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How the history of the St. George Tabernacle has blessed a branch in southwest Italy

ST. GEORGE, Utah — For a century and a half, the St. George Tabernacle has impacted hundreds of thousands of lives, beginning with the pioneer settlers who started its construction in 1863 and continuing as the region’s residents attended religious meetings and community events there since.

Rededicated Saturday, July 28, following a two-year closure for its renovation, the St. George Tabernacle reminds local Latter-day Saints of their own rededication of devotion and service, as emphasized by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in his keynote address and dedicatory prayer.

“Whether we are building tabernacles or temples or homes or communities, we should give our best effort in order that generations yet unborn might be blessed because of our devotion,” he said.

Such an effort to bless future generations is being realized even now, as a St. George Tabernacle event from the late 1870s helps benefit a small branch in the Church in southwestern Italy. It was detailed by Elder Steven E. Snow, Church Historian and General Authority Seventy, who joined Elder Holland and Bishop Dean M. Davies of the Presiding Bishopric for the tabernacle’s rededication in front of a congregation of more than 1,000.

Recalling the silver mining north of St. George that came about the time of the dedications of the tabernacle (1876) and nearby St. George Utah Temple (1877), Elder Snow told of Father Lawrence Scanlan, the Catholic priest caring for the hundreds of miners of his faith in the mining town of Silver Reef.

With a Catholic church building still under construction, Scanlan confided his worries of where and how to hold mass to John Macfarlane, a St. George surveyor by trade working in the area and the director of the Latter-day Saint choir that sang in the tabernacle.

Rows of empty pews are seen in the St. George Tabernacle on Saturday, July 28, 2018, following a rededication ceremony.
Rows of empty pews are seen in the St. George Tabernacle on Saturday, July 28, 2018, following a rededication ceremony. Photo: Nick Adams, for the Deseret News

Macfarlane, whose hymn credits include “Dearest Children, God Is Near You” and “Far, Far Away On Judea’s Plains,” worked with Apostle Erastus Snow to extend an invitation to hold mass in the new tabernacle. The choir needed just two weeks to learn its parts in Latin, and in May 1879, Catholic mass was conducted in the St. George Tabernacle before a congregation of 3,000, including Catholic miners and curious Saints.

After sharing the account in the rededication services, Elder Snow provided “the rest of the story” by reading a 2015 letter from President Alessandro Dini Ciacci of the Rome Italy West Stake.

Visiting the stake’s units in 2013, the new stake president met Alfredo Filippella with the Battipaglia Branch, southeast of Salerno and Naples. A Catholic who had previously encountered a pair of missionaries from the Church, Filippella explained he bought a book to better understand the Church, and in his reading he learned of the Saints helping provide mass in the St. George Tabernacle in 1879.

Elder Stephen E. Snow, Church Historian and General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, speaks to a full congregation Saturday, July 28, 2018, during a rededication ceremony at the St. George Tabernacle in St. George, Utah. The building was rededicated after a two-year renovation.
Elder Stephen E. Snow, Church Historian and General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, speaks to a full congregation Saturday, July 28, 2018, during a rededication ceremony at the St. George Tabernacle in St. George, Utah. The building was rededicated after a two-year renovation. Photo: Nick Adams, for the Deseret News

Feeling a great gratitude for the act of kindness by those who helped his Catholic brothers and sisters worship long ago, Filippella said “he determined that he should pay it back,” the letter read.

With no branch member able to provide music accompaniment for sacrament meetings, he offered to play weekly — an offer gladly accepted. Filippella arranged with the priest of his Catholic parish located 40 kilometers away to accompany the branch on Sunday mornings and the parish later each Sunday afternoon.

“I am sure the descendants of those choir members and leaders would love knowing how far their ancestors’ act of kindness has gone,” wrote President Dini Ciacci, now an Area Seventy in Rome who confirmed to the Church News that Filippella continues even now to accompany the Battipaglia Branch, a gesture that has helped foster shared singing and speaking events between the area’s Catholics and Latter-day Saints.

From a Catholic mass in St. George, Utah, to branch sacrament meetings in Battipaglia, Italy, that “best effort in order that generations yet unborn might be blessed” spans more than 130 years and 6,150 miles.

Said Bishop Davies, the Presiding Bishopric's first counselor: “These tabernacles are truly spiritual icons in the Church — wonderful images of our faith, our worship and our devotion to our God.” He also included the tabernacle's role as a community resource and gathering place for interfaith events.

Emphasizing the word “remember” as it found repeatedly in sacramental prayers, Elder Holland underscored the importance of “remembering” at the time of rededication — remembering our gratitude and devotion to the Lord and remembering the efforts and sacrifices of those who built the tabernacle, remembering to ask divine acceptance of and blessing of the construction, the materials used and the purposes to be fulfilled.

But equally important is to remember to rededicate oneself to devotion and service. “We make it sacred and we give meaning to it by the lives we live, by what it does to us and for us,” said Elder Holland, adding “it’s not insignificant to give thanks and to dedicate the windows and walls, but the real dedication is in how we’re going to live.”

In what originally was to be a simple reroofing effort, the four-year renovation and restoration project — requiring a two-year closure — resulted in a extensive seismic enhancements, refurbishing and refreshing both inside, outside and upward, including the bell tower, bell and clock.

Bishop Davies called attention to the section of interior wall where the building’s original cornerstone was located and contents — scriptures, papers, coins, a copy of the Deseret News and an all-but-empty bottle of Dixie wine where the cork deteriorated and liquid soaked the other contents — were recovered.

A modern-day time capsule — containing photographs and papers of the tabernacle’s renovation and history — was quietly and unceremoniously inserted in the cornerstone. And that raw wall remains open to view without being covered by plaster or wallboard, leaving the sandstone blocks and mortar visible as well as the marks of the stone cutting, the chisels and the drill holes.

Decaying scriptures and other items from a time capsule placed in a sandstone box are on display inside the St. George Tabernacle on Saturday, July 28, 2018, in St. George, Utah.
Decaying scriptures and other items from a time capsule placed in a sandstone box are on display inside the St. George Tabernacle on Saturday, July 28, 2018, in St. George, Utah. Photo: Nick Adams, for the Deseret News

“It ties the building really to people," Bishop Davies said, adding “you think of the labor of lifting the stone to put it in place and placing the mortar around the stone.”

In his address, Elder Holland referred to the tabernacle’s “sacred stones” being symbolic of the sacrifices of the past and the blessings realized — the past, the present and the future, cover the years and now over the continents.

The native St. George son, whose formative years in the tabernacle helped shaped a future apostle’s life, summarized just prior to leading the prayer of dedication: “This beautiful work of pioneer architecture in which we now sit is to remind us of what in so many, many ways our mothers and fathers did for us in harder days and harsher times — days and times when they trusted that faith had to precede the miracle, but that the miracle would come,” he said.

“So it does, and as we look around us, so it has.”