OAKLAND, Calif. — After a 16-month pause for renovation, the Bay Area’s spiritual “beacon” is operational again.
That spiritual beacon is the Oakland California Temple, rededicated Sunday, June 16, in three sessions by President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency.
From its site on the lower foothills overlooking Oakland, the temple has also served as a visual beacon since 1964, the year it was originally dedicated by President David O. McKay.
The massive gray-granite building with the central tower and four corner towers is easily visible by day from much of the Bay Area as well as by night when awash with its bright lights. The temple has long been a focal point for private, shipping and naval boat operators and is a visual landmark for commercial jet pilots as well.
“This is a true beacon in the area,” said President Oaks. “As we drove up, you could see it shining majestically on this hill.”
The participants — and a change
Joining President Oaks, who presided at the Saturday night youth devotional and the Sunday rededicatory sessions, were his wife, Sister Kristen Oaks; Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Susan Bednar; and Elder Kevin W. Pearson, a General Authority Seventy and president of the Church’s California Area, and his wife, Sister June Pearson.
The Oakland sessions were among the Church’s first dedication and rededications to feature a change in participating speakers. Previously, the pattern has been speakers selected from an exclusive group — General Authorities and general officers, their spouses, the temple president and matron and their counselors and assistants.
The First Presidency, President Oaks said, decided this spring to have fewer such speakers and add in other individuals. Those offering remarks in Oakland included adult temple workers, a member who helped manage renovation efforts and a number of youth.
“The young people are going to the temple in greatly increased numbers,” President Oaks said, “so we felt it would be a good thing to have them represented at the dedication.”
Upon receiving the assignment to preside at the Oakland rededication, President Oaks knew who to request as a companion. “I instantly went for Elder Bednar, because I knew he was raised in the Bay Area,” he said. “What I didn’t know then was he was present at the original dedication.”
Born in Oakland and raised in nearby San Leandro, Elder Bednar can list plenty of ties to the Oakland temple and grounds — he was baptized in the massive Interstake Center meetinghouse adjacent to the temple, he played on the dirt hills at the temple construction site, he attended the temple’s November 1964 dedication services with his mother, as a young man he went to the Oakland temple to do baptisms for the dead, and he received his temple endowment there prior to his missionary service in Germany.
“Happy doesn’t begin to describe how it makes me feel,” said Elder Bednar of his return. “I think it is one of the ultimate tender mercies.”
The presence in the Bay Area
The Church’s Bay Area roots date to July 1846, when some 240 Latter-day Saint men, women and children arrived on the ship Brooklyn, their six-month journey taking them from New York City around South America’s Cape Horn and on to Honolulu before passing through the Golden Gate strait.
The settlers there in Yerba Buena — now San Francisco — set up the area’s first newspaper, first school, first library and first bank.
In an 1847 letter, Brigham Young penned: “In the process of time, the shores of the Pacific may yet be overlooked from the temple of the Lord.”
And while taking in a view from a hotel terrace atop San Francisco’s Nob Hill in the 1920s (some cite 1924, others 1928), President George Albert Smith — then an apostle — looked east toward the hills above Oakland and uttered an unexpected statement to W. Aird Macdonald, the recently called San Francisco Stake president who was with him.
“I can almost see in vision a white temple of the Lord high upon those hills, an ensign to all the world travelers as they sail through the Golden Gate into this wonderful harbor,” said President Smith, as recalled by President Macdonald. “Yes, sir, a great white temple of the Lord will grace those hills, a glorious ensign to the nations, to welcome our Father’s children as they visit this great city.”
The property and the temple proper
In the mid-1930s, a committee was created to look at potential temple sites in Oakland. Even with the city offering several potential properties at no charge, the committee had its eye on a specific site on a rounded hilltop. After the property owner died, his family sold the tract to a developer, who turned to the Church several years after being unable to develop it. The sale price for the 14.5 acres: $18,000.
With the purchase finalized in early 1943, President Heber J. Grant announced the acquisition in April general conference that year. An adjoining four acres were later added to the site.
Eugene Hilton, who led the original site committee and was Oakland’s stake president at the time of purchase, wrote: “The hill stands apart from the noise of the city and yet is ideally located among the millions it will serve. … The view from afar as the predicted ‘ensign’ on the hills to the east of San Francisco can never be obstructed.”
First on the property in 1959 was the massive Interstake Center, with its auditorium, stage, gymnasium, cultural hall, chapel and numerous rooms and offices. Temple plans were announced in 1961, with President McKay presiding over the groundbreaking and site dedication the following year.
During a five-week open house prior to dedication, some 300,000 visitors walked through the multi-level building featuring a central tower, additional towers on each corner and 35-feet-by-13-feet bas relief granite panels showing Christ with His disciples — in the Holy Land on the north-side panel and in the Americas on the south.
President McKay led the dedication of the temple, done in six sessions Nov. 17-19, 1964. He had suffered a recent stroke, making it difficult to speak; however, he inspired attendees by arising from his wheelchair and delivering the dedicatory prayer with clarity and power.
The Oakland temple then became The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ 13th temple. The Church totals 164 operating temples worldwide, with another 15 under construction and 30 more having been announced.
The people attending
Sunday’s three rededicatory sessions — also broadcast to the adjacent Interstake Center and other stake centers throughout the 25-stake temple district throughout Northern California — drew a wide range of attendees, from older members who were present at the 1964 dedication to young children still several years from being able to regularly attend the temple.
Jan Hilton of Provo, Utah, attended in 1964 with her husband John, who was a son of Eugene Hilton and who passed away in 2000. Now 90, she was returning for the rededication of the temple where the family attended while living in nearby Walnut Creek; seven of her eight children married in the temple did so in the Oakland temple.
She remembers attending the original dedication and the financial sacrifices members made then to donate for the building of the temple. “We all got a piece of the granite to use as a bookend,” she said, adding that the temple and its dedication “was just such a fulfillment for the family.”
Nine-year-old Riley Swenson of Castro Valley, California, was pleasantly surprised she could attend the dedication with her parents, David and Ashley, and her teenage brothers Kyle and Kody. Knowing that youth need to be at least 11 to participate in temple ordinances, she said thought her age would preclude her from attending Sunday.
Kody Swenson, 17, said “it was a really cool experience — I was able to feel the Spirit throughout the session, especially during the Hosanna Shout.”
The real purpose
Just as the Oakland temple serves as both a spiritual and temporal beacon, its rededication allows Church members to not only be mindful of a renovated building but the blessings the temple provides to the individual member.
“It is a unique opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the Lord’s work,” President Oaks said, “and to extend to members of our family an understanding of temple work and the purposes of the temple as well as to reach out to people who we think will be interested in the restored gospel.”
He added: “It is not just a restoration of the physical facilities, but it is a rehabilitation of people who have strayed from the covenant path and who will be inspired to get back on by this wonderful House of the Lord.”
Elder Bednar said the focus should be — and always is — on the ordinances and the covenants of the temple, rather than the edifice itself.
“The buildings are beautiful — they should be beautiful, that’s a commandment to build these as the House of the Lord,” he said. “But what matters most is access to and the availability of the ordinances and covenants.
“So, for the new members to be able to come and receive those blessings and for members who have received those blessings to come back and serve others on the other side of the veil, this is the essence of the work of salvation. This is our discipleship and the purpose for our membership in the Church.”