ST. GEORGE, Utah — Huddled below a spiral staircase inside the historic St. George Tabernacle, they pointed out faces featured on a poster-sized 1950 photo of the St. George Fifth Ward Primary taken in the tabernacle basement. And they spoke of names and memories in animated tones reminiscent of the childhood friends they were seeing in the image.
“What on earth am I doing with a baseball cap in a Primary photo?” quipped Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as he found himself face-to-face with his 9-year-old self in the photo. He proceeded to easily and quickly rattle off the names of others he saw and recognized in the photo that was found decades later in the belongings of Leona Atkin, the ward Primary president at the time.
His wife, Sister Patricia Holland, who moved to St. George with her family when she was 16, also listed off those she could identify — and lovingly teased her husband by pointing out a childhood girlfriend.
A St. George native like Elder Holland, Elder Steven E. Snow wasn’t in the photo, having been born less than a year before it was taken. But the Church historian and General Authority Seventy also recognized a number of individuals, including one who in later years would babysit him.
The photo was just one stop in a small, private tour held the evening before the recently renovated St. George Tabernacle was rededicated. In the Saturday morning service held on July 28, Elders Holland and Snow and Bishop Dean M. Davies of the Presiding Bishopric were featured speakers.
They spoke of their tabernacle memories during the brief tour with local leaders and wives, during the 90-minute rededication meeting and again later during media interviews. And the three visiting general authorities welcomed and appreciated the opportunity to revisit a city and building brimming with treasured recollections.
Or, as Elder Holland said, correcting a well-known Thomas Wolfe saying: “You can go home again.”
In their remarks, Elders Holland and Snow and Bishop Davies paid tribute to the city’s settlers, the tabernacle’s builders, the area’s heritage and the people in the building’s nearly century and a half history who had led, taught and served from the multi-purpose edifice.
The St. George Tabernacle doubled as Elder Holland’s ward meetinghouse and stake center for his first 12 years of life — and he took time early in his morning remarks to point out specific locations both memorable and meaningful to him.
The first was as an infant being brought into the St. George Tabernacle for his naming and blessing ordinance, with his parents still debating on his name as he was carried to the front. (His mother won the naming rights, he added.)
That followed with attending Junior Sunday School and Primary meetings in the basement, having an Aaronic Priesthood interview with his father on a side bench, sitting on the front pew as a new deacon passing the sacrament for the first time, singing a duet with a friend on the rostrum, being brought into the building with Dixie High School teammates to celebrate state championships in football and basketball, and reporting on his full-time mission when unexpectedly asked as a recently returned missionary attending stake conference.
Most of Elder Snow’s tabernacle experiences revolved around stake conferences, although his ward held its meetings there for several of his teenage years while nearby meetinghouses were being renovated and constructed.
“I remember climbing up the bell tower after Mutual and ringing the bell when we shouldn’t have — all those things with exploring the building. We loved this building,” he said, adding “of all the buildings save the temple and my own home, this was probably the most spiritual place in the community for me.”
In his public remarks, Elder Snow admitted to carving his initials and date in the side of one of the tabernacle tables as an early teen — only to rediscover them several years later when the tables were moved to a stake center where he was reporting to stake leaders following his full-time mission service.
Sister Holland, who grew up in Enterprise, Utah — a 41-mile drive to the northwest — before her move as a teenager, has her own memories of the tabernacle. “I just remember it was a focal point, even if you’re coming from another community,” she said. “It felt like our tabernacle, and my ancestors who settled in Enterprise had a hand in the meetings here — it was like one big community.”
She added that she spent much of the rededication services mindful of the pioneers who built the tabernacle and those who filled the building in the decades since — “the sacrifices they made, the love they had, the way they taught,” she said.
Even Bishop Davies, first counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, cited a strong familiarity with the St. George region and residents. Growing up, he frequently visited his older sister, Carol Ruesch, who moved to St. George with her husband, and who ironically would serve as a waitress to Elder and Sister Holland in their early years together.
“I think maybe we don’t remember enough in the Church, and a dedication like this is built on memories,” said Elder Holland, adding that meetings and gatherings usually center on something new, like a new temple or a new general conference.
“Here it was,” he said of the rededication, “an open invitation to reflect, remember and pay tribute.”
The rededication activities allowed the St. George Tabernacle to be recognized for its central role and location in St. George since its 1863 start and its 1876 dedication.
“You’ve got to remember, this was a city of 5,000 people — it never varied. … We knew everybody in town and everybody knew us. It was a community with an emphasis on the commonality,” Elder Holland said.
And while the commonality drew residents together to the St. George Tabernacle, the building held a greater, primary purpose.
“We needed a place to worship — that was first and foremost, and it’s not insignificant that this is the original building to go up, followed quickly by the temple,” he said, adding “This gave the communion to community — and I think that’s what it was for us as kids. That’s harder to hold in a city of 84,000 now. We shouldn’t lose it, we mustn’t lose it.”