The untold story of the simple Richmond Virginia Temple groundbreaking — 3 years later

How a meeting between an Apostle and a governor helped facilitate the groundbreaking service held in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic

Under clear, blue skies on the morning of April 11, 2020, eight people quietly, respectfully and reverently gathered in a grove of trees in Glen Allen, Virginia, trying to avoid both curiosity and wariness.

They came together for a simple yet sacred groundbreaking ceremony for the Richmond Virginia Temple.

Under normal circumstances, Glen Allen and the adjoining metro Richmond area would have been bustling with residents bound for recreation, shopping and other Saturday morning activities. Also under normal circumstances, the groundbreaking service would have drawn hundreds and been broadcast to meetinghouses throughout the temple district. 

But circumstances were far from normal that day, with the world mired in the early stages of the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Still, the groundbreaking had been called for by the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and allowed by the governor of the state of Virginia, who a dozen days before had issued an executive stay-at-home order, directing Virginians not to gather in groups larger than 10 people.

A key condition of the governor’s allowance: Not to publish accounts or photos of the groundbreaking until the pandemic was a distant memory.

That was more than three years ago.

And so this is the previously untold story of the Richmond Virginia Temple groundbreaking, which led to the temple’s construction, its recent public open house and its upcoming Sunday, May 7, 2023, dedication by President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency.

Prior to the April 11, 2020, groundbreaking, the First Presidency had suspended all Church-related gatherings on March 12 and closed all temples worldwide two weeks later. 

But with the conditional blessing of Virginia’s governor, and under assignment from the First Presidency, Elder Randall K. Bennett — a General Authority Seventy and then-president of the Church’s North America Northeast Area — presided at the brief service and offered a prayer dedicating the site and the construction process.

The background

In his first general conference as President of the Church, President Russell M. Nelson announced a temple for Richmond, Virginia — one of seven locations identified on April 1, 2018.

In January 2020, the First Presidency announced the Richmond Virginia Temple’s groundbreaking, assigning Elder Bennett to preside. The announcement included initial details about the temple and site — a two-story building of a little more than 36,000 square feet and plans for an adjacent meetinghouse.

The two-story Richmond Virginia Temple has , a single-spire with an Angel Moroni statue and columns at the entrance. It is surrounded by trees.
Exterior rendering of the Richmond Virginia Temple. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

That same month, Glade Knight, a former stake president and founder of Southern Virginia University, and his wife, Kathleen Knight, were called as committee co-chairs for the groundbreaking event.

Over the next two months, the Knights prepared to stage an invitation-only event that would accommodate 700 invited guests and members, complete with a large tent, podium and sound system. Programs and tickets were designed and printed, with buses to shuttle guests back and forth from nearby school parking lots. Plans were made to broadcast the services to the 13 stakes in the temple district.

Rendering of the site of the Richmond Virginia Temple
Rendering of the site of the Richmond Virginia Temple | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The meeting 

Key to the groundbreaking ceremony — although not known at the time — was a March 3 meeting of Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles with then-Gov. Ralph Northam in Richmond’s Virginia State Capitol. The Apostle presented the governor with a leather-bound copy of the Book of Mormon and information on his family history.

The visit was one of Elder Christofferson’s several stops in a Northeast Area ministry — because of the pandemic, it would be his last Church assignment trip for the rest of that year and well into 2021.

Elder Michael M. Dudley, an Area Seventy among those accompanying Elder Christofferson, recalled watching him get up and position his chair to sit knee to knee with Gov. Northam.

Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, right, reads from the leather-bound Book of Mormon given to Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, left, as they meet in the Virginia State Capitol on March 3, 2020. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

“And he didn’t just hand him the book,” Elder Dudley said. “He opened the book, and he showed him the pictures of the Savior and other beautiful pictures at its beginning. And then he went to 3 Nephi, and they read together from the book. It was an amazing experience to see how an Apostle represents the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Recalled Elder Christofferson: “I spent more than the normal time I usually take with dignitaries to acquaint him with the Book of Mormon. I spoke about how it came to be, the historical span of the book and how we use it. I read the heading of 3 Nephi 11 with him. He was very gracious in hearing me out.”

That led to a conversation about the announced temple for Richmond and the excitement surrounding the planned groundbreaking the following month. “I made it a point to invite him as a special guest to attend and participate in the groundbreaking,” Elder Christofferson said. “Again, he seemed genuinely willing to consider being there.

“Of course, we didn’t know that COVID-19 would make the kind of large public event we had in mind impossible to carry out,” the Apostle continued, adding, “Perhaps his knowing how much the temple meant to us was influential in his allowing us later to go forward with a limited ceremony.”

The allowance

Amid the full throes of COVID-19 and resulting restrictions, a large-scale groundbreaking event was off the table. But a groundbreaking-type dedication was needed before construction equipment would begin clearing the temple site the Monday after April 11.

While many businesses, schools and services were shuttered after the COVID-19 outbreak, construction was considered an “essential service,” and the Richmond temple construction project was on schedule.

An inquiry was made to the governor’s office: Could the Church hold a small, intimate, pandemic-sensitive groundbreaking service on the scheduled date, prior to the start of construction?

“His office staff indicated the governor was supportive of a groundbreaking,” said Elder Bennett of Gov. Northam, “but his request was that it be very few people — 10 or less. Photos could be taken, but he asked that if it were at all possible, could we delay publishing a story or posting photos until COVID was more of a memory in our rearview mirror.”

