MOSCOW, Idaho —

Dennis A. Wright has always had a soft spot for the Moscow, Idaho, Institute of Religion.

That's where he met his wife — though at the time he was a lofty college kid and she was merely a high school girl who attended church in the building.

As a student at the University of Idaho, he attended institute classes there for three years.

So he was understandably upset when — in the late 1970s — he learned the building was going to be razed.

He made a mental note to come back someday and learn more about its history.

In the spring of 2009, he published some of that story in Mormon Historical Studies, Vol. 10, No. 1.

"I found the wonderful story of Norma and Zola Geddes and the story of obtaining the (James) Deakin property," Wright, a professor of Church History and Doctrine and associate dean of Religious Education at BYU, said. "And there's still more out there, stories about the co-operative organized during the depression, a co-operative that utilized the apartments in the building and set an example for the nation. There's the story about what happened to the Geddes sisters."

Wright says the original building, built in 1926 and serving 50 students, was a beautiful, architectural example of the Tudor-Gothic style. It was also the first Institute of Religion set up by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"The University of Idaho undoubtedly had the first institute. Cedar City had religion classes, but this was the first official institute building built," Wright said.

William Geddes, after seeing the grim conditions his daughters dealt with in the fall of 1925, took the matter to Preston Nibley, the son of one of the members of the LDS Church's First Presidency.

He told the brethren that LDS students deserved better, a strong Mormon church presence on campus and a safe place to study and gather.

His request coincided with a similar recommendation from two LDS university faculty members.

William J. Wilde and George L. Luke were concerned that young Mormon students needed increased involvement, possibly a student center.

They explored the feasibility of getting university credit for such a center's classes.

Due to the fact that they had general faculty support, University of Idaho officials presented a formal proposal to the State Board of Education and Board of Regents in 1925.

On May 30 of that year, the board approved a document spelling out what conditions such a place would meet.

On April 17, 1928, J. Wyley Sessions was named the first director, and the effort to find land and build moved forward, despite early fears that Sessions was working to move the University of Idaho to Boise.

The land search took a while and the price was set high — $8,000 for a corner property known as the Deakin homestead then owned by Ella and Arnold Lyon. President Heber J. Grant agreed to pay the inflated, stiff price after the town's Chamber of Commerce had offered to pay two-thirds.

Then when Arthur Price designed the building, he was told by the church's education commissioner — described as the "most economical, conservative general authority of this dispensation" — that it would be too expensive to build.

Presented with cheaper, less attractive options, Sessions insisted he could not build "a little Salvation Army shanty" next to the state university.

President Grant laughed at that and assigned the contractor to build a three-story, $60,000 building with a chapel, a baptismal font, a kitchen, a library, three large classrooms, a full basement, a large recreation room, an office and 11 apartments for 22 male students.

It was dedicated on Sept. 26, 1928.

Today, there are usually more than 200 participating in offerings at the Idaho institute taught by instructors Kip Jenkins and Curtis Banks.

And there are more than 500 institutes serving more than 150,000 students all around the globe, stemming from a father's concern that his two daughters shouldn't have to pick up whiskey bottles and cigarette butts before they could set up for services in the International Order of Oddfellows hall.

Along with the daily classes in doctrine and church history, the institute has three annual events that are both popular and famous for their success.

One is the annual spring talent show held in February. Another is the formal dance very similar to a high school junior prom, and the highlight is the Brother Palouse Pageant held near the end of October.

For that event, all the local Relief Society units nominate two men to compete for the Brother Palouse Pageant prizes — usually items from a thrift store.

The men compete in a fitness category, Sunday best outfit and answer gospel questions.

"It's a parody. It is hilarious," Jenkins said. "Everyone gets a candy bar for participating."

e-mail: haddoc@desnews.com