Helping visitors see, hear, feel the spirit of Nauvoo

Walk into one of the many Church historic sites in and around Nauvoo. Now close and open your eyes. If you can see, hear and, most important, feel the spirit of old Nauvoo, then Sister Eve Peterson and her fellow full-time missionaries smile.

They've done their job.

Sister Jean Brimley and Elder Kent and Sister Jeanette Staheli work on weaving done in the manner of the 1840s residents of Nauvoo.
Sister Jean Brimley and Elder Kent and Sister Jeanette Staheli work on weaving done in the manner of the 1840s residents of Nauvoo. Credit: Photo by Scott G. Winterton

"People always say there's a special spirit in Nauvoo, but until you come here you don't realize how true that is," said Sister Peterson, who is serving 18 months in the Illinois Nauvoo Mission with her husband, Elder Richard Peterson.

The Petersons are two of about 200 full-time missionaries serving in a wide range of capacities in Nauvoo and neighboring historic sites such as the Carthage Jail. About 90 couples make up the Illinois Nauvoo Mission, along with some 20 single sister missionaries. The Petersons currently work as tour guides, or "site interpreters," at the Browning gun shop and home. Others schedule tour groups, work as skilled tradesmen for Nauvoo Restoration Inc., organize the annual "Sunset on the Mississippi" summer musical or fulfill a host of other assignments. About the only thing they don't do is actively proselytize — a task left up to the neighboring missions.

Most of the Nauvoo missionaries live in homes at or near historic sites and are frequently rotated among the many sites to keep them fresh and enhance their Nauvoo experience.

"It has been absolutely wonderful to be here," said Sister Myrna Chappell, a Springville, Utah, resident currently serving in the sewing center in the basement of the Joseph Smith Academy.

Sister Chappell has one of those transparent but invaluable Nauvoo jobs. She and a group of other missionaries prepare the 1840s-era clothing worn by the young performing missionaries who will make up the "Sunset on the Mississippi" cast this summer. The sewing center also prepares specialized clothing items worn by the site interpreters at local LDS historic sites, such as the aprons used in the historic brickyard and blacksmith shops.

"We want the missionaries to look historically correct for the thousands of visitors who make a trip to Nauvoo every year," said Sister Chappell, who serves with her husband, Elder Dick Chappell.

Elder Harold Dance explains to visitors at the printing office how the newspaper was produced.
Elder Harold Dance explains to visitors at the printing office how the newspaper was produced. Credit: Photo by Scott G. Winterton

Sister Chappell's connection to Nauvoo stretches back several generations. Her great-grandfather once called the former Church headquarters his home.

"Everyone here feels like they are walking on tender territory," said Illinois Nauvoo Mission President J. Samuel Park.

About 80 percent of the visitors to the Nauvoo LDS historic sites and visitor centers are Church members. The temple open house could change those demographics as folks of myriad backgrounds converge on Nauvoo. President Park said the Nauvoo missionaries will use the "soft approach" enlisted during the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City with those who are not Latter-day Saints.

"It is a wonderful time to be here in Nauvoo," President Park said.

Elder Robert Sessions would agree. He spent 40 years working as a building contractor in California, specializing in carpentry and cement work. Now his skills are utilized as a Nauvoo Restoration Inc. missionary. He recently installed a mass of concrete in preparation for the temple open house.

Elder Sessions said his mission has helped him become closer to the Prophet Joseph Smith and the other Old Nauvoo members.

"These early members and their lives and sacrifices have come to life," he said of their effect upon him as he walks where they walked and learns about their lives.

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