ST. GEORGE, Utah — The white sandstone exterior of the St. George Utah Temple stands in stark contrast to its surrounding red cliff plateaus. Today, it rises above tall, well-established trees, is outlined by paved roads and walkways and is encompassed by a sprawling urban community.
But in the 1870s, when the temple was first announced, early Latter-day Saint settlers were still struggling to subdue their sometimes hostile desert environment.
“But they rose to the occasion, and the faith and the sacrifice [they exhibited] is just overwhelming for me to think about,” Elder Kevin W. Pearson, General Authority Seventy and president of the Church’s Utah Area, told the Church News.
Elder Pearson, along with Elder Erich W. Kopischke, a General Authority Seventy and assistant director of the Temple Department, and Elder Matthew S. Holland, a General Authority Seventy, all participated in a news conference and media tour of the newly renovated southern Utah temple on Wednesday, Sept. 6, marking the beginning of nine weeks of open-house tours.
In conjunction with the news conference, the Church released images of the interior and exterior of the newly updated pioneer-era temple, as well as some historical photos.
The St. George temple holds “a special place in the hearts of Latter-day Saints,” Elder Pearson said. It was the first temple to be completed in Utah, and it was also the first to be constructed after the Saints had been driven out of Nauvoo in 1845. Dedicated in 1877, it is the oldest operating temple in the Church.
“You can only imagine the joy of the members of the Church, when after 30 years they were able to be inside a temple again and to receive the ordinances of the temple,” Elder Pearson commented, referring to the 30 years since the Saints had worshipped in the Nauvoo Temple.
In those early days, the people did not have electricity or paved streets or even direct access to the railroad. “But then they built a building like this,” Elder Kopischke said. “That tells me something about the pioneers — their spirit, their devotion, their consecration. I’m touched by that. I want to follow their example.”
Their legacy of faith is one “that we’re still building on today,” Elder Pearson said.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was born and raised in the area and has referred to himself on several occasions as a “southern Utah boy through and through,” with “red sand in my shoes and lava in my bones.”
Although the senior Elder Holland was scheduled to attend Wednesday’s proceedings, recent health challenges prevented him. Instead, his son, Elder Matthew Holland, with the encouragement and blessing of his father, took part in the media tours and spoke of his family’s connection to the area and its pioneer temple.
“I’ve ruined more pairs of gym socks with red sandstone dirt than I’ve had hot meals as an adult,” Elder Matthew Holland quipped during the news conference.
His parents were sealed in the St. George temple. He and his wife, Sister Paige B. Holland, were also married there, becoming the fifth generation on his mother’s side to be sealed in that sacred edifice. His ancestors were among those early pioneers who sacrificed to build it.
“Temples have long stood as a testament to God’s power to His people on this earth as a way to unite families and link the generations across time and eternity. I’m a very personal recipient of those blessings from this temple,” Elder Matthew Holland said.
With the renovations completed, the St. George Utah Temple again becomes a focal point for connecting generations and learning and benefiting from the examples of those forebears, he said.
‘It still feels like a pioneer temple’
In the 146 years since its original dedication, the St. George Utah Temple has been renovated 10 times to update systems and increase capacity for the growing community.
The most current renovation began in November 2019, following the announcement by President Russell M. Nelson in October 2018 of plans to renovate pioneer-era temples. Both the Manti Utah Temple and the Salt Lake Temple are also under renovation.
The current upgrades included all-new heating, air conditioning and cooling systems as well as state-of-the-art lighting. An effort was made to make the temple more accessible, with added elevators, better stairs, walkways and hallways and a new bride’s exit.
The temple has been refinished and restored in a beautiful way to honor the original pioneer design, noted Benjamin Pykles, director of the Church History Department’s Historic Sites Division. “All of the furnishings and the lighting fixtures, the carpets, the furniture, all of those are intentionally designed ... to reflect the period that the temple was built.”
While much of the original artwork, furniture, fabric and other details from the original temple have been lost, those features in the 2023 update “really harken back to those early Saints,” Pykles said. “It feels special and it feels beautiful, but it also feels historic. It still feels like a pioneer temple.”
The beauty of the temple is a symbol of Latter-day Saints’ reverence for their God, Elder Kopischke explained.
Hopes for the open house
Elder Kopischke said he hopes the open house will give members of the community — especially those who aren’t members of the Church — the opportunity to learn about what Latter-day Saints do and why they do it. “If you really want to understand the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you will have to understand their temple worship. You will have to understand why they build these houses of the Lord, what they do in the house of the Lord, and what binds them to Christ.”
The architecture, the artwork, the furniture and other features of the renovated temple will all make visitors go “Wow!” Elder Pearson said. But, more importantly, he hopes everyone who comes to tour the temple will experience a connection with their Heavenly Father and with the Savior. “And that there’ll be a little burst of hope that life can be better.”
The open house will most likely provide a short economic boon to the community as visitors flock to the city to tour the temple prior to its dedication on Sunday, Dec. 10. “But the lasting effect will be that people will leave the temple a little kinder, a little more forgiving, a little more like the Savior,” Elder Pearson said, “and that feeling of love and community and unity and compassion for others will be the enduring impact that visiting a temple makes upon them. Because that’s what getting the ordinances of the temple can and always does in our lives.”