After being closed for 412 days due to precautions over COVID-19, the Church’s Mormon Battalion Historic Site welcomed visitors again on May 1.
Their first in-person tour after being closed for more than a year included a couple of locals. First was an autistic young man and his father, who both drove by the site every day it was closed to see if it had reopened. The second was a woman, not a member of the Church, who walks her dog in the area and was befriended by the sister missionaries.
On that same day, the site also offered a virtual tour to 43 Primary children in the Philippines.
In many ways, the day encapsulates the blessings of the “new normal” experienced by the Church’s historic sites today, which include both the return of visitors to these sacred spaces and extending their reach across the globe through virtual tours.
“We are happy campers here,” said Illinois historic sites President J. Stephen Rizley. “We have the best of both worlds: We teach these stories with people around the world, just as we have done since summer 2020, and we welcome in-person actual human beings who shed tears as we share these sacred places.”
Looking back, the Church History Department was unprepared for a scenario that would close all of the Church’s historic sites, said Gary L. Boatright Jr., operations manager of historic sites for the Church History Department. And yet it has been reconfirmed again and again that the Lord is in charge.
“The Lord knew that the sites were going to close for an extended period of time, and He consistently put the right people in the right places to do what needs to be done at these historic sites. It’s just amazing to see that the Lord is inspiring people, He’s blessing people.”
When the pandemic first hit, the Church History Department had already been experimenting with virtual tours. “What the pandemic did was to help really kickstart that and make it real for us. We had to go from testing to reality within just a matter of days,” Boatright said.
Thankfully, the Lord provided the sister missionaries and senior couples who had the technical skills to get the ball rolling. Soon the sites were inundated with requests from across the globe to take a virtual tour. “That was perhaps one of the biggest and far reaching blessings that we saw during the pandemic,” Boatright said.
Elder Kevin and Sister Mary Ballard entered the missionary training center on March 2, 2020, and about a week after reporting to their assignment in Nauvoo, Illinois, the Church announced that many of the Church historic sites, including Nauvoo, would be closing due to the spread of the coronavirus.
Like hundreds of other missionaries serving in Church historic sites, they faced uncertainty and began to experiment with giving tours remotely using technology. As virtual tours began to gain popularity, the Ballards also experienced the challenge of learning the nuances of teaching and testifying with a selfie stick and cellphone. “It was just an adventure to learn how to do all the technology,” Sister Ballard said.
But how else would they have the opportunity to offer tours to missionaries in Cambodia or a family in Australia, Elder Ballard pointed out.
“Virtual tours have been a blessing to us,” Sister Ballard agreed.
One thing they have learned through virtual tours, Boatright said, is that someone in Argentina, or in Ghana, or in England can feel the same Spirit as the individual standing in the Sacred Grove.
“The Lord can testify of the truthfulness of the sacred events that occurred in the Sacred Grove, not just to a person or family standing in the Sacred Grove, but to that person or family sitting in their living room, hearing the stories shared via technology from missionaries.”
The work of reopening the sites
The Church has historic sites from Vermont to California and everywhere in between. The Church History Department wants visitors to have a good and safe experience wherever they go, said Boatright. “We have been closely monitoring how the pandemic is affecting areas associated with historic sites and the local government responses. We work very closely with our leaders on the ground, and we work very closely with our administration and our executives in the Church History Department.”
Each site is taking strict precautions to try to make sure tour experiences are safe for visitors.
Curtis Ashton, historic sites curator, said they have been inviting missionaries to be vaccinated and asking them to be conscientious about hand washing, social distancing and wearing masks and inviting visitors to do the same.
Some experiences within the historic sites are still closed, Ashton noted. For example, visitors still won’t have an opportunity to see a pageant this year or take a wagon ride down Main Street in Old Nauvoo. “Part of that is just infusing enough missionaries into each site,” Ashton said.
During the pandemic, many missionaries had service delayed or, in the early days of the pandemic, were asked to return home and wait it out. Those numbers are slowly returning but many sites are trying to conduct both in-person and virtual tours with fewer missionaries than pre-pandemic conditions.
President Allen, President Rizley and the Ballards all had the same advice for would-be visitors to historic sites this summer: Be sure to make a reservation.
“Obviously if someone makes a reservation then they have a time slot that’s reserved for them. But otherwise, we welcome them, we encourage them to come, but they may have to be a little patient so we can fit them in,” President Allen said.
One unexpected benefit of having no visitors has been the opportunity to refresh many of the historic buildings and visitors’ centers, Boatright said. Missionaries and staff have been able to deep clean, such as shampooing carpets, giving walls a new coat of paint and, in some cases, sprucing up old exhibits.
As visitors walk in, hopefully it will feel “nice and welcoming and inviting,” Ashton said.
Blessings of in-person tours
While leaders and missionaries are quick to tout the virtues of taking a virtual tour and the opportunity to take historic sites to the world, they are also rejoicing at the opportunity to connect with individuals in person again.
When the Ballards heard earlier this year that the Church historic sites would begin welcoming visitors again, their response was to say, “Hallelujah!”
“I don’t think there’s a missionary in Nauvoo that hasn’t been praying and fasting for that,” Elder Ballard said.
It feels right and natural to be offering in-person tours again, said President Allen. “As wonderful as virtual tours were, and will continue to be, it’s just nice to have people in person,” he said.
For the Mormon Battalion Center, located in the heart of Old Town, San Diego, the opportunity to provide in-person tours also brings expanded missionary opportunities.
Most of their virtual tours are to members of the Church but typically about a third of their in-person visitors are not members of the Church, said President Allen.
The Ballards said they love giving in-person tours because it offers individuals a full sensory experience. People can see, hear, smell and touch history as they take a tour.
Sister Ballard commented how wonderful it is to have children on the in-person tours. “They pick up on the Spirit, and it is just adorable the questions they ask and it brings such energy to a tour,” she said.
And there are certain experiences that are better in person. “Visitors can’t pan for gold over Zoom,” Sister Allen said with a smile.