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.”

Bhutanese celebrate holiday, new life in SLC

Story and photos by MATT BERGSTROM

Thursday, Oct. 9, was an important day for Hindus around the world. It was the celebration of Dashera, the victory of the goddess Durga over the demons who stood in the gods’ way during creation.

For a group of Bhutanese refugees in Salt Lake City, it was also a celebration of a different victory.

Thursday was the first time the small Bhutanese community in Salt Lake City has officially gathered since refugees began arriving in the city in April 2008. The gathering was held at the Taj India restaurant at 4515 S. 900 East.

Bhutanese celebration

Bhutanese celebration

For nearly 20 years, these families had been living in refugee camps in Nepal. Most of that time the Bhutanese coexisted peacefully with their Nepali hosts. For the past few years, tense relations between China and Tibet have driven more refugees into Nepal. This flood of new arrivals pushed the Nepali government to its breaking point, prompting officials to make an appeal to the United Nations for help. The U.N. decided to resettle the Bhutanese who had long been without a home of their own.

Nearly 250 Bhutanese have resettled in Salt Lake since April. Among them are many members of the Dulal family.

Biren Dulal, 26, was only 8 years old when his life was uprooted and he moved with his family from his home in Bhutan to a camp in southeast Nepal. Today he barely remembers why he had to leave his home. He thinks it had something to do with the Buddhist government wanting Hindus to convert in the interest of national identity.

The actual reason seems to still be in dispute. According to the Web site for Human Rights Watch, the exodus was based on ethnic reasons rather than religious ones. The government of Bhutan in the late 1990s was interested in establishing a firmer national identity. The dispute is whether ethnic Nepalese in Bhutan chose to leave or were forced out by the government.

Regardless of the reason for leaving, Biren said life in the camp was difficult, but not unbearable.

Refugees were seldom allowed to leave. They had their own schools and shops and most of their basic needs were met. However, under certain circumstances, refugees could get permission to live outside the camp.

Biren left the camp for the first time at 18 years old to attend Kalimpong College in eastern India. After earning his bachelor’s degree he went to Katmandu to teach middle school science. A short time later he decided to return to the camp where most of his family still lived to continue his teaching there.

Soon after, members of Biren’s family began being resettled in the U.S. He decided it would be best if he joined them.

Biren Dulal arrived in San Diego on June 21, 2008. He had been sent to live with a brother and sister who had already been resettled there. Biren did not care for San Diego, but is too polite to say why.

Biren Dulal at the celebration.

Biren Dulal at the celebration.

He was then allowed to join the rest of his other brothers and sisters in Salt Lake City. The former teacher now divides his time between his job as an interpreter for the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake, the nonprofit group that helped resettle him, and his volunteer work teaching English to other Bhutanese in town.

Ultimately he would like to get back to teaching science.

Travis Zirker, an IRC caseworker for many members of the Dulal family, said getting back to work is a common desire. A few of Biren’s brothers also were teachers in Nepal before coming to America.

One of those brothers is Ghana Dulal, who Zirker said has become a sort of unofficial community leader.

In the small Indian restaurant packed on an unseasonably warm autumn afternoon with almost 200 Bhutanese refugees, guests from various resettlement organizations and members of the press, Ghana Dulal offered a speech of gratitude and, in a small way, victory.

He talked of their hardships while encamped in Nepal and of the warnings they received from friends before leaving. They were told they would not be allowed to be Hindus in America.

In the end, Ghana Dulal summed up what all the Bhutanese were feeling, and what those who have not been there could not understand, when he said, “We are no longer refugees. We are free people.”

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