‘From ashes and destruction’; Latter-day Saints celebrate completion of stake center destroyed by arson

ST. GEORGE — A year ago on a chilled Saturday morning, residents of St. George awoke to find the nearly completed East Stake Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a smoldering, smoking husk. The night before, a large fire believed by authorities that have been an arson had gutted the building.

A nearly-completed chapel of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints located just east of the St. George LDS Temple was destroyed by a fire early Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019 | File photo By Mori Kessler, St. George News

Despite the loss, church leaders told members that the stake center, located at 449 S. 300 East, would be rebuilt. And rebuilt it was.

Located across the street from the St. George Temple, the new stake center was completed and opened for use in early January when it was dedicated by the stake leadership. The meeting, held Jan. 5, was packed with Latter-day Saints as then-Stake President Art Troyer shared a few words before dedicating the new stake center with a prayer.

“How grateful we are to have this building,” Troyer said, noting how fast it was rebuilt following the fire.

Troyer recounted how he was called by a church official in Salt Lake City who asked if the stake center could be rebuilt. He said his response was immediate.

“We are builders in this church,” Troyer told the church official. “If you give me the same team that we had to build the first one, we’ll build it and build it faster and better – and we did. This building went up faster than the first building did.”

Inside the chapel of the new St. George East Stake Center during the building’s dedication, St. George, Utah, Jan, 5, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

According to a statement from the St. George East Stake presidency posted on Facebook following the fire, they were told it could take up to two years to rebuild the stake center.

“I’m grateful to see this building come from ashes and destruction in such a short time,” Troyer said before offering the dedicatory prayer.

Wanting to celebrate the new building with the community, the St. George East Stake leadership chose to hold a two-day open house where the public could come and tour the building while also learning about its purpose.

While the open house tours are Friday from 3-8 p.m, and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., the media, civic officials, members of the St. George Interfaith Council and others were invited for a special tour of the building Thursday evening.

The new St. George East Stake Center, rebuilt after its predecessor was lost to arson in January 2019, St. George, Utah, Jan, 16, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

During the tour, the difference between a regular Latter-day Saint chapel and a stake center was explained by President Scott Porter, a member of the stake presidency.

While the stake center does serve as a place of worship for members of the church, it is also the central chapel of an LDS church stake, a geographic unit within the church that contains several wards, or individual congregations.

The St. George East Stake contains eight wards and three branches (smaller units). Guiding the stake is the stake president and his two counselors. They are aided by 12 others who make up the stake high council. The stake presidency’s offices are kept at the stake center. It is also where they meet with the high council.

“As a member of the community, it was so nice to come and celebrate with the leadership and members of the St. George East Stake on the completion of this building, which was really done in an amazingly short amount of time,” Rev. Jimi Kestin of Solomon’s Porch Foursquare Fellowship said.

Work crews tear down the charred remains of the St. George East Stake Center to make way for its rebuilding after a fire that destroyed the original building, St. George, Utah, Jan, 16, 2020 | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Kestin attended the stake center tour with other members of the Interfaith Council and remarked how heartbreaking it had been to see news of last year’s fire, especially when the Latter-day Saints of the East Stake were so looking forward to the stake center’s completion.

Both Porter and Troyer said Thursday that fire allowed the stake to make sure the construction process was done better and that certain elements were added.

One of those features is an area on the east end of the stake center that can be used by the St. George Temple Visitor Center. As the visitor center only has two restrooms and routinely gets busloads of visitors, Troyer said he wanted to help alleviate some of the issues that arise with the lack of facilities. This is accomplished through offering additional restrooms and classroom space for visitors and staff of the visitor center.

A new steeple is placed atop the rebuilt St. George East Stake Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints four months after a fire destroyed the original building, May 2, 2019 | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Staff members have been given a key to the small portion of the stake center, which is also able to be closed off from the rest of the building, Porter said.

Another factor that sets the stake center apart from other church buildings is its size. It is what the church has called a “legacy building,” which is the largest meeting house the church has built at 24,500 square feet in size. The chapel, combined with the overflow area, can accommodate up to 1,000 attendees.

However, the church no longer builds these types of buildings, as it was found that buildings with a smaller footprint could serve as stake centers just as well, Troyer said. Still, that wasn’t going to work for the St. George East Stake Center.

“A previous stake president asked for a bigger building because every time we have a three-day weekend, we’re completed packed,” Troyer said. “Everyone wants to go to the church next to the temple, and this is the church next to the temple.”

The original stake center of the St. George East Stake built in the mid-1960s. It was turn down in 2018 due after it was determined it was cheaper to build a new building rather than renovate the old one in order to bring it up to code, St. George, Utah, date unspecified. | Photo courtesy of the St. George East Stake, St. George News

As for why the St. George East Stake needed a new stake center to begin with, the original building, which was built in the mid-1960s, wasn’t in compliance with modern building codes. It lacked an internal fire suppression system and didn’t meet current earthquake standards. The foundation was also being eaten away by acidic alkali in the groundwater beneath the building.

According to a church press release, it was considered cheaper to build a new building than to renovate the old now. This resulted in the old building being turn down in February 2018 and construction of the new stake center commencing soon after.

The new stake center was 85% complete by the early morning of Jan. 26, 2019, when the fire ripped through and destroyed the building.

“It was a rough night, a really tough night,” Troyer said, adding that his family lives across the street from the stake center. “As soon as we woke up, it was the worst sight you could imagine … especially when we found out it was arson, it was hard to think someone would want to do that.”

President Scott Porter, (center) gives members of the St. George Interfaith Council a tour through the new St. George East Stake Center, St. George, Utah, Jan, 16, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Due to what fire officials later called a “perfect storm” of vulnerability, the fire consumed the entire building in a matter of hours. The new stake center was declared a total loss.

The fire was declared suspicious by authorities as their investigation got underway. Local, state and federal police agencies became involved in investigating the fire, and investigators also looked at a possible connection to a fire at the Episcopal church in St. George that occurred earlier in the month.

As a part of the investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to possible suspects.

Beyond a potential connection between the East Stake Center and Episcopal church fires being investigated, no additional updates to the fire investigation have been released to the public or media since February 2019.

Former St. George East Stake President Art Troyer shares his thoughts on the new stake center and how quickly it was rebuilt after the original building was lost to arson, St. George, Utah, Jan, 16, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“I haven’t heard a thing,” Troyer said when asked if there had been any updates in the investigation. He said he handed tips to the police and fire departments early on that were shared with him by others, but little else has happened since then.

Once it was announced the stake center would be rebuilt, people in the stake were telling Troyer they were willing to protect the building from any future arson attempts.

“They were so excited to get it back up,” he said. “I have people that would defend it. I had people who volunteered to come over and sleep all night here on site to defend it. There’s a great group of saints in the St. George East Stake.”

“It’s been a long two years,” he said, “but it was worth every minute. It’s a wonderful building.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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