A fraught battle being waged in Nauvoo begins and ends at the gleaming temple atop a bluff, whose majestic views of the Mississippi River have been the marvel of many a visitor.
The squabble in this tiny Illinois hamlet (fewer than 1,000 residents) includes a big, wealthy church with headquarters more than 1,200 miles away; a history of religious antagonism, followed a century later by rebuilding and rebirth with interfaith collegiality; an 11-acre plot of green space in the heart of the city; a disputed pledge by an earlier Latter-day Saint prophet; reawakened feelings of exclusion and religious bullying; along with threats of lawsuits.
It has set neighbors against neighbors of every faith and even within a faith.
Earlier this year, officials with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City arrived in Nauvoo to announce plans for what they said was a “historic visitor center,” which would sit next to the faith’s rebuilt and rededicated temple.
Many Latter-day Saints embraced the proposal, while critics, including fellow believers, raised objections, urging the Utah-based church to move the new structure off the green and down the hill a few hundred feet.
Some 105 opponents (of whom 16% self-identified as Latter-day Saints, 41% as Catholics, and the rest cited no religious affiliation) signed a petition. Meanwhile, 23 proponents of the plan (all identified as Latter-day Saints) signed a second petition. Both were submitted to City Hall.
It appears that few if any in Nauvoo publicly oppose the construction of a visitor center. It is all about location, location, location.
“We appeal to you Brethren that you will reconsider the visitor center’s current location on the Temple Green,” Latter-day Saint opponents wrote in a letter to apostles David A. Bednar, Gerrit W. Gong and others. “Please ... please go to the Lord on our behalf.”
Although Nauvoo “has a large LDS presence, we are still a multifaith community,” they stated, “and we are trying to find common ground with common interests and goals.”
Indeed, the church “could make this such a win-win for this community if they would just move it a couple of hundred feet to the west,” Janet Hill, a transplanted Utahn who ran an art gallery in Nauvoo until earlier this fall, said in an interview. “They could regain the good feelings in the community.”
Sadly, she added, the wrangling has only escalated in recent weeks.
An informal meeting at a restaurant turned into a “shouting match,” Hill recalled, with one woman yelling at another, saying that “the prophet has asked us to support this.”
The six-person City Council is scheduled to vote on the proposal Tuesday.
For their part, church officials believe they have gone to great lengths to address community issues.
“Over the past few years, we have evaluated several sites for a new temple visitors’ center in Nauvoo, balancing proximity to the temple, safety and preservation of views,” Matthew Grow, managing director of the Church History Department in Salt Lake City, said in a statement. “During the process, we met repeatedly with city officials and residents, both in public and in private, to better understand their concerns. In response to their input, we made several changes to our site plan to enhance safety, including modifying parking entrances and bus routes as well as working with the city to widen an adjacent street as well as installing a four-way stop. We believe the proposed location conforms with all zoning requirements and is the best site for the temple visitors’ center.”
Yet, in their revised plan, Latter-day Saint officials suggested that “if their demands weren’t met,” Nauvoo resident Karen Ihrig wrote in a memo to the council, “they could ‘trigger’ RLUIPA (Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000).”
This was “a bridge too far,” Ihrig wrote, “a strong-armed, bullying tactic meant as an unveiled threat.”
The debate over the proposed location “is a civic, not a religious, issue,” she explained. “No religious freedoms are being compromised.”
View of and from the temple green
Building on the sacred space took place in the 1840s during Mormonism’s early years. It was the apex of the Latter-day Saints efforts to transform a swamp-infested riverbank into a religious utopia.
These ardent believers continued to work on their limestone treasure even after founder Joseph Smith was gunned down in 1844. But as antagonism with their neighbors escalated, more than 12,000 heartbroken Latter-day Saints abandoned the temple and trekked west with Brigham Young.
There it sat, attacked by ruffians and burned at the hands of arsonists until a tornado finished the job in May 1850. The grassy hill was vacant for more than a century.
Then, in 1999, then-church President Gordon B. Hinckley announced that the temple would be rebuilt. Hinckley himself dedicated it on June 27, 2002 (the 158th anniversary of Smith’s death).
At that time, St. Mary’s Academy sat on the corner of the grassy property. The LDS Church purchased the Catholic school and tried to repurpose it for a while but by 2007 tore it down.
