history, people have arrived at St. Patrick from all over the world to call it home and to share the one thing they have in common.

“St. Patrick’s Church is the house of the Lord where everyone is welcome: believers, non-believers, Catholics, even non-Catholics,” Martinez says.

Iwuoha says it is a sense of shared faith, a duty to service and pride in America that brings people together to celebrate the spirit of the parish. “They have pride in the nation,” he says. “All of us are American.”

Iosepa is not a ghost town for Hawaiians in Utah

Story and photo by DAYNA BAE

Utah has a long history of migration of Pacific Islanders since the 1800s. Such a long history may lead to today’s large Pacific Islander population in Utah.

Jacob Fitisemanu Jr., a clinical manager with Health Clinics of Utah and associate instructor of ethnic studies at the University of Utah, said that the first settlement of Pacific Islanders in Utah was made in 1873. The first settlement was in Warm Springs, west of Salt Lake City.  It is thought that they settled there because it was a little warmer in the winter and people were able to grow some crops during the cold season. “They had farms up in that area, initially,” Fitisemanu said.


Jacob Fitisemanu Jr. is sharing his idea at the University of Utah.

Pacific Islanders’ migration was caused by a certain trigger, a religion. Pacific Islanders’ migration to the state of Utah has a direct correlation with LDS church and missionary.

Malie Arvin, Ph.D., assistant professor of history and gender studies at the University of Utah, said, “The LDS church missionary played significant roles for the first arrival of Hawaiians.”

Fitisemanu also said, “They came here to help to construct Salt Lake Temple.”

Lots of people wonder how Hawaiians arrived in Utah in the 1800s. Since Utah is located in the middle of the desert and mountains, some people assume that they arrived in Utah by crossing the continent with handcarts. In fact, they came to Utah by trains.

Hawaiians’ arrival by railroad at that time is related to the gold rush in the 1800s and the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869.

“Hawaiians took ships to San Francisco and then traveled by train to Utah. The first group of Hawaiians came back with missionaries in the 1880s. By then, travel between Hawaii and California was pretty common and relatively easy,” said Hokulani Aikau, Ph.D., an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of Utah, in an email interview.

Despite their religious piety in the LDS church, the first Hawaiian settlers in Utah experienced severe discriminations in Utah.

“Hawaiians, one of the first native Pacific Islander groups, came to Utah and faced lots of discriminations in Utah, because of their race,” Arvin said.

Fitisemanu said, “When they came they weren’t allowed to stay in hotels, they were not allowed to eat at restaurants. So they packed their own food and slept in a wagon.”

Iosepa, a ghost town in Skull Valley, Utah, has a direct relation with Hawaiian migrants. In 1889, Hawaiians came to Utah and built up a new town. It was named after Iosepa, which means “Joseph” in Hawaiian.

Arvin said, “At first, they lived in Salt Lake, but then the church moved them out to Iosepa, which took a three-day journey to travel to Salt Lake City, kind of middle of the desert. So they needed to do a lot of work to live there. They had to irrigate the area to grow food.”

According to Utah Stories, Hawaiian Mormons decided to come to Utah to establish their own town in one of the most barren regions in the west desert. Utah Stories reported that they worked hard, many died, but they persevered and survived, and in 1911 the town won an award as “the most progressive town in Utah.”

Still, there is an unsolved mystery of the abandonment of thriving village Iosepa, after successful cultivation. In 1917, six years after becoming the most progressive town in Utah, Hawaiian residents of Iosepa left their village and went back to Hawaii. Many historians and experts in ethnic studies have different views on this.

According to Utah Stories, the residents “decided to return to Hawaii to help build the first Mormon temple in La’ie.”

Aikau believes that they were forced to return to La’ie, Hawaii, to build another temple in the city. According to Aikau, Hawaiian people described the exodus as “our trail of tears” since they did not want to leave Utah and the heart of the church. Yet, they were required to leave due to the paternalism of the leadership and the plans to build the temple in La’ie.

“My understanding is that folks did not want to leave and that the church leadership had to force them to go,” Aikau said.

Pacific Islanders in Utah still visit Iosepa on Memorial Day and commemorate the town of Iosepa and their first settlers.

“Most of the commemoration is on Saturday and begins with a sun rising ceremony and a flag raising ceremony,” Aikau said. For the rest of the day, Pacific Islanders hold various activities, performances, presentations in a pavilion.

During Memorial Day weekend, some people go to the cemetery and clear debris from the graves. They then place leis in the graveyard, a type of Hawaiian wreath that symbolizes affection made by folks at the pavilion. On Saturday evening, they have a potluck style lu’au, a Hawaiian party, followed by a dance until late in the night.

“On Sunday morning, there is a sacrament and testimony meeting held at the pavilion,” Aikau said.

Nobody knows what exactly happened in Iosepa in 1917, yet, the abandoned town became a religious symbol of sacrifice and faith. In spite of many discussions for several years about mysterious history, Iosepa cemetery was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.

More stories about Pacific Islander’s migration and Iosepa can be found in “Chosen People, a Promised Land: Mormonism and Race in Hawai’I” written by Hokulani Aikau, “Remembering Iosepa: History, Place, and Religion in the American West” written by Matthew Kester, and “A History of Iosepa, The Utah Polynesian Colony” written by Dennis Atkin.


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