IDAHO FALLS — Dr. Jeff Baker said he didn’t realize what he was getting himself into when he took the leap of faith to restore a 90-year-old LDS church building and open a medical clinic. He recalled a conversation with his daughter in which he said, “I feel like I took a leap off this cliff and I’m falling. I keep falling, and falling, and falling.”
Baker remembers his daughter’s response: “Dad, don’t you know when you jump, you fly?”
“That was really tender,” Baker said. “That was a lot of faith and a lot of hope. I keep going back to that. I’ve got to fly, I’ve got to make this fly.”
Thanks to Baker and CEO Stephen Loosli, what was once a cherished chapel of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 1930s will once again serve as a place of healing for the Idaho Falls community: a clinic for holistic and integrative medicine called The Healing Sanctuary.
“I’ve always wanted to help people heal, not just give them a prescription or not just do surgery,” Baker said. “I want them to heal — the whole body, the whole person, the mental, the spiritual, the emotional — because it’s all connected."
While the renovated Third Ward building will seek to restore vitality to its historic neighborhood, it needed the touch of experts to fix and improve it from the inside out — a metaphor for what Baker hopes to do for his patients.
‘A giant battery filled with positive energy’
Construction on the Third Ward LDS chapel began in the 1920s. At the time, the local congregation was expected to contribute one-third of the cost of the building, and it had to be debt-free before dedication.
Members of the church sacrificed time and money to make the outside of the building “ornate, fancy, beautiful and the highest possible caliber of construction,” until the Depression hit, Loosli said. Work slowed down and it became a battle for the 22,000-foot building to be finished while “the work inside became more simple and basic than the outside.”
Idaho Falls native Mary Jane Fritzen, sister of Elder John H. Groberg, remembers the dedication of the Third Ward building in 1937 by President Heber J. Grant, who was then serving as the seventh president of the LDS Church. She also remembers going to dances in the gym on the bottom floor of the building and to the Junior Sunday School upstairs. Her father was in one of the first bishoprics of the Third Ward and her mother was the organist, Fritzen said.
“It’s just wonderful to find out someone has enough faith in the building to go to a huge amount of work and expense to make it something new,” said Fritzen, who recently toured the building. “I thought it was wonderful. It was so exciting. To me, I love to see old things become new again.”
The Third Ward building served as an LDS chapel until 1981, when it was sold to a nonprofit community center due to high energy costs. The building continued to serve a positive, life-improvement purpose, Loosli explained, as Idaho Falls residents participated in dance and karate, among other activities in the building when they were young. “If people didn’t have a church experience here, they’ve likely had a community experience,” he said.
A non-denominational church ran the building for a year or two, and then it sat vacant for a decade until Baker bought it in May 2016.
Baker, a member of the LDS Church and an OB-GYN since 1991, became involved with holistic medicine in 2000 when his oldest son developed obsessive compulsive disorder tendencies in high school. Medication wasn’t helping his son’s anxiety or depression. Though Baker “thought (holistic medicine) was nuts,” he said his mind began opening up to the idea after he attended a few conferences on the topic and did some deeper research.
"I jumped into the lake instead of just tip-toeing into the water. I was all in," Baker said. "It felt so good and so right, and I needed to learn more.”
Baker did a fellowship with University of Arizona College of Medicine, obtained board certification and completed a seven-year program in two years with the Institute of Functional Medicine. He spent January 2016 in India being trained in Ayurveda, a type of alternative medicine.
“Every week, every day, I learn more and more things I can bring back to my patients on ways to help improve their health,” Baker said. “It’s fun to have all these tools to come back with and continue to grow in that area. I wish I had done it long ago.”
Acquiring the Third Ward building and starting The Healing Sanctuary was a process in which “the stars aligned,” according to Baker, who had always dreamed of setting up his own practice. The opportunity Baker had been praying for came when he was invited to a meeting with others from the area involved in holistic medicine. He invited Loosli, who was in his LDS ward, for business perspective.
“A few weeks after, Loosli came to me and said, ‘If you really want to do this, I’d be happy to help you make this happen. I’ll run it and take all the stress from you and make the business as successful as we can.’ I thought long and hard, but we took the leap and we did it,” Baker said of the decision to open up his own practice.
Next, they needed a location. Loosli remembered reading a news article about the historic Third Ward building being used as a haunted house to raise funds for a culinary academy. Neighbors protested and nothing had happened, so Loosli and Baker went to see it. The building, which one architect later described as “a giant battery filled with positive energy,” wasn’t in great condition, but Baker saw its potential for a place of healing and felt immediate peace, Loosli said.
Baker’s wife, Marcell, also felt good about the location. She had looked at the Third Ward building’s Facebook page before they decided to purchase it and noticed the description mentioned how the building had been a “sanctuary.”
“As LDS (Church members), we know that’s the chapel, but in the article, they called it the sanctuary. I remember turning to my husband and thinking, 'Oh my, what a coincidence that that’s even what we would want to name the clinic that would be housed in it if we purchased it.' We knew we would have it be called 'The Healing Sanctuary,'” Marcell Baker said.
Two months after the idea for The Healing Sanctuary was born, the Third Ward building was purchased and extensive renovations began.
'Restoring a gem'
Loosli said both he and Baker underestimated the time and money it would take to restore the building. The expected six-month restoration process has become almost two years in the making. The process, which Loosli described as “going backwards to go forwards,” has required work on everything from the foundation to the exterior brick and cast concrete. Costs have almost tripled their original budget.
“The building had other needs, just like medical care,” Loosli said. “What you see on the outside manifesting as a symptom actually has a deeper root cause. We had to address all of those root causes and correct them.
“Everything we did in the renovation of this was done with a vision of 100-plus year timeline. We want this building to be much better than when we got it so we could pass it onto the next generation.”
Marcell Baker said that despite ongoing construction, patients, employees and building workers have commented on the peace and “amazing feeling” in The Healing Sanctuary.
“I’ve even had one of the finish guys saying as he looked around, ‘This is temple quality. It’s beautiful. And I’ve been trying to make my work match that of what a temple would have done,’” Marcell Baker said.
The Healing Sanctuary moved into the Third Ward building during the first week of February, but parts of the building are still being finished. Debbie Wheeler, a longtime patient of Baker, went to The Healing Sanctuary for an appointment at the end of last month.
“The building is huge and there is so much in there,” Wheeler said. “It’s not 100 percent put together yet, but it’s very, very pretty. It doesn’t feel like a doctor’s office.”
Wheeler said the space felt comfortable and she liked the big windows and light that came through to the IV room. She talked about a research area and a cafeteria that will be coming. The former cultural hall, which is now a ballroom, will be used for yoga, she said. The ballroom will also be available to rent for banquets and receptions.
Baker said patients who go to the The Healing Sanctuary can find functional and holistic medicine, OB-GYN services and midwifery practice. The building also features an outdoor peace garden. Future plans include a spa and steam room, aesthetics, cooking classes and apothecary displays.
Though restoring the Third Ward building remains an ongoing and challenging process, both Loosli and Baker take joy in “restoring a gem” as “a gift back to the community.”
“The local Realtor broker came to us to share that we had single-handedly raised the value of the neighborhood we’re in by 10 percent,” Loosli said. “It changes everything when a dilapidated (building) that is attracting graffiti artists and vandalism is turned into this epic structure.”
The Healing Sanctuary is expected to have an open house for the public later this year. To see an online tour of the building, click here.