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.”

A unique business collaboration in West Valley City


West Valley City is fast becoming one of the most ethnically enriched communities in Utah. With the number of different cultures and their businesses increasing in the city, some may think it will cause some competition between the communities. But the opposite has actually occurred at 1824 W. 3500 South. Tenochtitlan Market, a Hispanic grocery store, and Super Saigon Oriental Market, are a perfect example of this collaboration.

Tenochtitlan and Super Saigon have been doing business in the same plaza for more than seven years. Many people say the association between these two businesses is unique, because it does not exist in many other cities. The Hispanic and Asian markets in other places are usually not found in the same plaza.

Acela Ceja, the office manager and president assistant of Tenochtitlan, said there is no competition between the two markets. In fact, they work together to provide the best service for all the customers who come to this plaza. She also believes it is very convenient for customers to have these two markets so close to one another.         

Mayor Dennis Nordfelt of West Valley City believes that although the situation was unplanned, it has evolved into a positive business collaboration. “It demonstrates that these two communities can get along and benefit from each other,” Nordfelt said.

He also said in other cities various cultures seem to be separated into different parts of the neighborhood. For instance, Hispanics are clustered in one area of the city, while Asians are located in another. However, ethnicity is disbursed all over West Valley City.

“I see Utah as a state and West Valley City in particular, as very welcoming to all ethnic minorities,” Nordfelt said.

Furthermore, the plaza creates a richer community, said Pamela S. Perlich, the senior research economist of the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Utah. Having these types of businesses in the same area means there are more points of view and many more ideas and cultures, which ties the city to the rest of the world and create a more cosmopolitan community, she said.

In addition, Perlich said Utah has attracted a lot of business talent from all over the world and the concentration of people from so many diverse places into one area has never been seen before. Although there are those out there that assume there are just too many differences between the two cultures for it to work, Perlich believes otherwise. “Sometimes differences in opinion and differences in ideas can bring a new synthesis of doing things and that is one of the benefits this community brings to Utah,” she said.

According to the demographic census data done in 2000 by Perlich, of Utah’s 2.2 million population 238,667 was made up of Hispanics and Asians, and she presumes that their numbers have been steadily increasing over the last eight years, although the exact numbers will not be known until the 2010 census. The growth of the Hispanic and Asian population created the need for the Tenochtitlan and Super Saigon markets, therein creating the unwitting collaboration.

Perlich also mentioned that Utah has been plugged into the internationalization of markets. She referred to the theory “Internationalization is our best hope for world peace,” from Thomas L. Friedman’s “The World is Flat.” These two markets are a great example of this theory being applied to the actual economy.

Mayor Nordfelt agrees with this theory as well and said history itself proves it. He talked about how in the past people marginalized Hispanics and Asians because they were so different. And although it still happens, it is less frequent in West Valley because of the increase in their populations. “As their numbers have grown it just seems like we have been able to take the best from the minority cultures and the majority culture and put those all together for a new culture,” he said.

Moreover, customers have indicated that this association has created a better understanding between the two communities. Muoi Ha, 55, a resident of West Valley City for 24 years and a longtime customer of Super Saigon, said she has seen a difference in the way people interact with each other. “I’ve been shopping in this area for over 10 years and I notice that people are nicer and respect each other more,” Ha said.

She also said an area such as this did not exist before; people of different cultural backgrounds shopped in their own areas. Ha gave said when she and her family came from Vietnam to Utah in 1980, they sought out markets in Asian areas of Salt Lake City, because it was a comfort and language issue as well as a convenience factor. She did not want to have to travel to so many different markets and be around so many different people.

Yet, she said when these businesses opened in the same plaza things began to change. After a few years, the comfort and language issues were not as apparent as before. She said even though the people who did business as well as shopped in the plaza did not speak the same language it did not stop them from working together and being friendly to each other. Ha said it gave her a different perspective on things.

“It’s been a really good learning experience for me and my family,” Ha said. She also said it is very convenient, because if they needed to get something from both the Asian and Hispanic stores, they would only have to drive to one location. Ha said when they were finished shopping at one market, they would only have to walk next door to the other market and could finish all their shopping in one stop.

Super Saigon Oriental Market is located on the west side of the plaza.  Inside the market, people can find freshly roasted ducks and pigs, and deli sliced and prepared meats for Asian entrees like pho, a popular Vietnamese noodle dish. Desserts like che, a Vietnamese version of pudding using either coconut milk, different kinds of beans, tapioca, sweet rice and/or various types of fruit and a bountiful variety of Asian snacks from shrimp chips to durian crème wafers can also be found in the market.

On the east side of the plaza is the Tenochtitlan Market, inside people will find a deli and bakery where customers can buy flan and tres leches cake, which literally translates as, “cake of three milks.” It is made out of three different kinds of milk: evaporated milk, condensed milk and either whole milk or cream. People can also find a variety of different Hispanic drinks and snacks. Also, to provide convenience for customers, service centers located in the store such as Sprint and Cricket.

Nevertheless, people cannot really capture the true vision of this unique association until they see it for themselves and experience the diversity that is the Super Saigon and Tenochtitlan collaboration.

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