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Living History: An Irish priest makes 19th-century Utah his home

Published October 6, 2012 12:14 pm

History • Patrick Michael Cushnahan demanded "a 'square deal' for every man, white and black, Mormon, Catholic, Protestant and infidel."
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Patrick Michael Cushna­han was ordained a priest on his 32nd birthday in 1881. He immediately left his native Ireland for California, where the San Francisco archdiocese assigned him to Ogden. The Rev. Cushnahan devoted the rest of his life to ministering to the Catholics — to anyone who needed him, really — of Utah.

In 1881, Cushnahan found only a handful of Catholics in Ogden, including a few Sisters of the Holy Cross who ran the struggling Sacred Heart Academy. Cushnahan made his first home in one room of the small frame building used as a chapel. During the next 25 years, Cushnahan built a new Sacred Heart Academy, a substantial church, a parish house and St. Joseph's School. He became Monsignor Cushnahan in 1916 upon his appointment as vicar general of the Salt Lake City Diocese.

Beyond his parish duties, Cushnahan ministered wherever he saw need. Turn-of-the-century newspapers note his coming to the rescue of a destitute Presbyterian family, aiding stranded travelers and even calming train passengers panicking at the physical effects caused by Utah's altitude.

In 1906, Cushnahan became a major figure in the fight to regulate Ogden's notorious red-light district. He pushed police to keep curious young boys away from the worst alleys. He expressed sympathy for the women: "I have naught but compassion and would fling the mantle of charity around them." And he insisted there be no double standard of morality, chiding the society that "takes to its bosom the fast young man and the men of middle age" who patronized the district.

Defending himself against charges that as a churchman he should not "meddle" in politics, Cushnahan asked, "Did you mean that I demand a fair and 'square deal' for members of my flock? If so, you are perfectly right — a 'square deal' for every man, white and black, Mormon, Catholic, Protestant and infidel. All are equal before the law."

Long a member of Ogden's Library Board, Cushnahan helped build the city's Carnegie library. He proposed street improvements and worked to rebate sewer taxes for the needy. He served on the board of trustees for Dee Memorial Hospital, dedicating that hospital in 1911: "Today a house is dedicated not to man, but to God. It is not only a home for the suffering of humanity, but it is a home for the spirit of God to dwell in the midst of humanity."

Speaking in 1917 as the United States entered World War I, Cushnahan said, "Yesterday we might have spoken as Irishmen, Englishmen, Germans or Slavs, but now we must remember we are Americans, first, last and always."

But, he continued, "We must remember that we have many citizens of German birth among us. Treat the son of the fatherland gently and with kindness. He may have a brother in the trenches of Europe."

Bidding farewell to Utah's soldiers in 1918, he said, "As a minister of the Gospel, I feel that I should not advise you to carry revenge in your heart, but, as a man, I want to say, when you get into battle, hit hard — hit like hell."

Cushnahan defended the spiritual authority of the Catholic Church, protesting "jelly-fish, weak-kneed Catholics who will say that all churches are right." Yet his unabashed insistence on the primacy of Catholicism did not prevent him from loving others.

Invited in 1916 to speak to elderly survivors of the Mormon pioneer trek, he said, "I do not look upon you pioneers as Mormons, but I look upon you as brothers — as one great band, in the brotherhood of man. We are here under one flag, worshipping one God."

Cushnahan fell ill while returning from a visit to Ireland in 1927. He clung to life long enough to reach his beloved Utah, where he died on Feb. 2, 1928.

"I was not lucky enough to be born in Utah," he had told an audience in earlier years, "but I have had the good luck to be a resident of the wonderful state."

Utah has the good luck to count the Rev. Cushnahan among her adopted sons.

Ardis E. Parshall is a Utah historian who welcomes feedback from readers. Reach her at AEParshall@aol.com.






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