Church grows larger in 2nd smallest state

In the early 1960s, the wooded landscape of the Eastern States and the tall skyscrapers of New York City captivated Vernon Rice, a young missionary from Utah's Cache Valley.

"I couldn't believe a place could be so beautiful," he recalled. "I savored the scenery, and I liked the people."A few years after his mission, he returned to the East to earn a law degree at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Then in 1967, he and his family moved to Wilmington, Del., to work for Du Pont, the largest chemical company in the United States.

"It wasn't a difficult choice," said Rice, who is now president of the Wilmington Delaware Stake.

Making his home in Wilmington also was an easy decision for Steve Taylor, a native of Delaware. After his career in professional baseball was cut short by injuries, he returned to Delaware and entered the banking business. In 1984, he was elected to the Delaware Legislature and became the only LDS member of that body.

Taylor and Pres. Rice are among an ever-growing number of Latter-day Saints who are building a strong foundation for the Church in a state rich in history, but relatively new to the restored gospel.

Covering 2,057 square miles, Delaware, in terms of size, is the second smallest state in the United States. Only Rhode Island is smaller. From Wilmington on its northern tip to Maryland on its southern border, Delaware extends a little more than 90 miles. At its widest, the state covers a distance of 35 miles between the Delaware and Chesapeake bays.

But the people here are proud of the role the state played in the formation of the United States. Delaware was the first of the 13 colonies to call itself a "state," and also the first to ratify the Constitution.

In the early years of the Church, the gospel was preached in Brandywine, near the state's northern border with Pennsylvania. But the first branch wasn't created in the state until the 1940s. And more than 30 years passed before the Wilmington Delaware Stake was established on Dec. 8, 1974.

"When I came here 1967T, there was a strong base for Church growth," Pres. Rice noted. "Wilmington had a thriving ward and was part of the Philadelphia Pennsylvania Stake. There also were small branches in Dover Del.T and Salisbury Md.T." (Salisbury is just south of the Delaware state line in the part of Maryland that's east of Chesapeake Bay.)

Soon after he arrived, he was called as an elders quorum president. As the Church grew, he and his wife, Loretta, received many more opportunities to serve. He served as a bishop and as a counselor in the stake presidency before being called as stake president.

At Du Pont, he is the managing counsel in the corporation's legal department. During his career, he has dealt with challenging health and environmental issues. This has been "consuming" at times, but he's made a point of not letting his profession interrupt with family and Church responsibilities.

"I've found Du Pont to be a pleasant corporation to work for," he said. "Wilmington has been a good community to rear our family of six childrenT."

In the past 20 years, the Church has expanded from one ward to three large wards in the Wilmington area. Dover has grown from a small branch of 100 members to a ward with more than 600 members, and Salisbury has grown from a branch with 50 to 75 members to a ward with 450 members.

One branch in Smyrna, Del., has been created from the Dover Ward and two branches in Cambridge, Md., and Seaford, Del., were created from the Salisbury Ward. Another branch is located in Ridgely, Md.

The expansion of the Church in Wilmington has paralleled the rapid growth of northern Delaware. Known as the "Chemical Capital of the World," Wilmington is headquarters for Du Pont and several large chemical corporations, including Hercules and ICI Americas, Inc.

"In Wilmington, a large proportion of the members work for those companies," he explained. "A high councilor, Arden Engebretsen, is a vice chairman of the Hercules board of directors."

For example, the Elkton (Md.) Ward, located about 30 miles southwest of Wilmington, received an influx of seven active families from Modesto, Calif., when Du Pont acquired a division of a major oil company. Most of the members attending the Elkton Ward live in Delaware.

Other Latter-day Saints have been transferred into the area by national banking giants that moved operations to the city after the state liberalized its banking laws in 1981.

"We're the units in the stakeT very much tied into the fortunes of the state," Pres. Rice explained. The stake has about 3,300 members, 2,300 of whom live in Delaware.

Pres. Rice expects the growth to continue. Modest gains have been made in missionary work, especially in the southern part of the stake where most of the members are converts to the Church. The stake also has a strong Melchizedek Priesthood base and has enjoyed success in reactivation.

Members also are having an impact in other areas. Last year Claudia Bushman of the Elkton Ward directed the state's bicentennial of the Constitution commemoration. This year, Taylor was elected to a third term.

Taylor is one of a few home-grown Latter-day Saints in Wilmington. In the early 1970s, he and his brothers were the only Latter-day Saints in their high school of 2,000.

But his faith wasn't the only thing setting him apart from his fellow students. Taylor became an outstanding baseball pitcher, earning a scholarship to the University of Delaware in nearby Newark, where he captured academic all-American honors in 1977. After his junior year, he signed with the New York Yankees as a No. 1 draft choice. He advanced to the Triple A level, one-step shy of the majors, before a shoulder injury shortened his career in 1982.

He returned to Wilmington, and he and his wife, Carolyn, began attending Church there. She wasn't a member but became involved in the ward. After a ward conference, their bishop, Jim Slaugh, and Pres. Rice came to visit her.

"The first thing the bishop asked when he sat down was why I hadn't joined the Church," she recalled. "Nobody had asked me until that point."

She couldn't think of any major reasons why she hadn't.

"When I married Steve, I didn't know anything about the Church," she said. "What attracted me to Steve was that he was just different from everyone else."

When she joined the Church, many of the ward members were surprised because they thought she already was a member.

In 1983, Taylor was asked to run for the State Legislature. He was elected, and said he felt it was important for him to be active in the community.

His first decision was to select somebody to run his campaign. He picked a friend from Church, Bruce Winn, who jumped at the opportunity. Taylor won and Winn later became a principal aide and campaign manager for the governor of Delaware.

"We have kind of gotten into this thing together," Taylor said. "And I'm glad I did. It has been a real neat experience. It's important for Church members to be involved."