BISMARCK, N.D. -- In a land with relatively few members of the Church separated by vast distances, the Bismarck North Dakota Temple -- which serves an area upwards of 200,000 square miles -- was dedicated here Sunday, Sept. 19, by President Gordon B. Hinckley.

The nearly 9,000 members of the temple district are spread out from deep into western Minnesota, across 350 miles of both North Dakota and South Dakota to the Montana and Wyoming state lines; and from the Canadian border across the Dakotas into northern Nebraska.Still, with those vast distances, 3,015 members, some traveling from areas more than eight hours away, attended the three dedicatory sessions of the Church's first temple in the four-state area.

Plans for the granite-veneer temple, located in a quiet residential area in northwest Bismarck, were announced Aug. 8, 1998, by the First Presidency. In just a little over a year, the temple has been completed. It opened for ordinance work the day after it was dedicated.

"The temple will be a great blessing to the people," President Gordon B. Hinckley told the Church News after the last dedicatory session had ended on a day chilled by a crisp wind carrying a tinge of coming winter.

Perhaps more of a statement than a question, President Hinckley continued, "Who would have ever dreamed we would have a temple in Bismarck?"

President Hinckley arrived in Bismarck -- the first time ever he has been to North Dakota -- the evening of Sept. 18. He was accompanied by his wife, Marjorie; Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve; and Elder Yoshihiko Kikuchi of the Seventy and his wife, Toshiko.

A short time after arriving in Bismarck, President Hinckley visited the temple. As he came onto the grounds, he was greeted by a few Church members outside the temple. But when he exited the edifice about an hour later, many Church members had gathered, hoping for a chance to meet him.

President Hinckley didn't disappoint them.

"Where did all these people come from?" President Hinckley humorously inquired as he came out of the temple and saw the waiting crowd. He then shook hands with many of them and inquired where they were from.

"Grand Forks, North Dakota," replied Heather Ricks when she was asked the question by President Hinckley.

"How far is that?" he inquired.

"Five hours," she said.

"Five hours!" he exclaimed emphatically, bringing laughter from the crowd.

The next day, members started arriving for the dedication, held in the temple and in the adjacent Bismarck stake center, in the pre-dawn hours. First to arrive for the outdoor cornerstone ceremony were Duncan and Sandy McKee and their seven children who made the 450-mile trip from Marshall, Minn. They had made the same trip just a week before to attend the temple's open house. Arriving at the temple at 6 a.m. they had to wait in the morning chill for the ceremony to begin two hours later, just as the sun popped up over the eastern horizon.

"We're really excited to see the prophet," said 17-year-old Emily McKee. "We never get to see him or any other General Authority."

A 47-voice youth and young adult choir from the Bismarck stake provided music for the ceremony. As President Hinckley, Elder Scott, Elder Kikuchi and the temple presidency and their wives exited the temple, the choir, led by Bonnie Frohlich, choir director in the Bismarck ward, began singing "We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet."

"Thank you," President Hinckley said to the singers after they had sung the hymn.

He then proceeded to symbolically seal the coverstone, behind which is the cornerstone box containing memorabilia about the temple. President Hinckley placed some mortar above the coverstone, and then invited Elder Scott, Elder Kikuchi, Sister Hinckley, Sister Kikuchi and the temple presidency to do likewise. And, as is his custom, he then invited three youngsters from the crowd to come forward to try their hand at putting a dab of mortar in place.

For the ceremony, the choir sang two hymns. Because of the long distances involved, the young singers from the Bismarck, Dunseith and Minot 1st and 2nd wards had rehearsed the hymns in their own wards. The choir's only rehearsal as a group was the night before the ceremony when they got together at the cornerstone site.

Included among the singers was Benjamin Cox, a 17-year-old defensive back football player for Century High School in Bismarck, who suffered a football-career-ending concussion in a game two days before the dedication and was hospitalized overnight. He was given a priesthood blessing.

When the choir members gathered the morning of the cornerstone ceremony, Ben was on the risers, singing with the other young people.

The 10,352-square foot Bismarck temple is the Church's 61st operating temple and the sixth of the new, smaller generation of temples to be dedicated since the concept was announced by President Hinckley in general conference in October 1997.

