President Russell M. Nelson pushed a shovel into the dirt Saturday and ceremoniously lifted and turned the first soil at the planned site of the Heber Valley Utah Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The church’s 98-year-old prophet-president also dedicated and consecrated the site, praying that the temple would strengthen both the bonds of affection in families and the devotion of the valley’s people to God.
“Dear Father, as we open this ground, we ask thee to bless this site and hallow it,” he said in the dedicatory prayer. “We pray that the construction of this temple may be completed to accommodate thy divine purposes.”
The hills and mountains ringing the ceremony on the valley floor were streaked with the beautiful auburn highlights of fall leaves capped by a pristine blue sky.
President Nelson’s participation was a major, welcomed surprise for 600 church members, community leaders and guests, who sat on metal folding chairs and then took turns turning soil, too.
Midway’s Kyle Probst, 84, said President Nelson once had a summer home in the nearby city.
When Heber’s Kira Thunell saw a vehicle pulling up to the white tent that shaded the podium, she got chills despite the hot afternoon sun shining from the blue sky. Then she heard someone nearby say, “He’s here.” She knew who it was immediately.
“I just feel sheer gratitude, especially to share that with our children, just an amazing experience to be in his midst.”
Kira attended the groundbreaking ceremony with her husband, Spencer, and their children — Jackson, 17, Tanner, 15, and McKinlee, 12.
McKinlee remembers her family jumping up and down with joy in their home while watching the broadcast of the church’s October 2021 general conference, when President Nelson first announced plans to build a temple in Heber Valley.
“He paused,” Spencer Thunell said, “and during the pause Kira said, ‘Heber City, Utah.’ Then he said, ‘Heber Valley, Utah.’ We’ve been joking that she’s our divining rod. When President Nelson is close, she tells us. When he’s going to announce a temple, she tells us where.”
The Thunell children joined all the other children and youth in turning dirt.
“I told Tanner before he went up, ‘You know, you’re great-great-great-grandfather turned some of the first soil in the valley and now you’re turning dirt for the first temple here. What a sweet, sweet experience.”
“My fingers tingled when I grabbed the shovel,” Tanner said.
Wasatch County Council Chair Mark Nelson — no relation to President Nelson — said his great-great-grandfather Henry Nelson also was one of the first Latter-day Saint pioneers to settle the valley in the late 1850s.
“It’s a pretty cool day for everyone, but particularly for me,” he said.
Family ties are more than a nicety for Latter-day Saints, who share the largely unique doctrine and belief that families can live together eternally, bound by covenants made and ordinances performed in temples.
Pausing once for a passing plane on approach to the Heber Valley Airport, President Nelson expressed love for those at the ceremony and watching by livestream and said he rejoiced with them.
“I just wish I could shake hands with each one of you, hear your name and your place, get to know and love you,” he said.
The church purchased the temple site from the family of George Holmes Sr. and Clara Price Holmes, who bought the land in 1946.
“For years,” President Nelson said, “(George) had dreamt of building a forever home with his beloved Clara. In a very real way, his dream will be realized here.”
President Nelson declined an offer to sit in a chair while he spoke. During the dedicatory prayer, President Nelson said each temple stands as a symbol of Jesus Christ.
“Each temple stands as a sign of our faith in life after death, and as a sacred step toward eternal exaltation for us and our precious families,” he added.
Plans call for a rectangular, three-story temple of approximately 88,000 square feet on the 17.9-acre site southeast of 1400 E. Center. It will have two towers built to match the old tabernacle, said Brent Roberts, managing director of the Special Projects Department.
Once work begins, construction is expected to take 30 months, Roberts said.
The temple site is in unincorporated Wasatch County right next to Heber City. Heber City Mayor Heidi Franco said the city plans to build a road to the north of the property. Her preference would be to name it Temple View Road, but the decision will rest with the city council, she said.
The valley sits on the Wasatch Back, the eastern side of the Wasatch Mountains. Salt Lake City and Provo are on the western side, or Wasatch Front.
Brigham Young called on pioneering Latter-day Saints to build a road from Provo to Heber Valley in 1858 and the first settlers named it after President Heber C. Kimball, first counselor in the First Presidency, President Nelson said, because many of the settlers had been converted by him in England in the 1840s.
The Heber Valley Temple will be the 28th in Utah. The church now has 173 dedicated temples in operation, though five are under renovation.
President Nelson said the temple will serve many nearby communities and even some in western Wyoming.
“This valley will continue to be a fruitful seedbed for devoted and dedicated members of the church,” he said.
President Nelson left directly after he and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, turned the first soil with four other couples, including Elder Kevin R. Duncan, a General Authority Seventy and assistant executive director of the church’s Temple Department, and his wife, Nancy.
As he walked to his vehicle, the audience spontaneously stood and sang, “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet.”
The colors of the fall leaves, many of them golden aspens, would challenge even the largest Crayola boxes — burnt sienna, chestnut, goldenrod, burnt orange, mahogany, the forest green of the evergreens and more.
In the prayer, President Nelson thanked all Latter-day Saints worldwide whose tithing pays for the construction and maintenance of temples.
The temple’s location once was the stomping grounds for local children, said Kathryn Berg, a member of the groundbreaking day history committee. She and others grew up sledding down from where the Red Ledges development now sits, digging up arrowheads and shooting BB guns or laying around Snake Creek.
The church will submit its permit application soon, Roberts said.