BATON ROUGE, LA. — In January 1841, two Louisiana saints mailed $10 to the Prophet Joseph Smith, indicating there was a small branch of the Church in New Orleans and requesting that an elder be sent to the area.
From that small beginning almost 160 years ago — the first time the gospel message was sounded in Louisiana — the work of the Church here has moved forward with characteristic Southern vigor.
After enduring periods of persecution, Latter-day Saints are now experiencing prosperity, symbolized by a new temple in the state's capital city — the Baton Rouge Louisiana Temple dedicated in four sessions July 16 by President Gordon B. Hinckley.
Constructed in a picturesque area between the Baton Rouge stake center and a wetlands nature reserve, the temple stands at the bottom of a small hill that could be a centuries-old bank of the Mississippi River.
Many of those attending the dedication called the temple a "house of refuge." Ole L. Christensen, local temple committee coordinator and president of the Denham Springs Louisiana Stake, said the edifice will bring a dimension of spiritual strength to the youth as well as the generations of pioneering members that came before them.
"When confronted with the snares and entanglements of this life we are grateful for this temple as a place of refuge, of safety, serenity and peace," he said.
During the dedication, members saw the new building as not only a spiritual refuge from the world, but also a physical refuge from hot temperatures and humidity.
Finding shade under trees and umbrellas, hundreds gathered outside the temple grounds for the temple's cornerstone ceremony and to wait for their dedication session to begin. Dozens of young single adults carried water to those in attendance.
President Hinckley joked about the extreme heat during the cornerstone ceremony, asking 7-year-old Harvie Morgan if he was hot following the long wait in the morning sun. After watching President Hinckley and Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve place mortar on the cornerstone, Harvie was given a turn. As was 6-year-old Vejon Knox, who before the ceremony removed his clip-on tie from his neck and attached it on his front pocket in an effort to cool down. "Your tie goes on your neck," President Hinckley teased.
Locals called the extreme summer temperatures typical of this southern port city, known for its spicy home-cooked food, sugar cane fields and tree canopied avenues.
During the dedication of the Church's 94th temple, members from nine stakes in Louisiana and Mississippi reflected on their rich Southern legacy.
From 1841 to 1855 more than 17,000 immigrating early members docked at the port of New Orleans before traveling up the Mississippi River to begin their journey West. In 1896, missionaries from the Southern States Mission arrived in Louisiana. During the next decades, stalwart Church members witnessed slow but steady growth of the Church.
Amy Richardson's great-grandmother was baptized May 1921 in a bayou near her home in Brittany, La. Mary Alice Ace taught her children and grandchildren the gospel. She attended meetings in a one-room log chapel, 18 feet wide, 30 feet long. She baked carrot cakes for LDS fund-raisers.
Carrying on her great-grandmother's legacy of faith, Amy told friends years before the Baton Rouge Louisiana Temple was announced that she would, someday, marry there.
Many members attending the temple dedication called the new edifice a fulfilment of the dreams of a pioneer generation of Latter-day Saints in the area — including Amy's great-grandmother.
Vivian Hutchinson and Joan Penton McAffee of the Slidell Louisiana Stake, sat in the hot sun looking at the temple "as if it were a mirage." In the early 1950s, the cousins walked one mile down the highway to meet in their aunt's house for Sunday School.
They later watched as Louisiana's first stake was created in 1955 in New Orleans. And then as their stake, the Slidell stake, was created in 1985; it was Louisiana's seventh.
One of the fastest growing cities in Louisiana, Baton Rouge is also home to Louisiana State University and a thriving LDS student population. Brittany Holm of the Walker Ward, Denham Springs Louisiana Stake, recalls annual temple trips from Baton Rouge to the Dallas Texas Temple; traveling by bus eight hours each way. During the dedication, she looked forward to driving 30 minutes the following day to do baptisms in the new temple.
R. Randall Bluth, president of the Baton Rouge Louisiana Stake and a member of the temple committee, has seen the young adults in the area prepare for the new temple. From a picnic table on the hill above the temple, parents have taught their children about the new edifice, he said. Service in the temple, he added, has generated a "power in the hearts of the youth."
The young women in the temple district polished and assembled the temple's crystal chandelier with the help of their mothers. When they finished, the job wasn't quite right, so they started all over again.
President Bluth and President Christensen have also seen good feelings resonate from the temple throughout the community. More than 18,500 people attended the open house — including government, community and religious leaders; numerous media representatives; 125 neighbors; and non-LDS patrons of the Church's local family history centers.
Weldon and Doris Smith, temple construction missionaries, also held weekly open houses while the building was being constructed. Members and others could visit the stake center, where Elder and Sister Smith would then update them on the construction of the temple. Many left with a small piece of marble from the temple; at times Elder Smith gave away so much marble he "felt as though he were running a marble store."
It was important though, he explained, that everyone who wanted take home a reminder of the new temple — which as it opens begins a new chapter in the rich legacy of Louisiana Church history.