'Drenched in history,' Richmond has vibrant Church membership

When Robert M. Wily strolls into his office in the Federal Courthouse in downtown Richmond, he could be stepping back in time. Peering from his window on the third floor, he is surrounded by rich history, having a bird's eye view of the Virginia Capitol and several other historical landmarks and monuments.

It is a stimulating work environment for the attorney who is clerk of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Eastern District of Virginia. He also finds the Richmond environment exciting as a Church member.Pres. Wily serves as second counselor in the Richmond Virginia Chesterfield Stake, one of two stakes in the Richmond area. (Richmond Virginia Stake is the other one.) Between 5,000 and 6,000 members live among nearly 1 million people in and around the city. Both stakes continue to grow steadily, each having completed a new stake center within the past year. In July, the Virginia Roanoke Mission will move its headquarters to Richmond due to member concentration and to be more centrally located, according to mission Pres. Larry M. Johnson.

"I think the members here are a vigorous, vibrant part of the community," reflected Pres. Wily. "A lot of them are very involved in community affairs in one way or another. A number of prominent businessmen are members of the Church, along with the head of the local Scouting council. There are many wonderful, dedicated people here. It wasn't that long ago that the Church was just a handful of families in this area.

"Missionary work here is enjoyable. This is part of the Bible Belt or close to it. A lot of people are familiar with the Bible and have some strong feelings about religion. That makes it quite easy to discuss the subject with people here, which is nice. Our children get in conversations about religion with other children who aren't members of the Church. In fact, they have been asked by teachers who know they are LDS to do reports in school about the Church.

"There's also a lot of energy from new converts. In gospel doctrine class, chances are that half the class have been members less than five or six years."

Pres. Wily moved from Salt Lake City to Richmond with his wife, Pam, and their four children in late 1986. Having never lived in the eastern United States, they were initially a bit leery about leaving an area with a strong concentration of Church members.

"We came back and visited a ward before we made the decision to move here," said Pres. Wily. "Frankly, we were surprised to see how big and active the wards are. We felt, perhaps wrongly, that if the wards didn't offer the programs for our youth, we would pass on the opportunity to move back, but it was obvious that they did."

Not only did the Wilys find a vibrant, growing Church membership in Richmond, but also they discovered a historical and cultural gold mine.

"I'm no expert on the history of Richmond, but this place is so drenched in history that you can't get away from it," Pres. Wily noted.

The city lies on the James River, about 100 miles south of Washington D.C. In the mid-1600s, English colonists chose the site for settlement because of its natural advantages for trade and transportation. In 1779 during the Revolutionary War, Virginia changed its capital from Williamsburg to Richmond because its central location was deemed safer from British attack. In 1781, however, British troops raided the city, burning several important buildings. In fact, Richmond has been burned five times - three times during the Revolution and twice during the Civil War.

At war's end in 1783, Richmond entered a period of growth. In May 1861, a month after the outbreak of the Civil War, the city replaced Montgomery, Ala., as the capital of the Confederacy. The capture of Richmond became a prime goal of the Union forces. In April 1865, the Confederate government moved from Richmond to Danville, Va., which served as the capital for the last week of the war.

As the war ended, Richmond's people burned part of the city so it would not fall undamaged into Union hands. The

task of rebuilding began almost immediately thereafter.

Pres. Wily's office is in a building annexed to the Federal Courthouse where Confederate President Jefferson Davis was to be tried for treason following the Civil War. His trial was set several times and postponed, and eventually the Union dropped the charges.

The Virginia Capitol was designed by Thomas Jefferson before he became president of the United States. He made a model of a Roman temple in Nimes, France, after which the building was patterned. It includes an interior dome set beneath an exterior pointed roof and influenced the architecture of many public buildings in the United States.

A famous marble statue of George Washington, created in 1788 by French sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon, stands beneath the Capitol dome. Busts of seven other U.S. presidents born in Virginia are displayed close by. A bronze statue of Washington on horseback stands in Capitol Square, with six bronze figures of important Virginia statesman flanking its stone base.

Other historic sites close to Pres. Wily's office include the Museum of the Confederacy, the house in which Jefferson Davis lived as Confederate president; the John Marshall home, occupied by the fourth chief justice of the United States from 1790 until his death in 1835; St. John's Church, built in 1741 and the site where, in 1775, Virginia statesman Patrick Henry delivered his famous speech that ended with the words, "Give me liberty or give me death!"; Monument Avenue, a wide city boulevard lined with statues of prominent military leaders, and along which the Church also has a meetinghouse; and the Edgar Allan Poe Museum. Poe, famous American author, lived in Richmond as a child and later as editor of a literary magazine.

Only an hour west of Richmond is Jefferson's famous plantation home, Monticello. To the southeast is colonial Williamsburg, with buildings restored to their original appearance. Less than two hours north is Mount Vernon, home of George Washington. Plantations in Richmond along the James River date back to settlement in the mid-1600s. There's a lot to see.

"We love it in Virginia for many reasons," reflected Sister Wily, who serves as first counselor in the ward Young Women presidency and teaches early morning seminary. "We love the trees and the seasons, and especially the people. And it is wonderful having the children being here and learning so much about history. Our whole experience has been very positive."

Pres. Wily added that the area's history has a "profound effect on the people."

"It's not something that's forgotten," he explained. "It's a big part of the way people here look at themselves; it's part of their self-image. It's a very rich tradition. People know about it and are proud of it. It makes a very interesting place to live. And the people here are very nice. There really is something to Southern hospitality. We've certainly felt that. We love it. It's a wonderful place to be."

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