Religious Diversity in Utah’s Dixie

Douglas D. Alder and Karl F. Brooks
History of Washington County

The preponderance of Mormons in Dixie does not mean that other Christian denominations do not exist in Washington County. Roman Catholicism was important in the life of people in Silver Reef when Reverend Lawrence Scanlan built a chapel, hospital, and school there in 1878. Within a decade, however, Silver Reef was a ghost town and Catholicism had to wait eighty years until Bishop Joseph Lennox Federal dedicated a church in St. George on 8 June 1958. Catholic priests served both the Cedar City and St. George parishioners in the 1950s. About fifteen families made up the Dixie core group, but the church services also welcomed tourists. In 1980 the first full-time priest, Reverend James M. Greenwell, was appointed for St. George, leading some eighty families and 250 members. The priests and members of the congregation have actively served the community, including the “snowbirds” who come to spend the winter in Dixie. They have taken on a mission to care for the homeless, destitute, and the ill; and the parish also maintains a thrift shop.

Growth of population in the county in the last thirty years has brought Roman Catholics into Dixie, making it necessary to plan for a major expansion of church facilities. With great effort and community support, a fine new church was built on the same site and dedicated in April 1991 by Bishop William K. Wiegand. A spacious social hall was added in 1995. The parish in 1995 counted some 480 families; in addition, there are many visitors who attend the weekly masses. Priests serving the parish have included Father Everett Harman from 1955 to 1965, Father James Coyne from 1958 to 1968, Father George Davich from 1967 to 1970, and Father Francis Kunz, C. M., from 1970 to 1980. Father James Greenwell became the first full-time priest in St. George in 1980. Reverend Paul Kuzy has been the parish priest since 1984.

The Presbyterian mission to Utah focused on both religious and educational efforts. In 1880 Reverend A. B. Cort from Chicago came to St. George with the intention of building a church and conducting a school. He was not received warmly by the local people who were defending their belief in polygamy against the federal government and many Protestants who urged the government on in its anti-polygamy efforts. Reverend Cort helped several Protestant women begin schools, including Anna Stevenson in St. George, Virginia Dickey in Washington City, and Fannie Burke in Toquerville. In 1889 Mrs. A. E. Blackburn and her daughter Nellie came to St. George as teachers. In 1891 Catherine Watt came to the area, as did a Miss Rever. In 1893 Reverend Galen Hardy and his wife arrived in St. George. They had considerable success with their weekday and Sunday schools. Reverend Hardy died in St. George in 1898.

These were professionally trained teachers, and their schools offered a quality of education not available in many LDS ward schools. The Presbyterians hoped that the Mormons would send their children to the schools and would then gradually move back into mainline Christianity. It was a creative strategy; however, although some Mormons sent their children to the schools and took advantage of the fine opportunity, hardly any changed their religion.

In 1901 the first Presbyterian church building was dedicated. It served the community until it was sold to the Roman Catholic Church in 1950. The assignment was difficult for the ministers as they received little support from the Mormon community. Reverend Clayton Rice came to the area in 1908 and used friendliness and community activity as tools to break into Dixie. He loved the desert and enjoyed the people on a social level. He directed plays, coached baseball, taught violin, and trained debaters. He was well received, but only a handful attended his sermons. Other ministers also found little success.

Sarah Louisa Conklin came to St. George in 1913 as a Presbyterian schoolteacher and became a legend. In addition to teaching large classes, she joined the Mormon community by working with Mormon Relief Society sisters to help the sick and sorrowing. After retiring from missionary service in 1933, she remained in St. George doing what she had always done in the community. She died in 1949, and her funeral was held in a Mormon chapel because the Presbyterian church was too small for the number attending the funeral. With her death, Presbyterian activity in the area virtually ceased for two decades.

In 1980 Roger and Katy Hansen moved to St. George. They had been Presbyterian missionaries at Wasatch Academy in Sanpete County. Seeing the influx of people to Washington County, they sensed the time was right to reorganize the Presbyterian congregation. Reverend John Mahon was called in 1987 by the Presbytery of Utah to organize a Presbyterian Church in St. George. Within a year the congregation, meeting in the Senior Citizen Center, numbered 100 families. On 10 June 1990 the group broke ground for a new church building, dedicated 20 January 1991; a picture of Sarah Louisa Conklin hangs in the narthex. In 1993 there were 260 members. The church members are active in the community, and the congregation serves as a welcoming group for a continuing flow of newcomers.

The 1960s saw the development of several other Protestant congregations in Washington County. Among them were members of the Southern Baptist Church. Initially Baptists held services in the home of Mrs. Nell Bass under the leadership of Reverend Kenneth Medford Hutson from Cedar City. Later they met in the Elks Lodge hall and then at the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) building. Then they moved to the museum of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers and later to the Washington County Library in St. George. Reverend Sam Moses was called to the St. George Baptist Mission in June 1964. Shortly after, the Sunday School superintendent Dave Stewart found property for sale at 300 South and 600 East in St. George. A loan from the Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention allowed a church to be built there. It was begun on 14 July 1965, with forty-five members attending, and completed in October of that year. The building has been expanded as the congregation has grown. Several other Baptist churches have been built, one across the street from Dixie College on 100 South, where Reverend Alex Wilkie served for many years and built a strong congregation. He retired in 1992 and was replaced by Reverend Ellis Keck.

An examination of the Washington County telephone book shows the present diversity of religions compared to the near uniformity of religion just four decades ago. Those denominations listed include: Assembly of God, five Baptist churches (including ones in Mesquite, Washington, Hurricane and St. George), Southland Bible church, Roman Catholic church, Oasis Community church, Christian Science church, Episcopalian church, Jehovah’s Witness, Lutheran, New Covenant Christian Center, Presbyterian church, Religious Science church, and Seventh-Day Adventist church.