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Milestone: Relief Society Building a symbol of sisterhood

The rising of the Relief Society Building from its foundations in the mid-1950s seemed to symbolize two things — the rising of the sisterhood of saints throughout the world and the healing of a postwar world.

On stairs are, from left, Relief Society General President Bonnie D. Parkin, and former general presidents, Mary Ellen W. Smoot, Elaine L. Jack, Barbara W. Winder and Barbara B. Smith.
On stairs are, from left, Relief Society General President Bonnie D. Parkin, and former general presidents, Mary Ellen W. Smoot, Elaine L. Jack, Barbara W. Winder and Barbara B. Smith. Photo: Photo by Julie Dockstader Heaps

To the more than 100,000 women who donated $5 each during fund-raising efforts in 1947-1948, as well as their daughters and granddaughters now part of the 5.2 million Relief Society organization, the white stone and marble edifice on the corner of Main and North Temple — literally in the "shadow of the temple" — is their building. In a sense, it is a building for and belonging to the sisterhood of the Church.

". . . Even as the walls of their home building rise in the mountain valley — over the wide reaches of the world, in many lands, the work of the beloved sisterhood will progress and the message and the spirit and the power of its inspiration will spread." — A Journal History of the Relief Society Building, Friday, Oct. 8, 1954, compiled by Vesta B. Crawford.

"There is a spirit in this building and you feel it," Relief Society General President Bonnie D. Parkin said on a recent chilly March day. (Please see page 3 for article on ribbon-cutting ceremony in newly refurbished Relief Society Building.)

Speaking of the upcoming 50th anniversary of the building, Sister Parkin said she often watches women gather in the building for various reasons. "Do they know the sacrifices that were made to build this building?" she said she sometimes wonders.

And sacrifices were, indeed, made. Just weeks after the end of World War II, on Oct. 4, 1945, during the Relief Society general conference, general President Belle S. Spafford announced the long-awaited plan to construct a women's building. In October 1947, a yearlong fund-raising campaign was announced where women of the Church would donate $5 toward construction costs. Funds could be raised individually or through dinners and other fund-raising activities. Because of the hardship of the postwar years, Relief Societies in European missions were not expected to contribute.

On that day in October 1947, sitting in the Tabernacle, Delores Torres, then-Relief Society president of the Mexican Branch in Salt Lake's Temple View Stake, thought, "We cannot do it. Our sisters are too poor."

Interior shot (Reception room) of the LDS Relief Society Building. Michael Brandy/Deseret Morning News.  MARCH 15, 2006
Interior shot (Reception room) of the LDS Relief Society Building. Michael Brandy/Deseret Morning News. MARCH 15, 2006 Photo: Michael Brandy/Deseret Morning News

Then, after gazing at President David O. McKay, then a member of the First Presidency, seated on the stand behind Sister Spafford, she thought, "The First Presidency has permitted her to make this request and therefore it must be right, and if it is right, we can do it."

The Mexican Branch held a dinner, with the help of the young women, and was the first unit of the Church to meet its quota.

Such stories throughout the Church abound. MarRae Satterthwaite, Relief Society president of the Riverton Utah Copperfield Stake, recalled how when she was a teenager her grandmother pointed at the Relief Society Building one day and said, "That's a special building. In that building there is a big book and my name's in that book."

The grandmother, Alice Hobson Paul, told her granddaughter that when the Relief Society asked women to contribute $5 toward the construction of a building, she gave her "egg money," the money she earned raising chickens and selling their eggs. "My grandparents weren't rich or wealthy.

They were just ordinary people. For them back in those days, for her to come up with $5 was just extremely difficult."

Today, Sister Satterthwaite serves as a volunteer in the Relief Society Building and as part of her duties she typed the names of women from those "big books." One day, she found her grandmother's name and wept. "You have to feel the strength of those women," she said.

"It may be that this building will yet bring many more women into an active interest in Relief Society and a participation in its broad and divinely inspired program." — A Journal History of the Relief Society Building, Friday, February 19, 1954.

By October 1948, the goal of a half million dollars was exceeded by $70,000. Over the next few years, the European missions began to send funds. And these sisters from formerly war-torn countries also sent gifts to beautify the building. In Austria, women from a little branch, with little money, but wanting to do their part for the building in Salt Lake City, hunted for items in second-hand shops where they found a Meissen vase, a valuable piece of art. Today, the rare vase sits in the Relief Society Building as a symbol of a worldwide sisterhood.

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Ribbon-cutting ceremony including the first presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints at the Relief Society Building in Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret Morning News, March 17, 2006.
l-r: Ribbon-cutting ceremony including the first presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints at the Relief Society Building in Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret Morning News, March 17, 2006. Photo: Deseret Morning News

On Oct. 1, 1953, ground was broken. The building planned by prominent architect George Cannon Young would have three floors above ground and a basement. (Today, the Resource Room is in the basement. Please see adjacent article.) All three auxiliaries, Relief Society, Young Women and Primary, would eventually house their general offices here. On the exterior, a significant feature would be symbols of wheat sheaves, representing early grain storage by the women of the Church.

Finally, on Oct. 3, 1956, Church President David O. McKay offered the dedicatory prayer on the new edifice. The long-awaited event was held in the board room — now the President's Room — of the building with a direct wire transmitting the services to the Tabernacle where Sister Spafford was conducting the Relief Society general conference.

Today, the Relief Society Building still stands as a "gathering place for the women of the Church," Sister Parkin declared. "We want the women of the Church to know they need to come to the building, whether they are serving (in the auxiliaries now or not). Come to the building, come and feel the spirit of it, rejoice in the beauty." (The Relief Society general presidency welcomes personal accounts relating to the Relief Society Building. Please e-mail them to [email protected])

Sources: The Relief Society Magazine, December 1956; Women of Covenant: The Story of Relief Society, Deseret Book, by Jill Mulvay Derr, Janath Russell Cannon and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher; Church News, Oct. 6, 1956; "A Journal History of the Relief Society Building," compiled by Vesta B. Crawford, associate editor, The Relief Society Magazine; script of Relief Society Building tour.

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Ribbon-cutting ceremony including the first presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints at the Relief Society Building in Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret Morning News, March 17, 2006.
l-r: Ribbon-cutting ceremony including the first presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints at the Relief Society Building in Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret Morning News, March 17, 2006. Photo: Deseret Morning News
Interior shot of the LDS Relief Society Building. Michael Brandy/Deseret Morning News.  MARCH 15, 2006
Interior shot of the LDS Relief Society Building. Michael Brandy/Deseret Morning News. MARCH 15, 2006 Photo: Michael Brandy/Deseret Morning News
FOR CHURCH NEWS COVER--Relief Society Building in Salt Lake City, Utah, Mar. 13, 2006. Photo by Tom Smart
FOR CHURCH NEWS COVER--Relief Society Building in Salt Lake City, Utah, Mar. 13, 2006. Photo by Tom Smart Photo: DESERET MORNING NEWS
Pieces donated to the Relief Society on display at the LDS Relief Society Building. Michael Brandy/Deseret Morning News.  MARCH 15, 2006
Pieces donated to the Relief Society on display at the LDS Relief Society Building. Michael Brandy/Deseret Morning News. MARCH 15, 2006 Photo: Michael Brandy/Deseret Morning News

E-mail to: [email protected]