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Peggy Fletcher Stack
Peggy Fletcher Stack has been producing stories for The Salt Lake Tribune's award-winning Faith section for nearly two decades. Writing about contemporary faith, rituals, and spirituality as well as religion's conflicts and cohesion has always been Stack's passion. Follow her at facebook.com/peggy.fletcherstack, Twitter @religiongal

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(Kim Raff | The Salt Lake Tribune) LDS missionaries Elders Tyler McCord, left, and Devin Duke sit by the reflecting pool at Temple Square during the 183rd General Conference of the LDS Church in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Oct. 7, 2012. The day before, church President Thomas S. Monson had announced lower age limits for Mormon missionaries — 18 (down from 19) for men and 19 (down from 21) for women.
The jump in Mormon missionaries tapers off, but women catching up

The LDS Church has received an "unprecedented" number of new missionary applications since October, when it lowered the age for male candidates from 19 to 18 and for females from 21 to 19.

If the current trend of applications persists, it may not be long before the percentage of sisters (young women) serving missions moves from 15 percent to nearly equal with that of young men.

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"I’ve never seen anything affect a generation of young people like what [LDS Church] President [Thomas S.] Monson announced the Saturday morning of general conference," Elder David F. Evans, executive director of the Church’s Missionary Department and member of the Seventy, said on the church’s newsroom site. "What we’re seeing is just an absolute overwhelming response from this generation to the invitation of the Lord and his prophet to rise up and go and serve your fellow man and preach the gospel."

Within weeks of the historic announcement, the news release said, the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints saw the number of missionary applications jump by 471 percent, from 700 per week to 4,000, with women comprising more than half the tally. Since then, the number of applicants is closer to 1,400 a week (double the pre-announcement figure), but "the total number of men and women who have applied since October is now about equal."

Because young men could already serve at 18 in 48 countries worldwide, Evans said, "the greatest surge of missionaries from the October announcement will come from countries where the younger age limit was not in place — including the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and Japan."

The age change also required a dramatic leap in the number of missionaries in the church’s 347 missions worldwide — from an average of 170 to 250.

The move has also reduced by a third the length of time missionaries spend at the church’s 15 missionary training centers.

While the church figures out how to expand its flagship MTC in Provo, it will have to squeeze an additional 1,800 missionaries — up from 3,000 to 4,800 — into the existing buildings.

Officials are doing that in the short term by using every available space, Evans said, and by adding more bunks to each room.

In recent weeks, close to 250 missionaries at Provo’s MTC have been grappling with a nasty virus.

Missionary Department managing director Stephen B. Allen is confident that overcrowding and adapting will not detract from missionaries’ time at an MTC.

"It won’t be a watered-down experience; it won’t be a cheapened experience," Allen said in the release. "It will be a great spiritual learning experience, a time of revelation for those missionaries as they learn how to be missionaries."

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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