MCALLEN, Texas — When Darrell Davis joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 59 years ago, the closest temple was a 24-hour drive away.
Baptized in McAllen, Texas, Davis still calls the Texas-Mexico border town home. But in the 1960s, temple worship meant making a trip to the Mesa Arizona Temple.
Now, however, it will take Davis only 10 or 15 minutes to reach the nearest temple.
The 27,897 square feet temple was announced Oct. 5, 2019, by President Russell M. Nelson during the women’s session of October 2019 general conference. The temple site — on McAllen’s northwest corner of Col. Rowe Boulevard and Trenton Road, in the state’s southernmost tip and a dozen miles from the Texas-Mexico border — was announced two months later on Dec. 11, 2019.
Construction followed the Nov. 21, 2020, groundbreaking, with Elder Art Rascon, an Area Seventy, presiding and offering a prayer dedicating the site and the construction process.
COVID-19 restrictions — impacting most of the Church’s 21 temple groundbreakings that year — kept attendance at the McAllen ceremony to a minimum. However, the proceedings were available virtually to Church members throughout the temple district, which includes stakes in McAllen, Corpus Christi and Laredo, Texas. The temple’s open house was held from Aug. 25 to Sept. 9, 2023.
Davis said the McAllen Texas Temple will be a particularly big blessing to the local immigrant community, many of whom are undocumented and can’t leave the region.
“I’m talking about hundreds and hundreds of members who now will be able to have all the blessings of the temple which they never could before,” he said. “... Now they can have the temple right here in our midst.”
Church’s history in McAllen area
Davis, a member of the Monte Cristo Ward, serves on the McAllen Texas Temple groundbreaking committee. When asked to write a five or six page history of the Church in the McAllen area, “I said, ‘I could do 300 [pages] if you want me to.’”
His 15-page history begins in the 1920s, when South Texas was part of the Gulf States Mission. Missionaries hadn’t been well-received when a local man named Dan Smith first met them; but Smith opened his home to missionaries, and soon he, his wife and two daughters were baptized.
Since they were the only Latter-day Saints in the area, the Smiths crossed the border each Sunday to attend their meetings in Matamoros, Mexico — even though they didn’t speak Spanish.
No one else in the area joined the Church until the 1940s, when the Ricker family was baptized. They began meeting with the Smiths in Brownsville, Texas, and eventually their little congregation grew to about 20 people.
It was around this time that the area was put under the Texas-Louisiana Mission with headquarters in Houston, Texas. Missionaries from the Spanish-American Mission were also working in the area.
“English speaking missionaries were still coming here only on occasion,” Davis wrote in his history. “These were trying days for the Saints in this area.”
For instance, barber shops refused to cut missionaries’ hair. Gas stations wouldn’t put air in their bike tires, and some store owners didn’t want “Mormon money.” Ministers with bullhorns sometimes even drove down the street shouting lies about the missionaries.
Despite opposition, the Church’s presence in South Texas continued growing as members from Utah came for the area’s year-round growing season. By the 1950s, there were enough members to form the Rio Grande Valley Branch, with Melburn Ricker serving as the first branch president. A Church building in San Benito, Texas, was purchased for the branch to meet in.
The Alamo Branch came soon after. Here, the members met in a city recreational hall, cleaning up every Sunday morning from dances held the night before.
District President R.F. Pool began a building fund for the Alamo Branch, holding fish fries, chicken barbecues, rummage sales and other fundraising events. The branch eventually bought and remodeled the old Pharr Convalescent Center. Families were assigned a certain number of hours per week to work on the building, and it took about seven months to move in.
Growth and change
McAllen was the next place to receive a Church building, as it was “growing rapidly,” according to Davis’ history. A four-acre tract at 2nd St. and La Vista was approved by Church headquarters, and a dozen members held a groundbreaking ceremony on a cold, rainy day.
At that time, the Church covered 70% of a Church building’s cost, with the local branch paying 30%. But because incomes were low in McAllen, the Church adjusted the local share to 20% and allowed member work to contribute for a third of that percentage. Members painted, welded, poured concrete and more.
A local architect took on the design project, while the Church sent Earl Wood from Idaho to be the supervising contractor. It was Wood who asked local members to collect rocks for a wall built behind the chapel’s stand. For three weekends, members filled two large cattle trucks with rocks of all sizes from an area near the Rio Grande. They also obtained rocks from former missions and from across 15 different states.
Members then placed their individual rocks in the wall and, for years after, could point out “their” rocks.
The Church building was dedicated on Aug. 28, 1966, by Elder Bernard P. Brockbank, an Assistant to the Twelve. More than 1,100 people attended, among them the mayor of McAllen, the Chamber of Commerce manager and two city commissioners.
By this time, the South Texas District had been divided so that the lower Rio Grande Valley had its own district. The Spanish-American Mission also merged into the Texas South Mission.
In the late 1960s, District President C. T. McKasson was challenged by Texas South Mission President Dean L. Larsen to be the last district president in the area. President McKasson took the challenge to heart and began operating the district as a stake with wards.
The McAllen Texas Stake was organized in 1975 by Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. D. Birch Larsen was called as the first stake president. Later, the Harlingen Texas Stake was formed.
In 2009, the McAllen Texas Stake was divided into the McAllen Texas Stake and the McAllen West Stake.
Today, Texas is home to more than 378,000 Latter-day Saints comprising 78 stakes and nearly 750 congregations. Once dedicated, the McAllen temple will be the fifth dedicated house of the Lord in Texas, joining the temples in Dallas, Houston, Lubbock (dedicated in 2002) and San Antonio. Temples have also been announced for three other Texas cities: Austin, Fort Worth and Prosper.