A grand symbol of a crown jewel of Latter-day Saint doctrine was rededicated Sunday by a beloved hometown boy with powerful emotional ties to both.

Blocks from his wife’s grave and yards from where he played football as a boy, and with the promise of eternal families foremost on his mind, President Jeffrey R. Holland rededicated the St. George Utah Temple, the oldest operating temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, after a major renovation.

President Holland said the refreshed and renewed temple represented a longing quest for temples, one that he said puts one arm around the church’s pioneer past while extending the other toward the church’s future.

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“The early Latter-day Saints had left temples or the beginnings of temples in Independence and Kirtland and Far West and Nauvoo, so this was the first temple finished in the West,” said President Holland, the acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “It was the first place after their exodus west that the Saints could go to a fully finished House of the Lord for their spiritual and covenantal experiences.”

That exodus began in 1846 when the pioneers began to leave Nauvoo. They would not complete another temple until St. George was finished in 1877.

President Jeffrey R. Holland, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, visits with his son, Elder Matthew S. Holland, a General Authority Seventy, outside the St. George Utah Temple on Saturday Dec. 9, 2023. | Nick Adams, for the Deseret News

“For a student of Latter-day Saint history, it’s a wonderful, wonderful building,” he said. “Anyone who knows the story of the church knows of the early Saints’ quest for a temple experience as they waited 40 years for the Salt Lake Temple to be finished.”

The historic quest for a temple in the West

Brigham Young and Wilford Woodruff left Nauvoo, Illinois, in the winter of 1845-1846. The temple there had been dedicated almost room by room, church historian Emily Utt said. Then they had to walk away from it, she said. In Utah, they built a small Endowment House for some temple ordinances.

“They’re trying and they’re sacrificing and they’re giving their all and finally, they come here to St. George on Jan. 1, 1877, to dedicate three rooms of this temple while construction is still going on,” Utt said. “They dedicated the baptismal font. They dedicated an ordinance room. They dedicated the sealing room. Then 10 days later, temple work begins while carpenters and stonemasons and plasterers and painters are making all kinds of noise up all over the rest of the still incomplete temple.”

Brigham Young’s daughter, Susa Young Dunford, was the first to enter the font, to perform a baptism for a friend of hers. Her father was so ill he could barely function, Utt said.

“So he hobbles up the steps of that font, cane in one hand, crutch in the other, to witness his daughter being baptized,” Utt said. “The baptism is performed by his mission companion from the British mission, Wilford Woodruff, who is now temple president of St. George.

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“Think about what that moment must have felt like, that they’d waited 31 years to see a temple ordinance taking place in a dedicated House of the Lord. Just imagine the realization of a hope that might never have come true. Am I willing to wait 30 years and go to the other side of the world and sacrifice everything to participate in a dedication like that?”

The St. George Temple is the only temple completed during Brigham Young’s 30-year tenure as church president.

Elders Brian K. Taylor and Kevin R. Duncan with President Jeffrey R. Holland, center, Elder Matthew S. Holland and Bishop Gérald Caussé.
President Jeffrey R. Holland, center, presided over the rededication of the St. George Utah Temple with. from left to right, Elders Brian K. Taylor, Kevin R. Duncan and Matthew S. Holland and Presiding Bishop Gérald Caussé on Sunday, Dec. 10, 2023. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Why President Holland is relying on the temple’s promise of eternal families

President Holland said the St. George Temple has meant everything to his family. Temples today are not used for baptisms for living people, but President Holland was baptized as a boy at age 8 in the temple, half a mile from his boyhood home. He performed proxy baptisms in the temple as a youth. He received his endowment there at age 19 before leaving for a mission to England.

Then he married and was sealed eternally to Patricia Terry Holland there in 1963. She died this summer after they celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. She is buried a mile from the temple in the St. George City Cemetery.

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“We’ve just been out to the graveside of my beloved wife, and it’s the first time I’ve been back since she was buried, so I’m filled with a lot of emotion and a lot of happiness,” President Holland said Saturday.

The St. George Utah Temple has a special place in Latter-day Saint doctrinal history. For one, it was the first temple where temple ordinances were performed for deceased persons by proxy.

It also was the place where Wilford Woodruff said the Founding Fathers of the United States of America appeared to him twice to ask him to have eternal temple ordinances done on their behalves.

A striking painting of this vision, “That We May be Redeemed” by Harold I. Hopkinson, hangs in a temple hallway.

President Holland spoke Saturday with the Deseret News about the Latter-day Saint doctrine of the sealing ordinance. The church teaches that those sealed by priesthood power in temples can create families that can be together forever. He said five generations of Hollands have been married an sealed in the St. George Temple.

