OMAHA, Neb. — Driven from Nauvoo in 1846, Latter-day Saint pioneers left a newly completed temple. The next year, they established Salt Lake City, where they undertook construction of another temple. Now, 154 years later, a dedicated house of the Lord stands at historic Winter Quarters on soil already sanctified by the graves of hundreds who perished from disease, malnutrition and exposure while the Saints waited out the winter of 1846-47 before resuming their trek to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake.
President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated the Winter Quarters Nebraska Temple, presiding at four dedicatory sessions, on April 22.
The 104th operating temple in the Church, it is unique in a number of respects, the most obvious being that it is immediately adjacent to a burial ground. The temple is on the south side of the Mormon Pioneer Cemetery, dedicated in 1931 by President Heber J. Grant, its most prominent feature being the famous Avard Fairbanks sculpture, "Tragedy at Winter Quarters." It contains more than 325 unmarked graves of Latter-day Saints from the 1846-47 exodus, as well as graves with headstones of later residents of the area.
Until 1999, the cemetery property had been leased by the Church from the city of Omaha for $1 a year. But on April 1 of that year, the city conveyed the deed to the Church.
That action in 1999 made it possible for President Hinckley on Sunday to dedicate the cemetery as part of the temple grounds. (Please see text of dedicatory prayer on page 4.) Thus, the words to the "Hosannah Anthem," which is sung at all temple dedications, seemed to convey special meaning for the temple at Winter Quarters:
Rejoice, oh, ye Saints, whose patient faith and labor have reared this house wherein today ye stand;
Rejoice, ye blest departed saintly spirits, Behold, your temple, finished, crowns the land. (The Choirbook, p. 69.)
So important is the legacy of Winter Quarters to the Church that the proceedings of the first session were transmitted by satellite to Church meetinghouses in North America, where worthy Church members were issued special recommends by priesthood leaders to attend. The only other time that has happened was for the dedication of the Palmyra New York Temple on April 6, 2000.
Messages from President Hinckley, Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve, and Elder Donald L. Staheli of the Seventy, president of the North America Central Area, highlighted the first dedicatory session. Also featured was a vocal solo from Ariel Bybee, a mezzo-soprano formerly with the Metropolitan Opera and now artist-in-residence at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She performed "Faith in Every Footstep," the anthem commissioned by the Church for the 1997 sesquicentennial observance of the arrival of Brigham Young and the pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847.
In cool weather and under overcast skies, hundreds gathered to watch President Hinckley and others apply mortar to the temple cornerstone in the traditional ceremony before the first session. As the day drew on, the weather grew blustery and windy, but mercifully, tornados and severe thunderstorms that struck the region avoided Florence, the district in northeast Omaha where the temple stands.
For local Church members, who have the legacy of Winter Quarters constantly before them, the temple has renewed their appreciation for that legacy.
"Living here, you tend to take for granted the rich history that we have," said Charles Schneider, Kanesville Ward, who joined the Church six years ago with his wife, Jennifer, after they had moved to Council Bluffs, Iowa, across the Missouri River from Omaha. "The temple puts everything in focus; the little things in life don't have the significance they once did."
Shauna Valentine, multi-region director of public affairs remarked: "A lot of us really feel that the temple was built on already sacred ground — that it's a way to honor all of those that didn't go any further than this spot as well as those who did go forward from here."
Garth James, who from 1967 to 1973 served as stake president of the Winter Quarters Stake, could scarcely contain his emotion as he recalled the early days when there was one small branch each in Lincoln and Omaha, Neb., and Council Bluffs, Iowa.
"As a stake, we would take bus loads of people from here, leaving on Wednesday night, driving all night and day, arriving in Provo [Utah] late Thursday evening to get one temple session in, work in the temple all day Friday, and come home, again driving all day and night, just to go to the temple," he recalled. "The development of the Church has been marvelous here. And it is most appropriate now to have the temple adjacent to the cemetery. The people whose remains are buried here are compensated for their sacrifice by having the temple here now, where so many people can be blessed because of the presence of the temple."
Gail Holmes, patriarch in the Omaha stake and a recognized expert on the history of Winter Quarters and Kanesville, said the dedication of the temple is "a wonderful extension of the growth of the Church. It's a marvelous way to honor to those who died here. Those of us who have been in the Church here for many years are overwhelmed with what we see. The temple will give us a much greater opportunity to serve, not only those who are here today but those who have gone on before, of our own ancestors."
Brother Holmes said the adjacency of the cemetery is reminiscent of some of the tabernacles built by Latter-day Saints in the area that had cemeteries nearby, if not attached to them. One such was the Tennessee Hollow Tabernacle about 20 miles north of Winter Quarters on the Iowa side of the river.
The Winter Quarters Temple resembles the current generation of smaller temples that have proliferated in recent years. But with 16,000 square feet of interior space, it is significantly larger than the others, that typically have about 12,000 square feet. To accommodate the slope of the adjacent cemetery, the temple was built with two stories, and it has a small chapel, which the other smaller temples do not.
Features of the temple symbolize the significance of its locale. Stained-glass windows by artist Tom Holdman of Highland, Utah, depict scenes from Church history.
Original paintings include a dramatic view of Winter Quarters at night, painted by Gregory Sievers of Lewisville, Idaho, showing the log and sod shelters and showing a range of human experience from the burial of a loved one in the cemetery to children playing happily. Another painting in the temple, by Valoy Eaton of Vernal Utah, depicts Chimney Rock, a prominent geographic feature that was seen by the numerous pioneer companies as they made their way from Winter Quarters or Kanesville to the Salt Lake Valley.