My sister used to live on Douglas Avenue, just down from Copia. Several times a week I would pick her up from work and drive her home. It was during that first trip I noticed the church building that was right across the street from her apartment.
The building is constructed of red brick, has marble-like windows, and a cupola. Looking at that building, for the first time, I became intrigued. I wondered who built it, and when. And that’s where the questions died.
I had forgotten about the building until about a month ago when I found myself back in that neighbourhood.
This time around, when I saw the building, that is when I noticed that it was designated a historical landmark. Also noticed that it was one of the chapels that belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
I took photos of the building that day, and when I returned home, I began to look at them. A quick Google search showed just enough to make me want to know more. Google tends to do that to me, shows me results that only produce one or two lines, and that drives me out of my seat, and into the real world to learn more.
This past Tuesday I sat down with Robert Dinsmoor, attorney and former District Judge here in El Paso, who has a wealth of knowledge of the building and the history of the Mormons in El Paso.
We meet in the main room of the Chapel, where they hold sacrament meetings. The room itself, like all LDS chapels, are bereft of decoration. From Wade Richardson, former Bishop of El Paso’s Redd Ward, I learned that this is so the people attending church can focus on the message, and not the architecture.
But the architecture of First Ward is what drew me in.
“The Church really started in El Paso in 1876,” Robert began. “That is when the first Missionaries arrived here. There were seven of them that came, and they were going to be going into Mexico. But they stayed here during that winter in January of 1876.”
At that time, El Paso was on the other side of the river. What we had were Franklinville and Magoffinsville. After the winter, the Missionaries who arrived went down into Mexico.
In the late 1890s Isaac Pierce moved up from the colonies down in Mexico. He moved up to Juarez and ran a lumber mill. His son, Arwell moved over to El Paso in 1906, as well as a few other Mormon families. In 1912 there was a significant change, the revolution in Mexico.
During the revolution, the Mormons who were living in the colonies were, as Robert says, for the most part, driven out of Mexico. So, they came to El Paso.
At the time, El Paso’s population was just a bit over ten thousand. The numbers of Mormon refugees who came to the city? Between three and five thousand. Some of the research I have, because of my conversation with Robert shows the number closer to five thousand.
Image, if you can, a city of that size taking in that many people. The stress it could have placed in the city, and its resources. The conflicts that could have occurred. But, we are talking about El Paso, a city known for its hospitality and welcoming spirit.
By 1915-1916 the first branch of the Church was established here. Philip Hurst was the first branch president. By 1918, that branch became a ward (a branch is a small group or church. A ward is larger than a branch.)
During this same time, some of the individuals who had come up from Mexico began to return. One of those who came up during the revolution was Mitt Romney’s father, George W. Romney.
A tent city was established so that the Mormon colonists would have a place to stay. Others were invited into homes, and others could move to different parts of the country with the railroad providing free passage to any Mormon who had family anywhere the train stopped.
In 1918 the First Ward was established, and it was the first ward in Texas. A ward is the larger of two local congregations, with the branch being the smallest.
During this time, they began to meet in different homes around the area. After a time, they began to meet in the old Odd Fellow’s Lodge, which once stood where the scoreboard is at Chihuahua stadium.
On Sundays, when they would meet for Church services, they would meet on the first floor. The second floor was a pool hall. “Sometimes, from what I read,” says Robert, “it made interesting verbiage during church services.” I can imagine the language, and how those attending church would react when they heard this!
In the 1920s Arwel Pierce began to look at buildings in different parts of the West: California, Arizona, other places. He and others wanted to know what works well for the chapels, and what doesn’t work.
They wanted to build something, I can imagine, that would stand out as well as be functional. They bought the property located at 3625 Douglas Street, and then they were ready to build. However, the Great Depression started in 1929. “But,” said Robert, “that didn’t deter them.”
In October of 1930, they began the work on the Douglas Street Chapel.
One aspect of construction and funding that really stood out for me was that, even though people were having a hard time to meet their basic needs, members of the Church would give one day, out of every three days wages to the building fund. This was, you must remember, during the great depression.
October 24, 1930, they began the groundwork. On Christmas Day 1930 they laid the cornerstone. “That they did it on Christmas day I think meant great significance to them,” said Robert. “Because they wanted to show on the day that we celebrate the birth of the Savior was born that the Church was going forward.”
There is a photo of the cornerstone after it was placed. For me, seeing that picture answered a few questions for me. I always wondered about cornerstones, and what they looked like without the rest of the building.
That cornerstone, according to Robert, is also a time capsule. Enclosed within it is a copy of the Book of Mormon, newspapers from the day and certain other memorabilia. When I spoke with Emily, and another lady (My call recorder didn’t capture the whole call. So, I apologize) from the Church History
Department they said that during the renovation of the Chapel the cornerstone was left intact. So, I am interested in the future, when that cornerstone is opened.
On May 24th, 1931, the Chapel was dedicated. Heber J. Grant was the president of the Church at that time, and he came down for the dedication. He is in one of the photos below. Look for the one taken outside, and for a very tall man, the Bishop of the Ward is standing next to him, holding a child.
Other notable individuals were present at the dedication was the mayor of El Paso, Ray E. Sherman, who gave a speech. The President of the Chamber of Commerce. I also learned there were also many from the community who were in attendance.
An interesting fact about how, and when LDS Chapels are dedicated is that it is not done until the land, building, and construction is paid. Once everything is paid for, in full, then space can be dedicated, and not before.
In the 1950s First Ward had an extension added to the building. This extension was both upstairs, and in the basement, adding additional rooms and classrooms for the growing church. They also added bars to the windows, not because of crime, but because of the basketball court. The balls kept breaking the windows.
About the building itself, what used to be the Bishop’s office has the original fireplace. This was the only room that was heated at the time and was used for consultations with the Bishop.
The organ, though not installed before the dedication, is there. Well, the pipes are. The organ was removed to be refurbished and will be returned soon.
In the basement, at the foot of the stairs, is an old safe that is part of the original construction. I learned, from Robert, that for the longest time there was no way for the Church to deposit monies collected on Sundays. That led to the safe being installed.
In the central part of the Church, where the meetings are held, the woodwork is all original. It is the same solid woodwork that was created during construction.
During the restoration, the local Church, under the direction of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints History Department, attempted to keep everything the same or bring back what was there in the 1930s, like the style of carpet in the meeting house.
It is a fascinating building. Robert shared with me something that was said by President Heber J. Grant.
President Grant said that as far as he was concerned that this (First Ward) was one of the finest chapels of its size. It’s also the only Chapel dedicated by the President of the Church outside of Utah.
If you ever find yourself in this neighbourhood, take a moment to stop by and look around. It is a beautiful building, and one of the hidden treasures of El Paso.
Black and white photos provided by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and are used by permission. Colour photos by Steven Zimmerman.
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