Holy House in the High Desert
In the spring of 1900, a man named Jim Butler found silver in Tonopah, Nev. It was one of the biggest silver strikes ever made in that part of the country.
As it happened, the area's Catholic priest — its first Catholic priest — was also named Jim Butler. The two were not related, but that probably didn't stop some locals from scratching their heads in wonder over the possibility of a priest-prospector.
At the time the silver strike occurred, Father Butler was serving a parish in the tiny town of Austin, Nev., about 100 miles north of Tonopah. Upon hearing of the discovery, many of his people headed south to look for work in the newly opened mines.
Father Butler was right behind, seeing to their spiritual needs and, in 1902, helping to establish St. Patrick's Catholic Church. Over the next few years the mining tapered off; with it went many of Father Butler's parishioners.
The original edifice built by that first group, made up largely of Irish immigrants, lasted until 1966. A wooden structure, it burned to the ground in that year. About a year later, the rectory was also destroyed by fire. The time had come to build a new church and rectory in Tonopah.
The parish had been run by diocesan priests except for in the 1970s, when a Jesuit served as pastor for about four years. The present pastor is also a Jesuit and a retired psychology professor from the University of San Francisco.
The parish is part of the Diocese of Las Vegas. On March 17, 2002 — the feast of St. Patrick — the parish celebrated the 100th anniversary of its founding. Las Vegas Bishop Joseph Pepe celebrated the anniversary Mass.
On the St. Patrick Church grounds is a mounted church bell from the original church. Fifth-graders in the parish religious education program ring it before Sunday Mass. Sitting atop the church is a large, neon cross. It's never turned off. Thanks to the church's position on a hill, the cross can be seen for miles.
Two Bishops Grew Here
Inside, St. Patrick's is resplendent in warm woodwork that creates a soothing, rustic ambience. The ceiling is rich walnut; it matches the lighter hue of the walnut pews below and compliments the soft white walls.
As parishioners enter St. Patrick's from the front door, they are reminded that their patron inter-cedes for them — an icon of his image watches over the church from the rear.
In addition, above and behind the altar, again with a background of walnut paneling, is a large portrait of the greatest of all Irish saints. It was given to the parish by now-retired Bishop Norman McFarland.
Each St. Patrick's Day, the church holds a special liturgy, followed by a major celebration for which most of the town turns out.
And inside the church is a special plaque celebrating the fact that, surprisingly enough, two bishops have come out of the small St. Patrick's Parish in Tonopah. Both men were born and raised in town and were parishioners of this church. Perhaps that bit of history goes to show that the grace of God falls where it will — including on a little mining town in the middle of a desert. The plaque reads:
Most Rev. Thomas J. Connolly, Bishop of Baker in Oregon.
Most Rev. William R. Johnson, First Bishop of Orange in California.
“They Got Their Start In Tonopah.”
Words and Music
Two bishops from this one, small church — that certainly impressed this Catholic traveler. But I was equally taken with the extraordinary faith of St. Patrick's present parishioners.
I'm not sure what I expected to find in these remote parts, involvement-wise, but I was struck by the devotion and participation I saw. For example, it turns out the people of St. Patrick's of Tonopah love doctrinal instruction, giving their priests the feeling that they are truly filling a need. According to the present pastor, Jesuit Father James McCauley, who has been a classroom professor much of his adult life, a weekly lecture series on Church teachings has proved popular.
The small parish is big on music, too. Recently Father McCauley invited a four-member Gregorian choir from San Francisco — they call themselves Schola Gregoriana — to sing traditional Gregorian music at one of the weekend Masses.
The parishioners, says Father McCauley, were delighted. They appreciated the opportunity to hear Gregorian singing and expressed how moved they were by it. As a result, the pastor plans to incorporate more Gregorian singing into future liturgies.
These are days of feast and festivity for St. Patrick's, no doubt about that. But it hasn't always been so: The parishioners here have persevered through some long stretches of time when no priest was available to them.
The word Tonopah is said to be a Native American term for “scarce water.” That seems fitting for the parish of St. Patrick's. For the more scarce the water, the more it's appreciated when it is available in abundance. And the times when the drought looks like it may go on forever can be providential opportunities to learn to trust in God.
As the people of St. Patrick's have shown for more than a century now, three things will always endure for those who trust in the Lord — faith, hope and love.
Joseph Albino writes from Syracuse, New York.
- July 6-12, 2003