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Though Utah Catholics have endured a record-long bishop vacancy, they soon may feel it was worth the wait: Pope Francis is filling the position with the first Asian to lead a U.S. diocese.

Bishop Oscar Azarcon Solis, originally from the Philippines, will be introduced Tuesday as the 10th top Catholic leader in the Beehive State.

The 63-year-old Solis is an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. In Utah, he succeeds Bishop John C. Wester, who departed in June 2015 to become the archbishop of Santa Fe, N.M.

Solis was born in San Jose City, Philippines, and will be the state's first Filipino bishop. He also is the first Filipino-American bishop ordained in the U.S.

"This is massively significant on the national front," said Rocco Palmo, a prominent Catholic chronicler and editor of Whispers in the Loggia, a church news blog.

About 5 million U.S. Catholics are Asian, Palmo wrote in an email to The Salt Lake Tribune, and they produce a "disproportionately high number of priestly and religious vocations nationwide."

"So for them," Palmo added, "this is going to be a historic shot in the arm far beyond Utah."

Of the more than 300,000 Catholics in Utah, about 18,000 of them are Asian, said Susan Dennin, the diocese's communications director. The Filipino community is the largest Asian demographic of the group.

Four of the priests serving in the diocese are Asian, Dennin said.

Since Wester left, Monsignor Colin F. Bircumshaw has led the diocese as interim administrator, but he is not authorized to make the same decisions a bishop could make.

Palmo believes the delay in Solis' appointment stemmed from a "complicated mix" of needs and "competing challenges" unique to Utah.

Responding to the "massive migration" of Hispanics and Asians and becoming the point man for Catholic relations with leaders of the state's predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Palmo said, would require "seasoning."

"There's been a sense that a Hispanic appointee could inflame grass-roots tensions, as it might be taken in some quarters as an act of proselytism toward Latino LDS," he said, "so there's been a great sensitivity to that."

The demand for Hispanic appointees is "far outstripping supply" across the country, Palmo said, given all the places that have seen significant Latino growth.

In Los Angeles, Solis, who speaks Spanish, has shown he is "leading the church's understanding of the cultural diversity there and seeking to integrate every group on the wider stage of the archdiocese," Palmo said. "... So having a Spanish-fluent pick with a tremendous amount of experience in both administration and leading a diverse immigrant community ... bodes very well, and the symbolic piece sends a remarkable message."

The Diocese of Salt Lake City needed "a sound administrator," Palmo said, to accommodate expansion and handle the "massive budgetary and logistical calls that come with it" along with the "church's advocacy before state government."

Utah "is one of the most complex bishoprics ... in American Catholicism," he said, "and as the staggering growth has only added to the complexity of the place, the length of the process underscored the difficulty of finding someone who could fully handle the very daunting workload."

Solis' official installation is scheduled for March 7 in Salt Lake City's Cathedral of the Madeleine. A public reception will be held that evening from 6 to 8 at the Salt Lake City Marriott City Creek Hotel, 75 S. West Temple.

Reporter Mariah Noble contributed to this story. —

Utah's Catholic bishops

Lawrence Scanlan, 1886-1915

Joseph S. Glass, 1916-1926

John J. Mitty, 1926-1932

James E. Kearney, 1932-1937

Duane G. Hunt, 1937-1960

Joseph L. Federal, 1960-1980

William K. Weigand, 1980-1993

George H. Niederauer, 1994-2005

John C. Wester, 2007-2015

Oscar A. Solis, 2017-

Source: Salt Lake Tribune archives