"I love these smaller temples," President Hinckley said in the Church News interview. "I am very grateful for them. They are very efficient and exceedingly well built with the best materials." The granite veneer for the temple is from Quebec, the marble is from Italy, the stained glass windows are from Germany and the chandeliers in the celestial and sealing rooms are from the former Czechoslovakia.

"The result [of the smaller temples] is we get temples nearer to the people," President Hinckley explained.

However, he said, "Even with the temple here, some will still have to travel a very long distance, but it will be much shorter than it was before. There is so much faith on the part of the people in these areas. They're willing to go anywhere to accomplish the temple work."

In the interview, President Hinckley was asked if temple work had increased because of more temples being dedicated. [Eight temples have been dedicated so far this year and another 54 have been announced and are under construction or in planning stages.] He replied, "There has been a substantial increase in temple work. With the addition of new temples, the work has shown a marked increase."

The Bismarck temple district includes the Bismarck and Fargo stakes in North Dakota, and the Rapid City and Sioux Falls stakes and the Pierre District in South Dakota. Before the Bismarck temple was dedicated, members, depending on where they live, were assigned to the Denver, Chicago or Alberta temple districts.

For those living in Grand Forks, N.D. , for instance, it was about a 16-hour drive to attend the temple in Chicago. For those in Minot, N.D., it was about a 14-hour drive to Cardston, Alberta. For those in Rapid City, S.D., it was a seven-hour drive to Denver.

"These are highly dedicated people," Robert B. Dahlgren, Bismarck temple president, told the Church News. "They are used to driving long distances.

"Can you imagine how happy these people are now with a temple so close?" asked Pres. Dahlgren, a former counselor in the Chicago temple, who joined the Church in Huron, S.D., in 1953.

Speaking of the dedication of the people, Pres. Dahlgren spoke of a retired couple living in an area some distance from Bismarck. He asked them, "Would you be willing to move to Bismarck and work in the temple full time?" The couple agreed, and are now full-time temple workers here.

The temple has been received very well in Bismarck, a city of about 50,000 on the banks of the Missouri River in central North Dakota, explained Pres. Dahlgren. "I am not aware of a single negative thing in connection with the temple." He said 10,267 people attended the open house, Sept. 10-11, some coming back more than once.

The Church has owned the land where the temple is situated since the early 1980s when it was purchased at the same time as the land for the Bismarck meetinghouse. From 1990-1993, Pres. Dahlgren's son, Dan, was district president in Bismarck prior to the creation of the Bismarck stake. Dan Dahlgren was city coordinator of Bismarck.

He explained that there was some encouragement during his time as district president to sell the land that was not needed for the meetinghouse and the parking lot. "I didn't feel it was right to sell the property," said Brother Dahlgren, now city manager of West Jordan, Utah, and a member of the West Jordan Utah Welby Stake presidency.

"When we lived here in Bismarck, we felt there was something sacred in this area. Others felt the same way. We are seeing the fulfillment of those feelings today," he said. "It is such a blessing for these wonderful people, who have sacrificed so much, to have a temple here."

"The temple here is nothing short of a miracle," said Sister Frohlich, the cornerstone choir director.

Darrell Bartholomew, president of Sioux Falls South Dakota Stake's Marshall Branch in Minnesota, said 90 members -- about 45 percent of the 220-member branch -- made the eight-hour trip to the dedication, an indication of the faithfulness of the branch members. They came in two buses, as well as in some private cars. The branch, spread out over 5,000 square miles, is the eastern boundary of the temple district in that part of Minnesota. On the other end of the temple district, the Alliance Branch in Nebraska, a unit of the Rapid City stake, is an 81/2-hour drive from the Bismarck temple.

Among those attending the dedication were Orlin and Shirley Jacobson of Bismarck, who have been members of the Church since the 1950s. They have been members in Bismarck longer than anybody else who is still living in the city.

"When we heard the news that there would be a temple in Bismarck, we couldn't believe it," said Sister Jacobson. "It didn't seem possible there could be a temple here."

Pam Gough, wife of Richard W. Gough, president of the Rapid City stake, perhaps summed up the feelings of many after attending a dedicatory session. "I could hardly talk," she said. She and her husband were in the temple with "people so dear to us" from their stake. "We got outside and started hugging each other. There wasn't anything I could say, I just wanted to hug them. It was absolutely extraordinary."