Another Look at Bishop Scanlan
Almost as vividly as the majestic Cathedral of the Madeleine which he himself erected, Bishop Lawrence Scanlan (1843-1915) is an iconic symbol of the formative period of Utah Catholicism. His figure is familiar: the resolute jaw, the furrowed brow that almost seems to be scowling, and the oak-solid tall frame of his body. "What a stern looking face," a man who later became his friend exclaimed upon seeing his photograph,"I wonder if that man ever smiles. God help his [priests] anyway." A renowned athlete in his youth, "he excelled, it seems, in all the sports," his biographer tells us, "jumping higher, throwing farther, kicking more accurately than any of his companions in the cassock." His obituary informs us that some of his feats on the playing fields of All Hallows College, Dublin were still remembered half a century later. As a young priest he was the epitome of the pioneer western clergyman. In the tough mining town of Pioche, Nevada, he held his own against his two-fisted Irish parishioners when he would not back down in his insistence that they stay out of the gambling halls and brothels. Later, in Utah, he regularly rode hundreds of miles on horseback or in a buggy in all kinds of weather to take the Gospel to Catholics strewn out from Ogden to Silver Reef, from Park City to Eureka. In the pulpit, his biographer records, Scanlan "was apt to preach with violence and at a length which would today be considered intolerable." As he grew older, he stoically endured constant pain from rheumatism and headaches from a concussion sustained when he was thrown from a horse.
All of this is well known. Almost mythical in its dimensions, the myth is nevertheless true, as far as it goes, in every detail. And yet, there is another Bishop Scanlan. . . .
Much of the popular image we have of Bishop Scanlan comes from an excellent biographical article in Utah Historical Quarterly by Father Robert J. Dwyer (later Bishop of Reno and Archbishop of Portland, Oregon), who, while he was too young to have known the bishop other than as a child, had ready access to the memories of members of Scanlan's generation. Recent research, however, is able to modify some of those memories. For one thing, Dwyer represents Scanlan's seminary training, which was directed to the needs of missionary priests ministering to the Irish Diaspora driven by the Potato Famine to the farflung corners of the earth, as being heavier on practical matters than theoretical: "Lawrence Scanlan was typical of the All Hallows priest. He never thought of himself as a theologian, but his grasp of the fundamentals of the science was sure and confident." Fr. Denis Kiely, Scanlan's Vicar General who shared lodging with him during most of their years in Utah and who knew the bishop maybe better than anyone, offered a much more flattering assessment of his intellect. "Bishop Scanlan," he reported, "was a man of scholarly attainments, well versed on all topics, and a great philosopher, yet so unassuming that on slight or short acquaintance one was liable to underrate his ability. In discussing any subject, no matter what it was, he was always equal to the occasion. He had a keen logical mind, and loved to hear those who partook of his hospitality arguing on the most difficult of subjects, or ordinary topics of the day. On any subject, no matter how remote from his professional duties, he was well informed, or if not he could direct the inquirer to the source from which information could be obtained."
A 1907 visitor to the new rectory on South Temple was received into the bishop's office, "a reception room almost bare," with a few pictures and framed certificates on the walls and two tables covered with books in the center. On one of the tables was a surgical instruments catalog, from which the bishop was choosing equipment for Holy Cross Hospital--a strange task, one would think, for the bishop of the diocese, but it indicates the degree to which he was a "hands on" pastor and administrator.
The visitor's eye strayed to one of the tables, where he noticed a book in Arabic and a French weekly paper. At that moment the bishop entered the room, and the first question the visitor asked concerned his linguistic abilities: "He did not pretend any great fluency in the Arabic and limited his acquirements to French, Italian, Latin, Greek, Gaelic, with a little Spanish." From another source we learn that Scanlan had studied Chinese for six months in San Francisco when he had first arrived in America, but he gave it up when he learned that there are multiple dialects in Chinese and that learning one would not necessarily enable him to converse with any Chinese person he might encounter.
The bishop went on to narrate a humorous story about his linguistic ability. En route to California from Dublin, Scanlan had crossed the isthmus of Panama on a railroad (the canal was not built until 1914) and sailed up the coast of Mexico. At a stop in Acapulco, a doctor aboard ship advised him to put some wine into any water he might drink in order to kill the germs. Wandering through town, he found a wine shop and asked the proprietor, in halting Spanish, for some red wine. Looking Scanlan in the eye, the man informed him, to his utter astonishment, that he could speak Gaelic if he wished! "How do you suppose he knew I was Irish?" Scanlan wondered.
