In a chamber packed with Latter-day Saint supporters, Nauvoo’s six-member City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to approve the building of a Latter-day Saint visitors center adjacent to the faith’s temple.
The vote ended months of sometimes-contentious debate between supporters and opponents, who didn’t necessarily object to the religious center in the Illinois town but wanted to see it moved a few hundred feet down a hill.
“We were very pleased with the outcome,” said Benjamin Pykles, director of historic sites whose department was involved in planning the center for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “But we are sad that the process created some divisions in Nauvoo.”
Indeed, to some, Tuesday’s council meeting added to the already fraught emotions.
“I was flummoxed that what had been a civic issue all of a sudden became a religious issue,” Karen Ihrig, one of the opponents at the session, said Wednesday. “Person after person talked about how much the visitor center and temple meant to them.”
For Ihrig and other critics, though, the main issue was the center’s location on the hill.
“In the pit of my stomach I feel bad,” said Ihrig, who has lived in Nauvoo for 50 years and is not affiliated with any church. “I thought we had a chance to sway the decision, but I guess not. There is resignation on the part of the town, rather than anger.”
Nauvoo “lost its sovereignty last night because Utah will always control it,” said Irene Tukuafu, a Latter-day Saint temple worker in the town. “Nauvoo has become a colony of Salt Lake City.”
A couple of weeks ago, the 82-year-old said, she heard a Latter-day Saint declare, “We have done so much for Nauvoo, we should be able to put our visitor center wherever we want.”
City officials “didn’t have the money to fight it,” Tukuafu said. So the City Council “just voted for it.”
The earlier temple
Early Latter-day Saints erected a temple on a prominent Nauvoo knoll in the 1840s. They abandoned it when they trekked west, and the landmark was eventually destroyed.
The church rebuilt it and, in 2002, dedicated a replica of that temple.
Alexander Speed, a Latter-day Saint who has lived in the historic city for about three years, said he doesn’t think church officials understand how the latest dispute “looks to the people of Nauvoo.”
To at least a portion of the town, the sight of the visitors center will remind them that “the church does what it wants, and you can’t really trust what [leaders] say.”
Speed remains hopeful that “the property owner [the church] will reconsider” and, no matter what happens, “hearts will be opened.”
A change in the site doesn’t appear to be forthcoming.
A time to build and to heal
“We feel strongly that the visitor center needs to have an unobstructed view of the temple because of what it means to us historically and currently,” Pykles said in an interview. “We are eager to get started on the project.”
Still, the Utah-based faith wants to “work hard to heal the divisions going forward,” the historian said, “to show that we understand the relationship [between the church and Nauvoo residents] is symbiotic.”
Each side needs the other, he said. “All are critical to maintaining good relations.”
The church wants the center to “be a blessing,” Pykles said, “not just to visitors but to residents as well.”
That is also the desire of Janet Hill, Latter-day Saint resident who opposed the center’s location.
The transplanted Utahn hopes the church extends “every effort” to make temple hill “a welcoming, inclusive space” for everyone, not just Latter-day Saints.
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