ST. GEORGE, Utah — As a general authority for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, President Jeffrey R. Holland has circled the globe more than once — seeing the modern wonders of the world, living in distant lands and knowing wonderful people.
Still, his identity is inseparable from the geology and terrain of southern Utah — his boyhood home, where more than 150 years ago early settlers overcame the harshest of elements to build a temple. As a child, he played in the temple’s shadow and was baptized in its font at age 8 — children at the time were baptized in the temple, which had the only font in the area. As a child, he assumed that a temple anchored the lives of Latter-day Saints in every city everywhere.
Returning this week, President Holland, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, rededicated the St. George Utah Temple on Sunday, Dec. 10. The longest-operating temple in the Church and the first completed in Utah, the edifice stands as a tribute to the past and a beacon to the future, he said.
“I consider this one of the sweetest and most rewarding assignments I have had in my 34 years as a general authority,” he said.
Also participating in the rededication were Elder Matthew S. Holland, a General Authority Seventy and President Holland’s son; Elder Brian K. Taylor, a General Authority Seventy and a member of the Utah Area presidency; Elder Kevin R. Duncan, a General Authority Seventy and executive director of the Temple Department; and Presiding Bishop Gérald Caussé.
Quoting author Henry van Dyke, President Holland explained, “It’s sweet to dream in Venice, and it’s great to study Rome; but when it comes to living, there is no place [quite] like home.”
Of St. George and its temple, President Holland added, “I could not love any other spiritual home more than I love this one.”
Sturdy and faithful pioneers
Born in southern Utah 83 years ago this month, President Holland grew up hearing the stories and cherishing the heritage of sturdy, faithful pioneer forbears who built a temple with haste and sacrifice — fighting heat, limited resources, dry wind, alkali in the soil and mosquitoes in the air.
Announced in 1871 and originally dedicated in 1877, the temple was the first built after early Latter-day Saints left temples in Kirtland, Ohio, and Nauvoo, Illinois, and temple sites in Independence and Far West, Missouri.
The edifice is the Church’s first temple where endowment ordinances were performed by proxy for the deceased and where temple ordinances were first written down, assuring their consistency and long-term availability.
Kent McComb of St. George has three great-grandparents who moved to southern Utah in the early 1860s to raise cotton. “The heat down here was intolerable,” he said. “There was no shade. The water was bad. They could not keep a dam in the Virgin River.”
Still, they persevered and also built a temple — transporting lumber from Mount Trumbull in northern Arizona. When they discovered groundwater on the temple site, they packed the ground with lava rock to ensure a proper foundation.
Lyman Hafen, a member of the local temple rededication committee, was born across the street from the temple at Dixie Pioneer Memorial Hospital. He grew up just two blocks from the site.
He and other children feasted on the stories of their forebears. Like the children who once helped gather lava rock and participate in the yearslong process to sure the temple’s foundation, he grew up knowing the house of the Lord would provide the spiritual foundation of his life.
‘It was just part of my life’
During the temple open house this year as some 670,000 people toured the edifice, including 35,000 attendees on a single day, Hafen came to realize the temple is not only dear to him but also “near and dear to all members of the Church.”
It was the only temple dedicated during Brigham Young’s 29 years as Church president. He died just five months after the temple’s dedication.
The consecrated early Latter-day Saints in St. George were not “ready to build a temple, because they were still in dire poverty, but they were willing,” Hafen said.
His great-great-grandfather worked on the site.
And five generations of his family — he and his wife, Debbie, and his great-grandparents, grandparents, parents and some of his children — were married in the same historic sealing room of the temple.
Elder Matthew Holland said during the temple open house that he also represents a fifth generation sealed in the St. George temple. “I have just been emotional all day thinking about what my forebears and their fellow citizens and fellow believers did in this community ...,” he said. “Our affections and loyalties to this place are about as deep as you can get.”
Gwendolyn Frei remembers her youth in St. George. Born in 1931, she could see the temple from her bedroom window. “It was a place that was sacred,” she said. “That is what you felt. You knew it was. It was just part of my life.”
