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‘Visible as a beacon': Oakland Temple celebrates 50th year of service

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I have always cherished this temple as a great blessing. It is a beacon on the hill, and many are drawn there. – Jay Pimentel

In 1924, Elder George Albert Smith, then an LDS apostle, was visiting with a local church leader on the roof terrace of a hotel overlooking San Francisco Bay.

According to Chad S. Hawkins' book, "The First 100 Temples," Elder Smith “ceased talking and for several minutes gazed intently toward the hills above Oakland” before again speaking to his friend W. Aird MacDonald, Hawkins wrote.

"Brother MacDonald, I can almost see in vision a white temple of the Lord high upon those hills, an ensign to all the world travelers as they sail through the Golden Gate into this wonderful harbor," said the future president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "A great white temple of the Lord will grace those hills, a glorious ensign to the nations, to welcome our Father's children as they visit this great city."

Those prophetic words were fulfilled 40 years later when President David O. McKay dedicated the Oakland California Temple in November 1964.

A half-century after its dedication, the Oakland California Temple continues to stand as a beacon and spiritual lighthouse over the San Francisco Bay, said Jay Pimentel, a member of the LDS Church who lives in nearby Alameda City.

"I have always cherished this temple as a great blessing," said Pimentel, who has served as president of the San Leandro California Stake. "It is a beacon on the hill, and many are drawn there."

In the coming months, more will be drawn there. Bay Area members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will commemorate the Oakland Temple's 50th anniversary with various activities. For those who participated in the Oakland Temple pageant, there is a reunion scheduled for Aug. 2. There is also a VIP reception for community, government and interfaith leaders planned for Nov. 13 at the Oakland Temple Visitors' Center (see templehillevents.com). Details for these and other events will be released as dates draw closer.

Here is a look back at the history of the Oakland California Temple and its continued impact as the temple nears its 50th anniversary.

'A splendid temple'

When Elder Smith prophesied of the temple in 1924, the San Francisco Bay Area was still years away from creating its first stake. His prophecy filled members with hope for future church growth, Hawkins wrote.

Almost 20 years later in April 1943, LDS Church President Heber J. Grant announced that a site in the lower foothills of East Oakland on a rounded hill overlooking the bay had been purchased as the site of a future temple.

"We shall in due course build there a splendid temple," President Grant said.

The first step was raising the necessary funds. Members, including Primary children, and at least one nonmember worked together to collect more than $750,000 for the temple, Hawkins wrote. Plans for the Oakland California Temple were announced in 1961 and President David O. McKay conducted a groundbreaking and site dedication on May 26, 1962.

Pimentel was one of those Primary children. They were told that if each member would contribute a little less than $20, they would reach their goal. At 10 years old, Pimentel earned the money and donated it to the temple fund. He still has the certificate recognizing his contribution.

"It was a very memorable experience," Pimentel said.

Architects Harold Burton and Arthur Price worked together to design the sacred building, which now has 95,000 square feet with a baptistry, celestial room, four ordinance rooms and seven sealing rooms. It originally contained 82,500 square feet, including two ordinance rooms connected to the celestial room. This made Oakland the first temple to manage more than one endowment session at a time, Hawkins wrote.

The exterior has an oriental motif design with reinforced concrete faced with sierra white granite. A central tower rises 170 feet high with four 96-foot corner towers. Two sculptured granite panels, 35 feet wide by 13 feet high, are displayed on the temple’s north and south sides. The panel on the north depicts Jesus Christ and his apostles in the old world. The south panel shows Christ appearing to the Nephites in America.

Hanging the two panels proved to be a challenge, Hawkins wrote.

“The men working on the granite exterior found there was no way to put the 12-ton panels into place without damaging them. Glen R. Nielsen, a church member and contractor, prayed for a solution,” wrote Hawkins, who quoted Nielsen as saying: “I went to my Father in Heaven with our problem, and I asked him to show us the way to pick up these panels … without accident. One Sunday just before we were going to set the panels, I was shown the way we were to pick up the panels. It was as clear to me as if I looked at someone face to face. … I knew the exact number of bolts to use, their size, the metal to use and how it was to be constructed.”

