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Avenues wards continue to lose members

Published July 24, 2005 2:27 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

All that remains is a "for sale" sign on a dirt field.

No longer are Mormon families streaming to the wardhouse on Sunday mornings. No longer are the grounds teeming with children playing after school.

From their front porches, Glen Spencer and Marvin Mower have observed the transformation of Salt Lake City's Avenues neighborhood. In 1953, these men, now in their 80s, helped construct The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints building at the corner of K Street and Ninth Avenue, which housed two congregations, or wards.

And 51 years later, they watched as crews demolished the white concrete structure that once served as the heart of their predominantly LDS community.

Declining membership forced the LDS Church to redraw boundaries in 2003, consolidating three stakes, which oversee wards, into two. The Eagle Gate Stake, where LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley attended church, no longer exists, leaving the Emigration and Ensign stakes to split the avenues along H Street. In the redesign, the LDS Church decided to abandon the Ninth Avenue building.

The remaining dirt field serves as a testament to the evolution Spencer and Mower have witnessed. They have looked on as the Avenues emerged as a refuge for the urban elite, professionals lured by charming small homes that carry big price tags. Nice neighbors, they say, but not generally Mormon.

"We have prayed about getting families to move into the ward and strengthen the ward," said longtime Avenues resident Glenn Wentworth. "On occasion we have had people move in after we have done that."

The Avenues wards continued to lose members despite the continuous prayers from those like Wentworth, Spencer and Mower.

Wentworth was the bishop of Ensign 3rd Ward before it became consolidated into other congregations and the wardhouse was demolished.

"Its not like you have a family with four or five kids moving into an LDS ward in the Avenues nowadays," he said.

Neighborhoods throughout the Salt Lake Valley's east bench are in the throes of similar transformations. Young families have left in search of newer, cheaper subdivisions, with more children and a greater family feel.

They leave behind aging, more affluent areas. And what remains are shrinking LDS congregations whose members now regularly fast and pray for Mormons to move in next door.

The migration has contributed to the steady decline in the percentage of Salt Lake County residents who are members of Utah's predominant faith.

Salt Lake County, the most populous of Utah's 29 counties, has recorded a net decrease in Mormon residents in four of the past six years, according to an analysis of LDS membership data by The Salt Lake Tribune. In the past 15 years, the percentage of LDS residents in Salt Lake County has dropped from 63.2 percent to 53.3 percent.

Apparently, many LDS families are electing to raise their kids in surrounding Utah, Tooele and Davis counties. The under-18 LDS population has dropped by more than 20,000 in Salt Lake County since 1989, while it has grown in surrounding areas.

The statistics don't surprise Spencer and his brother-in-law Mower.

"None of our kids want to live here," Mower said. "They all want more room."

"Bang for our buck": Mike and Elizabeth Jarema lived in Cottonwood Heights for seven years, their eight children crammed into a duplex near Brighton High School. They enjoyed the "diversity of attitudes and friendships" in the area that was "half non-LDS," Mike Jarema said. But in the end, that was not enough to keep them there.

In April 2004, they moved into a six-bedroom home with a three-car garage and a big yard. Their new house in a burgeoning subdivision in Highland has more than twice as much living space as their old duplex.

"We moved here because we liked the environment and we get more bang for our buck," Mike Jarema said. "We wanted to live in a younger area for the children."

The Jaremas are part of the rapid LDS growth in Utah County, where new Mormon residents could have filled two new wards each month in 2004, many living in growing subdivisions just over the border from Salt Lake County.

Utah County's gain was Cottonwood Heights' loss, according to Marty Vuyk, the Jaremas' former bishop.

"Mike Jarema is one of those really good examples of what has happened," Vuyk said. "They were very, very active in the ward. They held responsible positions. They were sorely missed when they moved."

The loss of the Jaremas and a few other families has decimated Brighton 3rd Ward's primary, a program for young children, and is one of the reasons the ward has continuously prayed for new LDS families to relocate to their area. They hold out hope, though they know the high-priced homes are a hurdle for parents with young children.

"We are concerned we are not getting members moving into the homes in the ward," Vuyk said. "You become very much a family as a ward and you want it to stay that way."

Just under 200 Mormons attend Sunday services, enough to sustain Brighton 3rd, but Vuyk worries that in four or five years it could face the same fate as the Avenues wardhouse on K Street.

"Family feel": Holding a book documenting the history of the Ensign 3rd Ward, Spencer's wife, Cleo, has a hard time talking about the loss of the K Street wardhouse.

"I get emotional just thinking about it," she said, her eyes tearing up. "It was a wonderful part of our lives."

She recalled her daughter Ruthann struggling to find a suitable place for her wedding reception. " 'Well, the ward is my other home,' she said. 'Let's have it there.' "

Glen Spencer recalls fond memories of installing the air conditioner and pipe organ, but he is not as sentimental.

"It was like a pair of shoes that wore out," he said. "We were done with that building."

Still, the Spencers miss the "family feel" of the old close-knit ward, which started its own ski club and organized regular group hikes over Albion Basin. They also miss the short walk to the church and the striking view of downtown Salt Lake City from the popular "skyroom."

"Community life is very much different," Mower said.

They are not about to move to Highland with the Jaremas, though.

Their history is entwined with that of the Avenues: an area, like so much of Salt Lake, that continues to look less like the Utah of old.

mcanham@sltrib.com