Growing up Catholic in Mormon territory

If you want a little girl to feel a connection with religion, show her a fancy white dress and a veil to match. That's all it took for me. The day I made my first Communion was the day I felt proud to be Catholic.

Not that I knew at 8 years old what Roman Catholicism represented. All I knew at that age was that I wasn't Mormon.

In the '80s in West Valley City, Utah, that meant I could sleep over at my friends' houses, but they couldn't sleep at mine. It meant pairs of men on bicycles regularly knocking on our door only to discover the Garza family "didn't want any." It meant kids asking if my parents drank alcohol and smoked cigarettes. But on that April day in the third grade, it also meant wearing a fancy white dress and a veil to match.

I still remember the spoiled-rotten girl across the street staring as I posed for pictures in my first Communion dress. She was so green with jealousy, I worried she'd stain my white ensemble. Already, my prayers were being answered.

Other than the fact we stood up a lot in church, wore crucifixes around our necks and glorified a cathedral instead of a temple, I didn't know the difference between Mormonism and Catholicism at age 8. I just knew my friends walked to church and we drove. They bore their testimonies and we gave confession. They had holy garments and we had holy water.

Subtle differences that made a strong impact. I had a greater understanding of adults' resentment of the respective religions than the religions themselves. Not that I didn't make an effort to understand.

Raising your hand after every Catechism lesson to ask "what the Mormons believe" can get distracting, though. As for my own religion, I tried to get something out of Mass every Sunday. But, an hour of gospel readings, hymns and holding the sweaty palms of strangers proved too much for a third-grader to endure. A fit of grumbles or giggles always got me through the morning. It also got me a good scolding.

Church became another chore, except I got paid for chores.

It didn't take long to realize that being Catholic in Utah was nothing like being Catholic anywhere else in this country. I had Catholic pride the day I made my first Communion because I felt pretty. I had it later because I was part of something that wasn't the norm.

In a state such as Utah, Catholicism felt a little like rebellion. Yes, the pope's religion. Put that in your chalice and drink it.

The largely held American conceptions of Catholics didn't exist in Utah. I never heard the term "good Catholic girl" until a movie introduced me to it. The same went for Catholic guilt. What was that?

And I couldn't believe my ears when I discovered John F. Kennedy was Catholic. Most politicians in Utah were Mormon. To learn one of the most adored presidents in history shared my religion was hard to grasp.

Still, that was outside of Utah. Inside of Utah, things were different.

Not even the idea of nonconformity could bring me to get confirmed in high school, though. I skipped that covenant. By that time, I already knew most organized religions would probably throw a label on me that rhymes with winner. So, I wrote them off completely. Until my wedding rolled around.

No, it wasn't the influence of another fancy white dress and veil to match. This time it was family.

Forget that neither of us had set foot in a church in years, our mothers wanted a religious figure to marry us former Catholics. We complied.

We found a lovely Episcopalian church with a fine congregation and a charming priest. We watched babies get baptized, little girls take their first Communion, teenagers get confirmed. It reminded us a lot of the Catholic Church, except it wasn't the Catholic Church.

We showed up every Sunday and learned that more than 20 years later, Mass was still hard to sit through.

Our wedding day came and went and we wanted to keep going to church. We wanted to keep going to make our moms proud and the priest happy. Those were the only two reasons we could come up with. So, we stopped going.

I don't know about my husband, but it's made me feel enormous guilt. It's made me feel like a real Catholic.

Contact columnist Xazmin Garza at or 702-383-0477. Follow her on Twitter @startswithanx.