Utah's Dixie is beginning to look a lot like the real Dixieland: There are plenty of Baptist churches.
And along with the Baptists, Washington County's unprecedented growth of the 1990s has brought more Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians.More Seventh-day Adventists and Christian Scientists call this place home now. The Bahai faith and the Assembly of God Church are represented here. There are evangelicals and even New Age spiritualists.
Membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose pioneers settled this land in the 1860s, continues to grow here as well.
In 1990, there were still fewer than 10 non-LDS churches in St. George, Washington and Hurricane combined. Today there are at least 26 churches or organized worship groups in the area. Some of them are experiencing overcrowded conditions. Rumors of new churches or branches being formed are commonplace.
A Jewish synagogue is noticeably absent. Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims have no formal place of worship. But with those noted exceptions, the St. George area has quickly become a land where newcomers of all faiths can find a place of worship to call their own.
"The number of Protestant churches in town has more than doubled just in the seven years I've been here, and most of them have done very well in size and number," said the Rev. David Howell, pastor of the First Southern Baptist Church of St. George. "I would say the (Protestant) growth rate is about twice the rate of the county as a whole."
Between April 1, 1990, and July 1, 1994, Washington County ballooned from 48,700 residents to more than 66,000, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates released last October. The population increase of 36 percent for that period was second only in Utah to Summit County's 39-percent growth rate.
St. George proper grew from about 28,500 to nearly 39,000 during that four-year period, mirroring the county's 36-percent growth rate. The neighboring city of Washington grew from 4,200 to 5,400, and nearby Hurricane jumped from 3,900 people to 5,600.
The evidence suggests newcomers have continued to arrive in droves. The rapid development of St. George's east side, particularly the northeast and the Bluff Street corridor, is a testament to the most recent surge.
Among the fastest growing churches are the Oasis Community Church and the Calvary Chapel, and all six of Washington County's Baptist congregations appear to be flourishing. Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in St. George and Southland Bible Church in Washington have gained a number of new parishioners in recent years. The Presbyterian Church may soon add a fellowship building. Trinity Lutheran Church has plans to build a school.
The First Southern Baptist Church has helped start two other Southern Baptist churches, one in nearby Hurricane and another in Mesquite, Nev. There was only one Pentecostal church in the county in 1990, but now there are several. The Calvary Baptist Church of St. George opened just this year.
A small New Age community began evolving 13 years ago when the Rev. Shirley Nelson came to town and started teaching meditation and dream analysis. She soon organized the Religious Science Church, Spiritual Living Fellowship. Part of that congregation then split to form the Unity Church of St. George.
Those two churches form a support group for a growing alternative community that includes message therapists, fitness enthusiasts, vegetarians and spiritual adventurers.
"It's kind of an ever-changing metaphysical group down here, but there is a strong (alternative) community," said Sue Apitz-Upwall, a member of the Unity Church who teaches astrology classes locally. "It's kind of a melting pot down here. There are lots of people moving in that are interested in this sort of thing."
Many of the area's newcomers are retirees attracted by the balmy climate, golf courses, relatively low crime rate and laid-back, small-town feel that St. George and surrounding areas still possess. Booming tourism has promoted growth in the hotel/motel industry, creating more service-sector jobs and drawing younger families to the area.
They come from all over, although Californians have led the charge of out-of-state immigrants. Their religious af-fil-i-ations are as varied as their reasons for coming here.
"This congregation is made up of people from Maine, Massachusetts, Florida, Alabama, Wisconsin, Iowa, the rest of the Midwest and then the rest of the Intermountain West," said the Rev. John Mahon, pastor of the Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church.
The influx is diversifying Washington County's religious makeup but at the same time is fortifying the stronghold of the LDS Church. Many of the new arrivals are Mormon, a large portion of whom have uprooted from the Wasatch Front. Many out-of-staters are returning to where they, or their ancestors, were raised.
"We're getting a lot of people who are coming back to Utah, especially from California," said Robert L. Simpson, director of the St. George Temple Visitors' Center. "I'm amazed at how many people have roots here in Southern Utah."
Since 1990, the number of LDS wards in the area has increased from about 80 to 100, Simpson said.
When the St. George Catholic Church was built in 1991, a meeting hall was constructed directly behind it. But the church's congregation grew quicker than expected. Shortly after the church and hall were finished, the wall between them was removed and the hall became the back half of the church.
The church now has a brand-new two-story meeting hall, complete with a gymnasium and five classrooms. And while no more physical expansion is planned, the church is getting a new associate priest to assist the Rev. Paul S. Kuzy. There were only about 100 families on the church's register when the Rev. Kuzy arrived in 1984, but now more than 600 are on the list.
