Heather Smith smiled to herself as the blonde young man she was speaking with gawked in disbelief. She did not have enough fingers to count how many times people did not believe her when she told them she was wasn’t a Latter-day Saint. Her response was so routine she had to focus to seem organic. The young man’s reaction, however, was not a surprise to Smith because it was just another day in the life of a Catholic at BYU.
Smith is not alone. According to BYU demographics, approximately 0.2 percent of the student body is Catholic. In perspective, for every one Catholic at BYU, there are about 439 Latter-Day Saint students enrolled.
Still, second to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Catholicism has the largest religious representation at BYU.
Among the many questions that Smith receives about being Catholic, one of the most common is, “Why BYU?”
Smith said the social environment at BYU drew her in when she visited her good friend at the university.
“I would visit my friend for an entire week and I just loved it,” said Smith, who is from Colorado. “I met all of her friends, went to her classes and even visited her ward and it was so much fun because there was always something to do.”
For graduate student and BYU Singer Patrick Tatman, the high quality music program was the deciding factor.
“In my opinion the choral program at BYU is the best in the nation. I heard the BYU Singers perform live in 2005 when I went to a choral convention and that is kind of what sealed the deal for me,” said Tatman, a Pennsylvania native. “I kind of knew what I was getting myself into and that there were going to be some interesting cultural barriers.”
According to a Pew study on religion, 26.3 percent of Christians in America are Catholic, while 1.7 percent are Mormon. Smith and Tatman went from being a part of the majority in most settings to a religious minority in Provo.
At BYU, the LDS Church serves as more than just a religion. It’s a major means by which people interact, meet others and have a social life. Smith has home teachers and was even Family Home Evening group leader at one point for the purpose of being involved and connected with her community.
Tatman said his classmates are typically open about religion but have never pushed him.
“Mormons are always happy to talk about their faith but I’ve never encountered a situation where someone’s tried to force their religion on me,” Tatman said. “I knew what I was getting myself into when I came here. I mean for me to come here and be offended if someone tries to talk with me about the Mormon faith would be silly.”
Julie Boerio-Goates retired from BYU in 2012 after teaching chemistry and biochemustry for 30 years. As a practicing Catholic she said that teaching at BYU helped her become a better member of her church.
“Very often I’ve had opportunities to speak to different classes and groups about what it means to be Catholic, to that extent I’m much more secure in my faith (than) had I taught somewhere else,” Boerio-Goates said.
Smith found that living the Honor Code has protected her from harmful situations and relationships.
“Sometimes I do miss the normal culture,” Smith said. “Then I talk to my friends that go to other colleges and realize that they’ve had a lot of bad experiences with guys taking advantage of them and not knowing where they end up at night, which really makes you appreciate the Honor Code.”
Despite the overall positives, being a religious minority on campus provides interesting and sometimes hurtful experiences. Boerio-Goates said those experiences taught her to help others gain a better understanding of her faith.
“I found out at the end of (one) year that there was a group of young women that were very disappointed when they found out I wasn’t Mormon because I couldn’t be their role model anymore. I then decided I need to be more upfront with people,” Boerio-Goates said.
Tatman, whose fiancé is Presbyterian, said the opportunity being a minority has been a valuable learning experience.
“It’s been so interesting and insightful. You know I just kind of feel like everybody should have to go through a similar experience where they become the minority because you learn so much about life, what people do and also about yourself in the process,” Tatman said. “Honestly the thing that’s stood out the most as I’m immersed in this culture is the similarities that Catholics and Mormons have.”
Catholics in Provo
The nearest Catholic church is the Parish of Saint Francis of Assisi in Orem. A parish is headed by a priest and comparable to an LDS ward. There are 47 parishes in Utah.
About 7 percent of the Utah population is Catholic compared to the roughly 70 percent that is Mormon. Local Catholics have become close knit because of their small numbers, particularly in the growing Hispanic community in Utah County.
Boerio-Goates is the pastoral coordinator, which is comparable to a first counselor in a bishopric, for Saint Francis of Assisi. She said roughly 15 percent of the congregation is Caucasian, while the other 85 percent is Hispanic.
“Many Hispanic Catholics will tell you this parish is their life. They spend a lot of time here. They come in isolation so the church becomes their family,” Boerio-Goates said.
Rocio Rivera, a Hispanic Catholic from Mexico, said the group tries to promote cultural unity much like an LDS ward would.
“The parish is important because it is our culture,” Rivera said.
Operating as a minority congregation can be eye opening and even difficult at times, but the Catholic church strives to maintain a good relationship with the LDS community.
Father Fernando Velasco, an El Salvadorian priest at the parish said, “Our relationship with the Mormon community is really good,” said Father Fernandon Velasco. Velasco is a priest at St. Francis of Assissi who hails from El Salvador and runs the parish’s Spanish-speaking sessions of mass. “We host a number of concerts in our chapel because of the special acoustics and that draws in a significant number of BYU and UVU groups that like to perform here. … It has given us the chance to create a sense of community from differing views, and that’s healthy.”