At the dedication of the Billings Montana Temple, the magnitude of the gratitude of the members for a temple in their midst matched the splendor of the Big Sky Country that is Montana.
Expressions of thanksgiving were repeated over and over as members exited each of eight dedicatory sessions presided over by President Gordon B. Hinckley on Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 20-21.
For most members in the temple district, there was gratitude that several hours will be shaved from the travel time to go to the temple. Those in Billings were thankful to have such a beautiful landmark nestled at the base on the prominent, 300-foot-high Rimrock cliffs on the outskirts west of the city.
More than 12,000 members, primarily from Montana and the northern two-thirds of Wyoming, participated in the ceremonies that brought another larger temple into operation among the string of smaller temples scheduled for dedication during the latter part of 1999. It is the Church's 66th temple.
President Hinckley and his wife, Marjorie, were warmly received by a people who have been unified in their commitment to see the temple built since it was announced in August of 1996. Also accompanying President Hinckley to Billings were his first counselor, President Thomas S. Monson, and his wife, Frances; Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin of the Quorum of the Twelve and his wife, Elisa; and Elder Yoshihiko Kikuchi of the Seventy and first counselor in the North America Central Area presidency and his wife, Toshiko.
Although the wind was chilling at times during the dedication days, the white temple with a single spire in the center was bathed with sunlight under the big, blue sky.
That was fortunate for the people who stood in line for up to an hour before they were admitted into the temple for their session.
Those people ranged from Samuel Speer of the Missoula (Montana) 2nd Ward who enthusiastically declared he was "almost a deacon" even though he was only 8 years old, to centenarian Rose Griffin Doty of Byron, Wyo., who felt her life was preserved so she could attend the dedication.
Sister Doty, who was born in Burlington, Wyo., about the time Mormon colonists were sent to the Bighorn Basin, had been ill earlier this fall. Her family worried about whether or not she would be healthy enough to attend the dedication, so they arranged a special trip for her to see the nearly-completed temple several weeks ago. "I was so happy to think we finally got a temple," she said after attending the first dedicatory session.
She said she was strengthened to be able to attend the dedication, in part because she wanted to see President Hinckley with whom she had a special experience. After her husband, Joseph Doty, passed away, she went on a mission to the Southern States in the early 1960s and was set apart by President Hinckley. "I have always admired him for his support for me when I was on my mission. I wanted to thank him for a temple and for the prayer he said when he set me apart, which I have always remembered," she said.
The posterity of this Wyoming pioneer now numbers more than 100. One of them, her grandson Randall, gave the invocation at the dedicatory session she attended.
Sister Doty is among the many who have faithfully served at the Idaho Falls Temple in the past who will now make the much shorter trip to Billings to do temple work. For many in Montana and Wyoming, the drive to Idaho Falls took from up to six hours in the summer when they could cut through Yellowstone Park, to eight or more hours in the winter when they had to take a round-about route.
For some in western Montana, the trip to Billings is even further than Idaho Falls. But as Sherri Sangster of the Stevensville (Montana) 2nd Ward said, "That doesn't matter because we live in Montana and this temple is in our state; it is our temple."
Billings, Montana's largest city, is a metropolitan hub and commercial and cultural center for a large part of western Montana and northern Wyoming. That makes it a natural spot for a temple to serve the members from those areas. As the Church was growing stronger in the city, the members there were filled with faith. "We have believed for the last 25 years that we would have a temple here," said Maurice Asay who with his wife, Maude, will be an ordinance worker in the temple. When they moved to Billings in 1953, there were only 35 members in one branch. Now there are two stakes.
Emma Hawkins, who moved to Billings in the 1940s, said she used to wonder, "Why all the temples in Utah and the rest of us have to travel so far?" But that didn't stop her and her husband, Mort, from committing themselves to temple service. They rented a place in Idaho Falls where they could live and serve as ordinance workers. They occasionally traveled back to Billings for special family occasions but dedicated their lives, for the most part, to the temple for more than five years until Brother Hawkins died.
Sister Hawkins said: "It was a wonderful opportunity to work in the Lord's house and enjoy the other people there. It was the highlight of our lives besides our family."
Now Sister Hawkins, who is 88 years old, is grateful "they're bringing the temples to us. It's going to be good for my family that lives in Billings."
The temple brought to them is unique in many ways. It is topped by a tiered tower faced with louvered vents that appear to be shuttered windows. The spire rises from the tower and is topped by a statue of Angel Moroni. The west end of the single story building features a stained-glass bay window. The grounds around the temple are landscaped with lawns, flower gardens and more than 250 trees and 4,500 shrubs. Petunias planted for the dedication were in full, colorful bloom over the two days. Retaining walls and fence foundations are built of manufactured stones painted to match the Rimrock cliffs.
Inside, the temple is a model of economy of space. It contains all of the features of larger temples — including a cafeteria, laundry, brides' room, chapel and clothing rental desk — in less total square footage than other recently built larger temples such as the St. Louis Missouri Temple and Madrid Spain Temple. The Billings temple has two ordinance rooms for a two-stage ceremony. A clear skylight over the main foyer offers patrons a view of the Angel Moroni statue atop the spire.
Ben Smith of the Lovell Wyoming Stake demonstrated a commitment that was typical of members during the dedication. He was a member of the choir for the opening session and then volunteered his time after that to help direct parking. He said: "It was absolutely overwhelming to be in the temple, now that we have a temple close by that it is our temple, knowing that our forefathers and others have worked so hard to have a temple in our area. To sing those songs in the temple, it was pretty hard to keep the emotions in check."