EDMONTON, Alberta The growth of the Church here, in Canada's northern-most major city, is the realization of the hopes and dreams of a generation of pioneer members who have been living and working in this "Hub of the North" since the mid 1930s.
"There was a strong core of dedicated members who dreamed dreams of the growth of Edmonton and passed those dreams on to their children," said Elder Blair S. Bennett, an Area Authority Seventy.
Today a city with three stakes, a mission, a temple and more than 12,000 members, Edmonton is a place where the Church is thriving just as early members knew it would.
Born in 1949, almost 16 years after the first recorded Church meeting was held in Edmonton, Elder Bennett has witnessed the Church's growth in the city. In the 1940s, fewer than 100 branch members gathered each week in Odd Fellows Hall, a rented meeting place.
However, in 1950, construction began on the first LDS meetinghouse in Edmonton under the leadership of N. Eldon Tanner, a member of the provincial legislature who would later serve in the First Presidency. Members, who worked hard to raise funds for the new building, held meetings in the structure even before construction was finished, stretching planks across sawhorses to use as benches. On Aug. 5, 1951, President Stephen L Richards of the First Presidency dedicated the finished meetinghouse and, before long, the one Edmonton branch had become two.
It was a time when young people from throughout Canada including numerous Church members from southern Alberta were attending the University of Alberta in Edmonton. And oil discovered just outside the city in the late 1940s was creating jobs, Elder Bennett explained.
It seemed as if "a floodgate of growth" had been opened, said LeRoy Rollins, who in 1961 was called as Edmonton's first stake president. From a "grass roots" beginning, members shared the responsibility of maintaining a stake and began to focus on missionary work.
"Those were wonderful years," said President Rollins, who now serves as director of Edmonton's tri-stake family history center.
Elder Bennett remembers attending bazaars and Christmas concerts with Church members during the early years of stakehood. The meetinghouse, he said, literally became the center of "our social life, as well as the center of our religious life."
Each Christmas, numerous sisters in the city made "thousands and thousands of pounds of 'Mormon chocolates.' People lined up outside the Church building before Christmas wanting to buy Mormon chocolates for their friends," he recalled.
The effort became not only a fund raiser which helped raise money for additional meetinghouses and a stake center but also an effective missionary tool. "It certainly began to elevate us in the eyes of the community," Elder Bennett said.
The size of the Edmonton Stake doubled during the 12 years President Rollins served as a stake president. A second stake was created in Edmonton in 1974, and a third in 1983.
Elder Bennett was called to serve as a bishop shortly after graduating from dental school at the University of Alberta. "I did not realize it at the time, but I was the first native Edmontonian to serve as a bishop in the city. It didn't strike me as being significant," he said. "But it became significant to the people in Edmonton who said, 'No longer are we relying on leadership coming from southern Alberta; now we are developing our own leadership.' "
Recently, Elder Bennett sat in a Church meeting and counted the number of former bishops attending his ward. There were eight. These and other leaders are bringing "greater stability and influence to the members in the city," he said. They are also contributing to growth, as is the city's strong economy.
John and Kathy Nelson, members of the St. Albert Ward, Riverbend Alberta Stake, lived in Vancouver, British Columbia, before returning to Edmonton a year ago. They have found the city, where they grew up, an affordable place to raise a family. "The members here are very strong," Brother Nelson said. "Many are the second or third generation to live in the city. My parents moved to Edmonton before I was born, now we are raising our kids here."
And Elder Bennett knows the growth will continue. He looks forward to the creation of a fourth stake and is witnessing an increasing enthusiasm for temple work since the dedication of the Edmonton Alberta Temple Dec. 11, 1999. (Please see Dec. 18, 1999, Church News.)
He is excited to watch a new generation of Church members prepare to lead the Church in his hometown. On Feb. 6, six student wards in Edmonton were created out of three. In addition, LDS institute enrollment peaked this year at 728, up more than 100 from past years, said institute director Scott Forsyth.
More than half these young people grew up in Edmonton, and many hope to raise families in the city, Brother Forsyth said. These strong young Church members are building upon the foundation their parents and grandparents laid in this northern city. "They do very well in so many things: in education, in temple work, in missionary work and with family responsibilities," he said. "They are the strength of Edmonton."