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Remembering Elder Dean M. Davies, who said the church wanted Temple Square to become a Christian destination like the Vatican

An overhead view of the construction on the Salt Lake Temple at Temple Square in Salt Lake City.
Renovation on the Salt Lake Temple continues in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
This article was first published as the ChurchBeat newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox weekly.

The single-most crystallizing statement about the vision for Temple Square held by Latter-day Saint leaders was lost amid a flood of information during the news conference announcing the renovation of the historic Salt Lake Temple in April 2019.

The announcement of a four-year closure of the great pioneer-era temple, an icon of Latter-day Saint faith, was overwhelming enough. The media had questions: What would happen to the Angel Moroni statue? How would workers support a 187-million-pound temple so they could upgrade the foundation to withstand earthquakes? Would films replace the live endowment sessions?

During the question-and-answer session after the news conference, one man tried to lift the media’s eyes to a broader vision. You’re missing the big picture, he said. The church had a grander plan for Temple Square. In fact, church leaders’ definition of what that term meant was growing, too, something that remains overlooked by nearly all media and church members.

“There haven’t been, really, too many questions about the renovation of the plaza to the east,” said Bishop Dean M. Davies, who then was first counselor in the Presiding Bishopric. “That’s a pretty significant effort, also. All I would add on that is that we want to make the plaza area to the east of the temple even more public and friendly. There will be new seating areas and new corridors. It’s something that you ought to contemplate, also. It’s not just the temple, but it includes all the way to State Street. That will be an integral part of this as we tie together Temple Square into one great whole.”

He already had redefined what Temple Square is, adding an entire city block. But he wasn’t done.

“Especially, we want to continue to emphasize that this is the Savior’s house and this is his church,” he continued. “And so we will make every effort to introduce some new thematic elements that will help visitors to Salt Lake.

“We want them,” he finished, “to think of Salt Lake just as easily as they think of Jerusalem or the Vatican as a place where Christianity really has its heart.”

Elder Davies, who had helped oversee the church’s funds and other assets, its humanitarian work and the purchase of land for temples as well as their design and construction, died Tuesday night after a long struggle with cancer. He was 69.

After serving as a counselor in the church’s Presiding Bishopric from 2012-20, he had been called as a General Authority Seventy in April 2020. He was five days shy of his 70th birthday, which means he had completed his service as a Seventy this summer and would have received emeritus status during general conference next month.

He had a gift for sharing the vision and scope of projects and the gospel:

  • Early last year, during an interview with the Presiding Bishopric about the church’s finances, he noted that many people overlook the church’s fast offering program, which he said is almost its largest component.

“Think about over 30,000 bishops and branch presidents,” he said, “who have access to an unlimited ability to obtain resources needed for members of the church and nonmembers, also, in their area.” He added, “Our expenditures in that welfare and humanitarian area is approaching a billion dollars a year. It’s a very significant part of our annual budget.”

  • During the same interview, he shared information about how the Presiding Bishopric oversees the humanitarian efforts of area presidencies and Latter-day Saint Charities and its partners:

“Every international area of the church is given a budget every year to fund their own local welfare/humanitarian projects that they identify,” he said. “Then of course we have the headquarters (projects). We have a screen in what we call our strategy room, and there is not a week that goes by but that we are looking at anywhere from two to 10 welfare or humanitarian requests that come in that need funding or need consideration. It is constant in our daily actions as a bishopric.”

  • At the Salt Lake Temple renovation news conference, he captured imaginations when he described the base-isolation system that will be used to improve the temple’s foundation and protect it against earthquakes:

“We like this system. Actually, this is a system that isn’t just used on the renovation of buildings. We actually used the base isolation in the construction of the Concepcion Chile Temple, and just prior to its dedication there was an earthquake, and the system functioned as intended. It took about 24 hours for the building to settle back down on those pads. So we’re really quite excited about this.”

“Actually it’s closer to 70 temples that are in some process of design, development and construction,” said Elder Davies, who until last October was on the front lines of temple building as a member of the Presiding Bishopric. “This is the most significant temple-building time in the history of the church.”

  • At that same groundbreaking, he described the importance of temples in Latter-day Saint belief:

“It’s really all part of our Father’s plan of helping his children know how to return home to him,” Elder Davies said. “It’s all about families. A young man and a young woman go into the temple, and they come out as husband and wife, and it changes the relationship. It adds dignity and devotion. It links families forever. The sealing, the ability to seal parents to children, and of course, children born to those who’ve been married and sealed in the temple have the promises of the gospel. So it’s all about families, it’s all about uniting and bringing us together on this side of the veil and on the other side.”

When the Salt Lake Temple renovation is complete, Elder Davies won’t be present physically, but his work on it and his words about it still will resonate. And the invitation he issued at that Q&A with reporters two years ago will be realized by hundreds of thousands:

“When this temple project is complete, it will be a wonderful and unique opportunity for you and your children and your parents or grandparents to come to the open house. This temple has not been opened that way since it was dedicated in 1893. Truly, it’s a remarkable thing when any person, church member or not, can walk through a temple. Yes, we have these wonderful models, but they do not really give a true sense of the feeling and the love of the Savior that exists within the temple. So let me just give you an early invitation to come to the open house.”

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Behind the scenes

Presiding Bishopric Bishop Gary E. Stevenson, Bishop Gérald Caussé and Bishop Dean M. Davies sing during a congregational hymn during the 182nd Annual General Conference for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City Sunday, April 1, 2012.
Presiding Bishop Gary E. Stevenson, center, Bishop Gérald Caussé, left and Bishop Dean M. Davies, members of the Presiding Bishopric, sing during a congregational hymn during the 182nd Annual General Conference for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City Sunday, April 1, 2012.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News