Years later, she and her husband served in the temple as ordinance workers.
“I would walk in and feel like I was home,” she said.
The renovated St. George temple
The 143,969-square-foot renovated temple has all-new heating, air conditioning and cooling systems, LED lighting and state-of-the-art high-efficiency systems, yet it looks and feels like it could have in 1877.
“I think the pioneers who built this would be pleased with our work,” said Andy Kirby, director of the Church’s historic temple renovations. “They would be satisfied that we preserved their efforts and the beauty and the intent of their work.”
Kirby said the north and west additions to the temple have been rebuilt to match the original architecture of the building. The sacred structure is more accessible, with added elevators and better stairs, walkways and hallways. There is also a new baptistry entrance on the south side of the temple and a bride’s exit on the northeast corner.
“The interior design matches the historic temple and furnishings that would have been appropriate in the 1870s and 1880s,” he said.
The landscaping on the temple grounds now includes waterwise plants, and the irrigation system is enhanced with secondary water.
This is the second time the St. George Utah Temple has received extensive renovation. The St. George temple was rededicated in 1975 by President Spencer W. Kimball.
“I anticipate that this temple will last for 50, 60, maybe even 75 years without a major renovation,” Kirby said.
Dana Moody is a great-granddaughter of George Brooks, who carved stone for the St. George temple and the nearby historic St. George Tabernacle.
With her husband, Russ Moody, she led the temple rededication committee. One evening shortly before the rededication, she listened to the dedication choir practice. It was like hearing the hymns for the first time, she said. “I literally felt how truly [pioneer members] are rejoicing on the other side of the veil that this temple is going to be rededicated and that the work is going to resume again,” she said.
Southern Utah growth
At the time of the temple announcement in 1871, only 1,100 Church members lived in St. George.
Today the temple continues to anchor St. George, where — in recent decades — air conditioning, mild winter temperatures, the interstate highway and golf courses have drawn growing numbers south.
Lyman Hafen said Brigham Young glimpsed the growth that would come to St. George. He prophesied that “there would be between the volcanic ridges, a city with spires, towers and steeples and with homes containing many inhabitants,” according to the Washington County historical society.
The 1960 census for the county documented 10,000 residents. By 1980, the county had a population of 30,000. In 1990 it had exceeded 50,000, and in the year 2000, it touted 100,000. Now when “people are moving here by the hour,” the population in the county is approaching 200,000, he said.
In addition to the St. George temple, the Church is building a second temple in the area; the Red Cliffs Utah Temple will be dedicated on March 24, 2024, by President Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency.
President Holland’s legacy
Debbie Hafen, who also served on the rededication committee, said so many people were praying that President Holland — whose wife, Sister Patricia Terry Holland, died in July and who then faced an extended hospitalization and miraculous recovery — would be able to rededicate the historic temple.
After arriving in St. George this weekend, President Holland visited the St. George Cemetery and his wife’s grave — returning with his family for the first time since her burial.
He and Sister Holland were married in the St. George temple.
The temple’s promise of eternity is real, he said. “I am filled with a lot of emotion and a lot of happiness. I am planning on eternity. I am collecting on the promises of this temple.”
The St. George temple is the first on the list of 335 temples that are announced, dedicated or under construction around the globe.
The momentum that rippled from St. George a century and a half ago continues, he said.
“There is a wonderful flood of faithfulness, revelation and righteousness that is affecting the whole Church,” President Holland said. “We are a stronger Church — we are better people — for having been in the temple.”
Latter-day Saints will not count temples ever again “by twos and tens,” said President Holland. “They are at least by hundreds now, and it looks like we are on our way to thousands. So, it is a fulfillment of the Prophet Joseph’s view and a statement about what those temple covenants mean for Latter-day Saints in the days of the Restoration.”
The most serious thing Latter-day Saints can do at a temple dedication — the most significant thing they can do — “is rededicate ourselves, put our own lives in order, and determine to live outside the temple — to be conscious of the way we live and act and talk and treat each other. The more we can get to a temple, the closer we are in living worthy of it, the better this Church is going to be and the stronger we as a people are going to be for eternity.”