SALEM, Mass. Members in Massachusetts say Bishop Robert Furse of the Worcester 1st Ward "bears an uncanny resemblance" to Joseph Smith. "It's kind of funny," he said. "No one noticed any resemblance until I got my hair cut prior to serving a mission. Since then, people say I look more and more like the Prophet."
So when local Church leaders considered ways to involve the community in a celebration of the Church in New England, they asked Bishop Furse to don a coat and hat, and stroll the beautifully landscaped grounds of Salem Commons while sharing with visitors anecdotes from the life of Joseph Smith.
Bishop Furse's one-man skit was part of a long slate of events scheduled May 4-7 that helped acquaint Boston residents with the deep roots of Church history in New England. For his part, Bishop Furse was to greet spectators and relate experiences of the Prophet that occurred when he was in the area.
"I hailed a carriage that was coming around the corner," he said, describing the morning of the walking tours. "The carriage driver alerted me that the passengers were not members of the Church. But after introducing myself, they wanted to know about Joseph Smith, and when I finished they urged me to tell them more," Bishop Furse said. "They said they were natives of the area and never knew of the connection with the Prophet."
Known as "Celebrating the Legacy," this four-day event centered on an exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum, titled: "From New England to the Great Salt Lake: The Mormon Legacy of Faith." Other activities included a concert, lectures, fireside, walking and carriage tours and entertainment. Perhaps the most popular activity was the historical re-enactment of Brigham Young, portrayed by two professional actors.
Events began May 4 with a reception at the Peabody Essex Museum where the co-curator, Will LaMoy, noted the significance of the exhibit in highlighting the contributions the Salem area made to the Church.
"I saw the orchestration of these events unfold, almost without effort," said Debbie Benvie, describing how the "Legacy" celebration came about after a simple visit to the library months earlier.
As a newly called public affairs specialist of the Lynnfield Ward, Cambridge Massachusetts Stake, Sister Benvie visited the Peabody Essex Museum with the hope of finding "Monarch of the Sea," a famous portrait of an LDS immigrant ship.
The museum director overheard her explanation and introduced himself. He told of several artifacts the museum owned and expressed his interest in collaborating with the Church on an exhibit.
"Doors were waiting to be opened," she said. "I believe the mayor, the museum director and the curator were prepared for this Legacy celebration," Sister Benvie said.
"There was a nice, comfortable feeling between the community and Church members during the events," said Sue Schmidt, multi-stake public affairs director. "The police were courteous and helpful, and noted how well-behaved the 1,200 youth were during the fireside and dance.
"While it was difficult to know how many people participated in all the events because of the distance between venues," she continued, "we estimated that 2,000 participated."
Among the many activities was the house tour where the conversion of three siblings, Elizabeth Ashby Snow, Benjamin Ashby and Nathaniel Ashby Jr., was re-enacted. They detailed how Erastus Snow served a mission there in 1841 and, while living in the home of their father, taught them the gospel. Benjamin described trudging through heavy snow and cutting through a foot-deep block of ice in the river to be baptized.
"It was a great experience to portray a dedicated saint," said Lynnett Rands of the Marlboro Ward, Boston Massachusetts Stake, who portrayed Elizabeth Snow. "Although people associate the Church with Utah, its roots are right here [in New England], and from its beginning, the gospel has been preached worldwide."
Popular among the youth was the batting clinic conducted by President Dale Murphy of the Massachusetts Boston Mission and former two-time National League MVP, and five-time Gold Glove winner of the Atlanta Braves.
"Swing hard in case you hit it," he counseled with amusement. President Murphy introduced the gospel with athletics by explaining that the Church helped him keep a healthy perspective on life and focused on things that really are important.
"Events like 'Celebrating the Legacy'allow us to get to know the people in the area and alleviate some of the misconceptions that still exist about the Church," he said.
The mayor of Salem, Stanley Usovicz, noted during the Safe Harbor Concert that the Mayor's Prayer Circle had prayed for the success of the Legacy activities. In return, he asked that members of the Church pray for the leaders of Salem.
"Nothing happens by coincidence," he said, referring to the Legacy celebration. "I'm a true believer in the power of prayer. The good Lord answered those prayers and the City of Salem has been the beneficiary."