“I’m planning on eternity,” President Holland said. “I’m planning on the promises of this temple, because even (dedicating the temple) would be less than happy, it would be less than satisfying to me, if I did not know what I know about what happens in these ceremonies and with these covenants. (The dedication) will be a happy day because of what the temple means in a marriage.

“When we perform a marriage ceremony in the temple, there is no till-death-do-you-part language or concept. That is not part of our theology. We believe that a marriage is intended by divine decree, dating clear back to the union of Adam and Eve, to be for eternity.

“As I have said elsewhere, certainly, it wouldn’t be possible for me to talk about heaven or to talk about eternity if Patricia Terry were not there with me. That wouldn’t be heaven. Whatever it would be, it wouldn’t be that. That’s what I think every man feels about his wife and every wife feels about her husband.”

President Holland posted a message on social media on Sunday afternoon. He said that having President Russell M. Nelson assign him to rededicate the temple was “one of the sweetest and most rewarding assignments I have had” as a church leader.

He also said in the post that before her death, his wife had looked forward to joining him at the rededication.

“Pat was so thrilled when this project was undertaken and even more thrilled when we got the assignment to participate in its rededication. But even though she has gone ahead on her own spiritual journey, I believe she was surely allowed back for this event. I am confident many in the congregation today had loved ones attending from the spirit world.”

He said Latter-day Saint doctrine teaches that, “We leave the challenges and difficulties and tensions of mortality and of this world and move through this temple into eternity, into an eternally beautiful — even more beautiful — and eternally strong — even stronger — an eternally happy — even happier — union than we had in mortality. We have that in eternity.”

What was done during the St. George Utah Temple renovation?

President Holland said he appreciated revisiting church history as he prepared for his dedicatory prayer, which included consultation with President Nelson and his own family.

“The past, present and future is captured about as well in this temple as any we’ll ever have,” he said. “It’s one arm around the past and one arm beckoning the future. This temple symbolizes that as much as any temple in the church has or will symbolize that.”

President Daniel H. Wells offered the original dedicatory prayer at the St. George Temple on April 1877.

“May it stand as a monument of purity and holiness as long as the earth shall remain, commemorative of thy great goodness toward us,” he said.

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The temple closed for renovation in November 2019. The work took 36 months instead of a planned 30 because of pandemic-related supply chain delays.

The work during this renovation will take the temple 50 to 75 years into the future, temple department officials said. It also restored the gleaming white temple’s exterior and interior to look like what the original pioneer-era workers built, following numerous additions and changes made during more than 10 renovations over the past 146 years.

“It’s been renovated as we believe the pioneers would have renovated. Granted, we had a lot more tools,” said Brent Roberts, director of the church’s Special Projects Department.

Workers strengthened the foundation by covering support beams with steel, wrapping columns with fiberglass and drilling steel pipes called micropiles 35-40 feet deep into the bedrock below the foundation.

Inside, bright white paint on pristine walls line long, elegant hallways with soaring arches. Deep red carpet with gold highlights in the hallways give way to classy blue and yellow carpet in the rooms.

A growing temple amid a growing number of temples

The original baptismal font, where Brigham Young witnessed his daughter in the temple’s first ordinance, and the 12 oxen carrying it had been painted white over the years. Workers stripped the paint and restored the original font to the original golden color.

When the St. George Temple was dedicated for the first time, it was the church’s one and only temple.

It was extensively remodeled for over a year from 1937 to 1938, but was not rededicated.

The temple’s size nearly doubled from 56,062 square feet during another major renovation project in the 1970s. It was opened to the public for an open house and formally rededicated in 1975 by President Spencer W. Kimball.

At that time, it was one of still just 16 operating temples in the church.

“Our gracious and beloved Father,” President Kimball said in his dedicatory prayer, “thou hast permitted us to build and dedicate to thee for thy glorious work for the living and the dead, the many temples, near a score of them, among which is this beautiful, well-appointed temple, which for many years was the only spot in the world where thy sacred ordinances could be fully performed in proper order.”

Today, the temple has 143,000 square feet.

And it is now one of 186 temples, with another 149 under construction or announced.

The church’s oldest temples

  • St. George Utah Temple. 1877
  • Logan Utah Temple, 1884
  • Manti Utah Temple, 1887
  • Salt Lake Temple, 1893
  • Laie Hawaii Temple, 1919

The Manti Utah Temple is scheduled to be rededicated on April 21, after undergoing a major renovation.