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31 anne m. butler 2 Personal Landscapes of Catholicism: From East to West On the always-turbulent landing approach to the Salt Lake City airport, one feels the West rise up in greeting. The intermountain West, embraced by the northern Rockies in one direction and the Sierra Nevada in the other, awaits. Snow-topped peaks soar stunningly into the air, the out-of-place Great Salt Lake lies still upon the valley floor, the brown and parceled land reflects its unforgiving aridity—sharp reminders that one is about to enter a magnificent, unparalleled arena of contested spaces and conflicted peoples. Other national regions may claim landscapes of beauty and legacies of contention. The West, however, with its stereotypical cast of characters , its odd history braided into its extravagant geography and excessive climate, its chronicle muddied by fact and fancy, its heritage shaped by love and hate, takes a singular place in the American odyssey. What other section of the country managed to emerge as an enduring symbol of national identity and unity, as it harbored, even fostered, dissent, disagreement, and discrimination? Where are there such diverse vistas with mixes of people and cultures, so that the resulting package of natural environment and human experience is used to explain the very essence of American democracy? What other segment of this country promoted itself and has been promoted as the source of American “character” and the guardian of national “values”? The scene below the descending airplane seems to answer, “Here, it all happened here; this is the West.” 01.i-x_1-198_Salv.indd 31 11/3/06 9:54:59 AM For many years, I thought I knew the West. Although I lived in the East, my research about nineteenth-century frontier women had taken me more than once across the spaces west of the Mississippi River—Montana , Wyoming, Texas, Colorado. I had crisscrossed these states time and again, visiting their cities and towns, conversing with their residents, thinking about their histories. When in 1989 a professional opportunity offered the chance to become both associate editor of a scholarly western history journal and modern-day pioneer, pulling up stakes, leaving kin, and setting forth on a life adventure, I accepted. I learned quickly that I did not know the West and even less so my new state of residence, Utah, the heartland of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This, the fortress of the Mormons, was now to be my home. In this place of much beauty and few people, a newcomer comes to understand that anyone—Native American, Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Muslim, faithful, atheist, or agnostic—outside the lodge of Mormonism is classified as a “gentile.” While this homogenous, all-purpose labeling may seem ironic, arrogant, or amusing, it prods one to think about heritage and belief. In Utah, as a scholar of the American West and a researcher in the field of Catholic history, I found myself pushed to examine my personal intellectual and spiritual moorings. Ultimately, I had to determine what sort of “gentile” I would be in the Beehive State? If in 1847 Brigham Young actually had gazed across the Great Salt Lake Valley and announced, “This is the place,” where, in his Zion, would I stand?1 Would Utah bring me closer to my own religious core, or draw me into a community known for its aggressive proselytizing? How, if at all, would my current research about the experiences of Catholic nuns in the nineteenth -century American West help me to sort out these questions? In the first instance, it had not been easy to move to the West, where Catholicism, like everything else, is separated by great distances. Not a great deal has changed since 1899, when a missionary of the Sisters of St. Dominic recorded, “The Catholics were few and far between. . . .”2 While Catholic clusters pepper the urban map, as in Santa Fe or San Francisco, the faithful, always thinly distributed across the vast rural terrains, remain so. One drives for many miles with no sign of the familiar church and rectory, school and convent complex. Parish schools and mission stations, once operated by small bands of religious sisters, closed years ago. In outof -the-way towns and on isolated Indian reservations, humble Catholic churches stand in lonely, silent salute to the Church of Rome. Today, many western Catholics live through cold winters and hot 32 anne m. butler 01.i-x_1-198_Salv.indd 32 11/3/06 9:54:59...


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