A path leads to the setting for the April 11, 2020, groundbreaking ceremony for the Richmond Virginia Temple in Glen Allen, Virginia. | Cindy Jones

The groundbreaking participants did just that, keeping it away from conversations, off social media and out of the public eye.

“We really saw the hand of the Lord,” Elder Bennett said, “in prompting the governor to allow what would have been an exception to everything else happening in the country as well as the state of Virginia.”

Besides his assignment at the temple groundbreaking, Elder Bennett was to preside at the Midlothian Virginia Stake conference that weekend, but that was canceled. As such, he was able to arrange to fly in with his wife, Sister Shelley Bennett, from Salt Lake City on Friday afternoon, April 10, stay in a nearby pandemic-emptied local hotel that night, dedicate the site the following morning and fly home that same afternoon.

The event

With the simple groundbreaking approved, the Knights went to work on creating a private setting in the middle of the tree-laden temple lot — a beautiful atmosphere where everything was appropriate to pandemic guidelines, Elder Bennett said.

The setting for the small groundbreaking ceremony for the Richmond Virginia Temple on the temple site in Glen Allen, Virginia, on April 11, 2020. | Cindy Jones

And on the cool, crisp Saturday morning of April 11, 2020, eight people arrived at 10915 Staples Mill Road in Glen Allen, gathering near a small canopy where an orchestral rendering of “High on the Mountain Top” was quietly playing. Joining Elder and Sister Bennett were the soon-to-be-released and newly sustained local Area Seventies and their wives — Elder Dudley and Sister Michelle Dudley; and Elder J. Matthew Scott and Sister Allyson Scott — as well as Glade Knight and photographer Cindy Jones.

“We were asked to kind of keep it quiet so that curious people didn’t just show up that day,” Sister Dudley said. “It was just the eight of us — we didn’t talk about it much, and when people asked when the temple groundbreaking would take place, we really said nothing, because that’s how we were asked to respond. And then it just kind of went away.”

Noticeably absent from the event was Kathleen Knight, who had taken ill and was hospitalized the evening before with a non-COVID illness. “She was so instrumental in making this all happen, and we were all devastated,” remembered Elder Bennett.

To honor her efforts in planning the ceremony, her image was edited onto some of the groundbreaking images.

A photoshopped image of the groundbreaking ceremony to include Kathleen Knight, fourth from right, who was ill and absent for the Richmond Virginia Temple on the temple site in Glen Allen, Virginia, on April 11, 2020. From left to right, Elder J. Matthew Scott, Area Seventy; Sister Allyson Scott; Sister Shelley Bennett; Elder Randall K. Bennett, General Authority Seventy and North America Northeast Area president; Kathleen and Glade Knight, groundbreaking committee co-chairs; Sister Michelle Dudley; and Elder Michael M. Dudley, Area Seventy. | Provided by Elder Randall K. Bennett

Following the singing of a verse of “Redeemer of Israel,” Sister Dudley offered an invocation, after which each attendee bore testimony of Jesus Christ, His Atonement and His restored gospel.

In his brief remarks, Elder Bennett spoke of the importance of covenants and associated ordinances. “Elder Bennett’s testimony of Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, His love for us, His consistent presence and His constant leadership of His kingdom on the earth, was delivered in a manner that caused us to know we were standing on sacred ground,” Elder Dudley recalled.

Elder Bennett then offered a prayer dedicating the site for the construction, asking for the safety of the workers, a perfected craftsmanship of the temple and its timely completion. He also commended to God the local Latter-day Saints for their faithfulness, worthiness and hopefulness in preparing for the coming temple.

Taking commemorative shovels in hand, the group moved to an area of prepared soil to turn shovelfuls of dirt, symbolically signaling the start of the temple construction. They concluded by singing “I Am a Child of God,” with Elder Scott offering a benediction.

“It was a beautiful, edifying, Spirit-filled time together, and it was very brief,” said Elder Bennett of the ceremony that lasted between 20 and 30 minutes. “We began, we finished, and we got off the lot. We wanted to honor the governor’s trust and not take advantage of what I thought was inspired generosity and willingness on his part.”

He asked attendees to write down their impressions of the ceremony and send them to him. Glade Knight felt inspired to write his impressions in poetic form.

A special commemorative medallion created for the groundbreaking of the Richmond Virginia Temple, held on April 11, 2020. | Provided by Kathleen Knight

The Knights made sure participants went home not only with a commemorative shovel and a specially commissioned commemorative medallion but also the potted azaleas that had been positioned to enhance the groundbreaking setting.

“We call them our temple azaleas,” Sister Dudley said, “and we planted them in a place that will remind us at our home what happened on a piece of property for another home — the house of the Lord.”

The reflections

“Sister Scott and I felt a closeness to an unseen heavenly host observing the proceedings. We also felt a greater measure of reverence within our small company, knowing that we were to witness a historical event in the Restoration,” wrote Elder Scott.

“The entire proceedings were accompanied by the Holy Spirit, which lingered in our hearts and minds, testifying of the truth that was shared in testimony and prayer,” he added. “It also deepened our understanding of the eternal importance of the events of the day and the blessings that would flow out of this holy house of the Lord in this part of His vineyard.”

Said Glade Knight: “It would be difficult to express the powerful spirit and feelings that were present. It was very evident that this was the Lord’s site for His holy house, and His presence was felt that day.”

Summarized Elder Bennett: “The fact we were even there was God’s doing — we tried to follow the Spirit and do our best, and He paved the way, providing numerous miracles that made it all possible.”

The Richmond Virginia Temple is located near a wooded area of the Glen Allen community just outside of Richmond. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
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