Bishop Scanlan "was not without wit," his biographer records, "though it is recalled as sardonic rather than sparkling." In fact, there are examples of a wit that sparkles. The bishop told the editor of the Intermountain Catholic a story on himself dating back to his days in Nevada. It seems that he had befriended a certain Indian. "This Indian was in the habit of visiting Father Scanlan, and the latter, to try the Indian's skill at shooting, used to place a nickel upon a stick some fifty yards away, and if the Indian knocked it off with his arrow, it was his property. 'This Indian's shooting was so good,' Father Scanlan would say with a smile, 'that he used to break me!'"
On another occasion, in Belmont, Nevada, another mining town, Father Scanlan remembered having been approached by an apparently drunken tramp who asked for a dime. Scanlan gave him twenty-five cents, but added, "Now promise me you won't get drunk on this." The tramp thanked him, then retorted, "Drunk on twenty-five cents! I promise you I won't. Why, Reverend Sir, it would take ninety-nine cents of a dollar to make me drunk."
Although Scanlan's biographer admits that the bishop "was capable of deep affection," he was "inclined to be severe" with his priests, and overall "he held himself aloof, a figure revered and respected, a little to be feared." Once again, the record supports a much softer image of the man. "One of the most pleasing traits in Bishop Scanlan's character," continues the Intermountain Catholic editor, "is his affection," particularly to old friends whose acquaintance extended back for many years. "'They would come around when I was living at the back of the old church [St. Mary Magdalen, on Second East] and sit with me on the porch,' he would say, 'and talk with me there of the old times, their adventures and vicissitudes of fortune. I was never so happy as then. . . . These old people shared with us their crust, shared with us their joys and sorrows, and many of them are gone to the land where there are no shadows. Ah, happy is the bishop or priest whose lot is cast among such.'"
And it was not just friends from years gone by on whom Bishop Scanlan lavished his affection, for he took a particular interest in children as well, especially the ones in St. Ann's Orphanage and the Junior Choir at the Cathedral. The Junior Choir, which the Intermountain Catholic says was "very dear to Bishop Scanlan's heart and is under his special patronage," would often receive gifts of candy and holy cards from the bishop to encourage their participation. Each year they would put on a special performance for the entertainment of the orphanage children, and Bishop Scanlan was always part of the audience. Once, in fact, he terminated his vacation early so he could be in attendance. Each year he would set aside a special day for the orphans at the Saltair resort, where they could take all the rides and eat all the goodies they wanted at his expense. "Gee, mamma, it must be great to be an orphan," exclaimed another youngster who observed the orphans frolicking at Saltair before sitting down at rows of long tables for the annual banquet.
The one of Bishop Scanlan's friends who actually may have known him even better than Vicar General Kiely is a person who, strangely, has hitherto escaped any mention in the historical record. The scant sources of his life are contradictory. He was "General" Stephen Lavin, an Irishman who fought in the American Civil War, then apparently went west to California, where he became acquainted with Father Scanlan (another source says he came to Utah with Col. Patrick Edward Connor's California Volunteers). He became Scanlan's "body servant and constant companion" for the next thirty-eight years, sharing with the priest the hardships and deprivations of life on the Nevada and Utah frontiers until his death on June 3, 1909. Remembered for his saintly disposition, he was a "gentle, simple old man, whose life was blameless." Future historians will need to keep "General" Lavin in mind when they are tempted to paint sentimental word pictures of the solitary pioneer bishop braving the lonely rigors of ministering in rural Utah.
We have even learned new things about the bishop's appearance and the sound of his voice. The aforementioned visitor to the rectory who queried Scanlan about his linguistic ability described the bishop in his sixty-fourth year: "He is more than 60 years old, but does not look it. His hair is slightly gray, but his eyes are as bright as when he first saw the world from the Tipperary viewpoint. He has the typical Irish mouth and just a trace of the soft burr of old Erin, not enough to call it a brogue, just enough to make his voice caressing, whimsical and sincere at the same time."
Oh, and his favorite hymn (for whatever it's worth): "Nearer, My God, to Thee."
This, then, is the "new" bishop Scanlan. While we can still celebrate his stoical endurance of the rigors of ministry on the frontier, and not forget his thunderous exhortations from the pulpit, we should also remember his acute intelligence, his impressive linguistic accomplishments, the warmth of his friendship with old comrades and children, and his whimsical sense of humor. So the next time you see a photograph of Bishop Scanlan, do not recoil in fear. Take another look: those Irish eyes are smiling!