The early years
Presbyterians were one of the first Protestant groups to venture into Utah's Dixie. They opened a mission in St. George in 1880, built a church in 1901 and remained active until about 1949.
The Rev. Mahon came to St. George in 1987 to organize the Good Shepherd congregation and re-establish a Presbyterian presence here. The current church was built in 1991, but church leaders already are eyeing a lot behind the parking lot for possible expansion.
"Already 10 years ago you could see that St. George was growing and it certainly wasn't the sleepy Mormon town it had been for 100 years," said the Rev. Mahon, who has pastored in St. George for as long or longer than any other active Protestant minister. "When I-15 came in in the '70s, it really opened it up."
As the 1960s began, there were only two non-LDS churches here - the Catholic Church and the American Baptist Church, each with about 60 or 70 members. The Southern Baptists arrived in the middle of the decade.
The Rev. Alex Wilke remembers those days well. He served as pastor of the American Baptist Church, now known as the Community Baptist Church, from 1961 until his retirement in 1991.
"It was a lot different 35 years ago," said the 66-year-old Rev. Wilke. "St. George, with the college in session, had only about 5,000 (people) and it went on that way for years.
"We had other churches that were interested. They'd come in and do a survey and then leave, or come in (with a church) for a while and then leave."
Washington County's Mormons and non-Mormons haven't always gotten along as well as they seem to today.
As early as 1897 the Presbytery of Utah published a report titled, "Ten Reasons Why Christians Cannot Fellowship with Mormons." Statehood and the rejection of polygamy seemed to bring the two groups together.
The Rev. Wilke has no complaints about his long tenure in this hotbed of Mormonism.
"The temperament of the person will determine how he's able to handle the community and that's true of any community," the Rev. Wilke said. "Those whose temperament is such that they are always finding conflict, I have a feeling that might be the case (for them) in any community.
"Some come here and stay and adjust. What you need to do is have your own positive outlook and that is to say, `I have a church and I'm happy there.' "
But not all non-LDS clergy have had the same experience here.
The Rev. Mark Sell of the Trinity Lutheran Church arrived in 1990 knowing his predecessor had received death threats. And while nothing quite so drastic has happened to him, the Rev. Sell felt rejected at times when he ventured into the community wearing his ministerial garb.
"Sometimes I didn't get waited on," he said. Other times he noticed people wouldn't get on the elevator with him, or would cross the street as he walked toward them.
But all that changed very quickly, the Rev. Sell said, for a combination of reasons. He said he has sensed a better acceptance from LDS Church members toward non-Mormons over the past few years, and an influx of Mormons raised outside of Utah has made a difference, too. His part-time work as a hospital chaplain also exposed him to many LDS Church members who came to know him as an individual.
"In my opinion it has changed drastically. In no way would I say that today is like 1990," the Rev. Sell said of LDS and non-LDS interaction. "I've been treated so well here. I've been made to feel welcome."
Some friction between the two groups was generated between about 1986 and 1990 when local attorney Phillip L. Foremaster led a successful legal battle against the city of St. George, which had been subsidizing exterior lighting of the St. George LDS Temple.
Several non-LDS religious groups, including the American Baptists, Catholics, Presbyterians, Southern Baptists and the Assembly of God Church, joined the lawsuit but later dropped out.
"I don't think there was as much tension as the paper may have played it out," said the Rev. Wilke, one of the non-LDS religious leaders who joined the suit. "I had many of the LDS people say to me, `If we'd known this was going on we'd have had it eradicated a long time before (the lawsuit) happened.' They said, `We don't think we should be subsidizing.' "
Mazie Lee, a former Wasatch Front resident, is in a unique position to observe the current relationship between Mormons and non-Mormons. Lee was raised in the LDS Church but is now a member of the Religious Science Church. However, she still participates in the LDS Relief Society.
"I feel there's a good relationship between non-LDS and LDS," she said. "Most of my neighbors, of course, are LDS.
"They have an interfaith council down here and I was invited to go to a luncheon a year ago and I got very good vibrations from everyone. We celebrate Cinco de Mayo with the St. George Catholic Church and everyone goes."
Simpson said the LDS Church recognizes the difficulties non-Mormons experience here.
"They feel a little overwhelmed because they're so outnumbered and we try not to make them feel that way," Simpson said. "Cooperation (between LDS and non-LDS) is as good or better now than it's ever been and it will get better in the future."
When the Rev. Kuzy arrived in 1984, he also noticed people crossing the street to avoid him. But the LDS Church, as an organization, has been nothing but hospitable, he said.
"On the official level it's fine, provided you're one of the main line churches," the Rev. Kuzy said. "You have people on both sides that don't want to have anything to do with the other side and this causes problems.