The landscaping around the grounds features exotic plants, rose bushes and citrus trees native to California. Fountains and pools are lined by rows of palm trees.

The dedication

In the five weeks prior to the dedication, about 300,000 people visited the new temple. Hawkins wrote that the arrival of a U.S. Navy commander in a chauffeured government car was at least partial fulfillment of Elder Smith’s prophecy.

“I brought my ship through the Golden Gate early this morning and observed … on the foothills of East Oakland, a new landmark which I had not seen before,” the man said in Hawkin’s book. “I immediately berthed my ship and made the necessary arrangements so that I could come here to determine what … this new landmark (is).”

Prior to the November 1964 dedication, President McKay had suffered a stoke. His mind was whole, but it was difficult for him to speak or stand.

Lawrence McKay, the prophet's son, said his father's fluency of speech was gone and people had a hard time understanding his words. But when it came time to dedicate the new temple, something special happened.

"President McKay was helped to the pulpit, which he grasped tightly to help him stand, and began to speak clearly and easily to the audience," Hawkins wrote. "His son recorded: '(My wife), with tears running down her cheeks, whispered, 'Lawrence, we are witnessing a miracle.' I nodded in agreement. Father finished his talk and, still standing, dedicated the building.’ ”

The dedication took place Nov. 17-19 in six sessions. One memorable part of the dedicatory prayer offered by President McKay reads: "This temple is a monument testifying to the faith and loyalty of the members of thy church in the payment of their tithes and fast offerings. We thank thee for every effort that has been put forth by the members."

As part of the dedication, the Oakland Temple pageant was produced by local members. The pageant continued to be performed over the decades until the mid-2000s. Pimentel participated in the pageant as a young man and relished the experience.

"It was a spiritual experience that set a course for my life," he said. "I'm looking forward to the reunion and remembering the good old days."

The beacon

The Oakland Temple was the second LDS temple built in California. The Los Angeles California Temple was the first and was completed in 1956.

Over the years, the Oakland Temple has survived a few natural disasters. In 1989, an earthquake caused an estimated $7 billion in damages to the area, Hawkins wrote, but there were only a few minor cracks found on the temple. In 1991, a wildfire torched much of the area but was controlled before it reached the temple grounds.

Today, the Oakland Temple serves a district of 31 stakes in northern California.

Pimentel, who now serves as chairman of the Temple Hill Public Affairs Council, said he still meets nonmembers who attended the October 1964 temple open house.

"It made such a great impression on them. It is fulfilling the 1924 prophecy that it would become visible as a beacon," Pimentel said. "We can see the temple from my home in the city of Alameda where it is a constant reminder."

Sister Gloria Lavender and her husband, George, are serving a mission in the Oakland Temple Visitors’ Center. The views of the bay from the temple grounds at sundown are beautiful, she said.

"People here call it the castle on the hill. You can see it from all over," Sister Lavender said. "It brings a lot of people here because they see it and want to know what it is."

Elder Lynn Poulsen, director of the Oakland Temple Visitors Center, agreed.

"It's a beacon on the hill, an invitation to every one of us to come closer to the Savior."

Oakland California Temple presidents

Delbert F. Wright, 1964-1968

Thomas O. Call, 1968-1972

W. Lowell Castleton, 1972-1977

Richard B. Sonne, 1977-1983

R. Don Smith, 1983-1985

Lorenzo N. Hoopes, 1985-1990

Julius B. Papa, 1990-1993

Orlin C. Munns, 1993-1996

Durrel A. Woolsey, 1996-1999

Kay H. Clifford, 1999-2001

E. Marshall McCoy, 2001-2002

Ernest W. Westover, 2002-2005

Darwin B. Christenson, 2005-2008

Richard A. Hunter, 2008-2011

Richard C. Crockett, 2011-present

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