And Hinckley promised, according to a report in the local newspaper, the Hancock County Journal-Pilot, that no other structure would ever be built on that hill to “obstruct the view from the temple.”
Thus, it remained an open field, available to everyone in the community.
Former Mayor John McCarty, a Catholic, met Hinckley at the temple’s cornerstone ceremony.
“I was quite moved by his presence. I felt a sense of security in his words of promising things would be OK,” McCarty wrote in a public memo. “...Now I feel I cannot support something that goes against a statement made by the prophet who knew what importance this hillside [held].”
Somewhere down the road “Nauvoo is going to need a lot of help to survive,” he added, and if the church wants to be that “good neighbor,” it should ask locals what they want, rather than just tell them what the church will do.
The changing language and landscape
After the church’s initial March proposal, the city discovered that the temple green was zoned residential, which meant only housing, religious structures or similar places of worship could be built there.
The church revised its plan in July, emphasizing the religious nature of the center as a “place of worship” and religious instruction.
“The law is clear it would be illegal for the city to rule that the Nauvoo Temple visitors’ center is not permitted at that location,” Latter-day Saint Area Seventy Jeremiah J. Morgan wrote in an “open letter, “because it is a place of worship.”
The nature of the center is not the issue for many opponents.
Latter-day Saint representatives who came from Utah to the historic town “have not been interested in our concerns, just in changing people’s minds,” said Alexander Speed, a church member who has lived in Nauvoo for three years. “They seem to be deaf to what we will be losing if they build there when there are plenty of other places to build the visitor center.”
That piece of ground on temple hill “has become a gathering spot for the city’s activities,” Speed said. “It’s a beautiful part of the city, super conducive to bringing together people of all religions.”
It is, he said, “our Central Park.”
Fellow Nauvoo resident Terry Marler doesn’t see it that way.
That spot is “rarely used,” said Marler, whose job brings him to the temple four days a week. “It may occasionally be used by a large church group, but other than that, it’s just fireworks on holidays and watching sunsets over the Mississippi.”
He supports the church’s preferred site for the visitor center, saying it will provide important spiritual insights on what happens in the temple for those who cannot enter (dedicated Latter-day Saint temples are open only to faithful members). And it will be near the temple for easy access.
“The green slopes downward, which is where opponents want it,” Marler said. “Then you lose proximity to the temple, and many visitors wouldn’t take advantage of it.”
In his open letter, Morgan argued that “the space and views remain largely the same.”
Of the 11.78 acres on the temple green, “only a small portion of it will be taken up by the…visitors’ center,” Morgan wrote. “Extensive areas of open space will remain, preserving the view of the Mississippi River at most existing points along the bluff.”
Plus, the Seventy added, it is “unconstitutional to require the church to forgo the right to use its property for religious purposes in this way.”
Not listening to opponents’ worries or not remembering Hinckley’s purported promise, Speed said, leaves some Nauvoo residents feeling betrayed.
Inside the church, the message seems to be that all Latter-day Saint opponents “do not follow the prophet,” he said, and outsiders “are religious bigots.”
That has created a feeling of victimization — that Nauvoo “is full of people who hate the church,” Speed said. “They use religious fervor to say that they are fighting for religious freedom.”
Marler said he knows some opponents have felt judged by fellow Latter-day Saints, but he added “most of them are very good people; it’s just a difference of opinion.”
Some members are appealing to leaders in Salt Lake City to help settle the dispute amicably and treat their neighbors with grace.
“Our history is here. Our faith is here. One of the most beautiful temples in the world sits on this bluff and yet we are unable to go forward without repeating history,” the Latter-day Saint opponents wrote to the apostles. “We appeal to you in the gentlest of terms but with a true hope that the Lord would reconsider and build this visitors’ center [nearby rather than on the temple green]. … It would be a true act of love, mercy and generosity…We love our little village. We love our neighbors and we do not want them to conclude that they have been lied to again and deceived as they do now. This gift would change everything. And it would save a landscape that has been promised.”
When Latter-day Saints assure themselves that fellow residents will just “get over it,” Janet Hill said she gently reminds them: This is Nauvoo. People have long memories.
This is no time for another rift, she said, but a time for healing.
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