"I think some of the fundamentalist churches have a tougher time with Catholics and the Mormon Church. . . . Some of these Baptist churches and other churches, too - unless you believe exactly the way they do, they don't want anything to do with you."
Some churches, like the Trinity Lutheran Church, decline to participate in the local ecumenical society or in joint worship services. The Rev. Sell said his congregation does not share services with other churches because to do so would "give the impression we all believe the same thing, which is not true."
The Rev. Howell said some Baptists who move here never do get used to the Mormon culture that envelopes them. Some of them end up leaving because they can't adjust, he said.
Some non-LDS groups in Utah have found that having their own school system can make coexistence with the majority culture more tolerable. The Wasatch Front is peppered with private church-affiliated schools. The Catholic Church recently announced it is building a second high school in Salt Lake County.
Non-Mormons in Utah's Dixie don't have many options. There is only one church-run school in Washington County. The Trinity Lutheran School has 25 students in the elementary and junior high grades.
The Rev. Kuzy said the St. George Catholic Church would like to begin a school here, but economics and demographics won't support one now. While the church's congregation is huge, many of St. George's Catholics are retirees. The number of school-age Catholics is proportionately less than for many other Catholic churches.
There are about 25 Catholics attending St. George's three high schools, the Rev. Kuzy said, and "it's kind of hard on our kids. Dating, especially, is hard if you don't belong.
"Right now the parish is pretty much debted out. We have a $450,000 debt on our church. A school is a possibility, but I personally think it'll be 10 to 15 years," he said. "We are getting a lot more young people, especially Hispanics. They come in and work at the motels, some in small industries, also on farms or in (the gambling industry) in Mesquite."
The congregation of Trinity Lutheran is emptying its pockets to keep its tiny school afloat. But running a school is in keeping with the philosophy of the Missouri Lutheran Synod - it has more than 2,000 worldwide - and is important to church members.
"It's part of our tradition," the Rev. Sell said. "It's quality education with a Christian environment."
Only 10 of the 25 students enrolled this spring in the Trinity Lutheran School are Lutherans. The rest are Catholics, Mormons and members of other Protestant faiths. The Rev. Sell said only a few parents enroll their children out of concern that the public school education might reflect an LDS bias.
"At first I assumed that had to be a big part of it, but only 20 percent of the decision is because they don't want LDS," he said. "All other decisions are based on other choices. For a lot of people here, the change (due to growth) in the public school system has been a shock."
Other private schools have come and gone, and home-schooling has increased in popularity here. But Trinity Lutheran is moving forward with plans to build a new school beside the church. Once the new school is open, the Rev. Sell expects membership to climb. Eventually, he believes, the school can pay for itself - or at least come close.
"The financial crunch is enormous and it takes a tremendous subsidy, $400 to $500 per child (per year), that comes from the congregation," he said. "The low tuition ($125 per month) is to guarantee it's an affordable education."
Many of St. George's non-LDS churchgoers are retired and beyond concern over schooling. Some spend only the winter months here but take active roles in their part-time churches.
The Presbyterian Church has one of the largest population of "snowbirds" - so many that the church conducts two worship services each Sunday from September through May.
The Rev. Mahon has encouraged his part-year residents, as well as those who are permanently retired here, to become involved in the community. Many of them are talented professionals who have a skill or knowledge they can share with others, he said.
More than 300 senior citizens now spend their spare time as volunteer hospital workers, according to the Rev. Wilke. He said others take low-paying jobs in which they feel they can contribute to the community.
"I see these people coming to the hospital like they're going to work. They're happy," he said. "I see them working in restaurants for minimum (wage). They don't even want to be paid.
"There are people like that who have all kinds of hobbies and they want to share them with people. They just want to keep busy. This is what (retirees) have done to our community. This community is much richer because of them."
As in many American communities, St. George's clergy have played an important role in the development of social services.
Protestant leaders are active in a number of organizations including the Dixie Care and Share food bank and homeless shelter, the Washington County Child Abuse Prevention Task Force and the county's AIDS Task Force.
The Catholic Church spends between $9,000 and $12,000 on helping visitors who find themselves in need. Many are travelers who need a tank of gas or food to get through the day.
"There's kind of a hidden poor in St. George," said the Rev. Mahon. "There's not a lot of high wages. Some people are working two or three jobs, both members of the family."
By working through the Washington County Ministers' Alliance, government agencies and other cooperative ventures, St. George's clergy and their parishioners have made a difference in their community. They've made life more comfortable for others and, in doing so, have created greater understanding between themselves.
"I guess our greatest (accomplishment) would be simply working together," the Rev. Wilke concluded. "It's the cooperation of people with people to get things done in the community . . . because we learn to share with each other. We discover each other."
And in St. George these days, there are many more church members to discover.