LDS Temple cornerstones preserve artifacts for the ages

Published: Friday, Aug. 21 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Fragments of books were recovered Aug. 13, 1993, from the Salt Lake Temple record stone. Items were placed in 1857 but damaged by moisture and condensation inside the foundation stone over the 136-year period.

Church History Library archives

SOUTH JORDAN — For the past year, Amy Bailey helped collect information and artifacts regarding the new Oquirrh Mountain Utah Temple. For months, she carefully ensured the collection would all fit into a makeshift cardboard box measuring precisely 24 inches by 26 inches by 8 inches.

Today, everything in Bailey's box has been sealed in a similar-sized stainless-steel box and placed out of sight, with no timetable to be opened.

The collection is now stored in the Oquirrh Mountain Temple's "cornerstone box" — a time capsule — with its interior dimensions mimicked by Bailey's box so she knew exactly how much space to fill.

The cornerstone will be the primary public focal point of today's opening temple-dedication session, the first of nine this weekend to be directed by President Thomas S. Monson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Shortly after the start of today's 9 a.m. dedication, President Monson will leave the members-only session inside and go outside to the southeast corner to conduct a symbolic cornerstone ceremony — the only part of any dedication session witnessed by the public.

Before today's era of concrete and steel, large cornerstones were used at the key junction points of foundation walls, the final one called the chief cornerstone.

Cornerstones were placed with celebration in the construction of ancient buildings as well as temples in the early days of the LDS Church. The church has long used the Apostle Paul's New Testament analogy of Jesus Christ as the chief cornerstone of the true church and apostles and prophets as the foundation.

"It's a hearkening back to the tradition of the fathers to recognize and render tribute to the Lord Jesus Christ as the cornerstone of our faith," said Thomas E. Coburn, managing director of the LDS Church's Temple Department.

The modern cornerstone ceremony also commemorates the conclusion of the temple's construction. Today, President Monson will be joined by invited leaders and guests in placing mortar around the "coverstone" — an outer facing cut from the southeast cornerstone.

The cornerstone box is placed and secured the day before the dedication, without fanfare and without set plans or intent to ever open it.

"There isn't any particular religious symbolism in the items and the artifacts that go into it other than to continue the tradition of documenting the construction of the temple and the current trends of the church," Coburn said.

People assigned to fill temple cornerstone boxes and church-related time capsules often call the Church History Department with a common inquiry: "What goes in?"

And Chris McAfee, a senior conservator in that department, offers a common response: "It's up to you."

"The contents should reflect what the people in that area think are important," he said.

Over the years, some cornerstone box contents have become typical inclusions — the latest version of the LDS scriptures, a book written by or a biography of the current church president, a selection of publications and pamphlets, samples of materials used in the temple construction, a history of the region and the LDS Church in the area, a history of the temple's construction and a copy of the temple's dedicatory prayer.

Despite the common thread of cornerstone-box contents, some items are as varied and unique as the temples themselves — as are the collectors.

Sometimes, officials such as temple recorders oversee collection efforts; other times the temple's organizing committee selects either one of their own or a local member to head a committee — as in Bailey's case. For the Bountiful Utah Temple, then-teen sisters Kathryn and Emily Phillips were assigned by their stake president in 1994 to gather contents.

The Mount Timpanogos box contains samples of the temple's wall-covering and woodwork materials; the Freiberg Germany Temple's includes copies of two dedicatory prayers by President Gordon B. Hinckley — from the 1985 dedication and the 2002 rededication; and the Draper Utah Temple box has ink pens crafted from the scrub oak cleared from the temple lot and from the African makore wood used in the temple's interior.

A special commemorative coin and three hand tools — a knife, a chisel and a trowel — are tucked in the Nauvoo Illinois Temple container. The scriptures inside the Bountiful Temple's box were bought and donated by a local LDS ward's Primary children. And the Accra Ghana Temple cornerstone box contains letters from Ghanaians interested in the LDS Church prior to the 1978 revelation allowing black Latter-day Saints to be ordained to the priesthood.

Since last summer, Bailey has headed a historical committee whose duties included compiling items for the Oquirrh Mountain cornerstone box. Their guiding theme — "make the temple a part of you and become a part of the temple."

The collection includes some unique items, such as two variations of the printed program for the Dec. 16, 2006, groundbreaking — one for the "South Jordan Utah Temple" and the latter, "official" program for the "Oquirrh Mountain Utah Temple," after a last-minute name change.

Also inside: a journal created by the LDS Church's art missionaries painting the interior murals; a large scrapbook-like binder provided by the supervising temple-construction missionaries; a special bit used in carving stars and circles into the temple's upper-floor glass windows; and dust-like shavings — dubbed "Oquirrh Mountain snow" — from those glass carvings.

Bailey's personal favorite is the 800-page binder containing brief recollections and expressions from temple-district members, who were invited to write about how the new temple affected them. One stake alone submitted 500 pages from its members, with those writings condensed for space. Another stake had 200 youth conference attendees submit their impressions.

The binder also includes scores of samplings of the 13,500 total comment cards from open-house visitors, such as the ailing mother given six months to live, who wrote of relishing the celestial-room visit with her immediate family.

Time capsules certainly aren't unique to the LDS Church, nor are the LDS capsules exclusive to temples — they can be found from the region's oldest meetinghouses and tabernacles to the recently completed Church History Library. Or inside a monument.

When being relocated on Temple Square in 2006, the Aaronic Priesthood statue unveiled its own secret from inside its base — a copper box containing a 798-page list of the Aaronic Priesthood holders and other church members who contributed to the monument built in 1958, press clippings and four binders of priesthood materials.

Some capsules aren't even tied to an edifice.

The LDS Church's Sunday School organization is on its third time capsule and counting — the first in 1899 commemorated the 50th anniversary of the auxiliary's 1849 start and the others at 50-year intervals. The 1949 "centennial box" included Church-related scrapbooks, photographs and printed material as well as a 16-inch phonograph record of then-recent conference addresses. For the 1999 sesquicentennial capsule, a featured item is a laptop computer, preserved in argon gas and packing a hard drive loaded with images, documents and stories.

Long gone are the 19th-century capsule materials of copper and tinplate. The Sunday School went high-tech in 1999 with a 28-inch-diameter titanium sphere designed to look like the Earth.

For cornerstone boxes, the LDS Church now uses a stainless-steel container, lined with a box crafted of archival board and cloth. The interior space between the steel container and archival liner is filled with desiccant, similar to silica packaging for moisture-sensitive products.

Since humidity causes contents to stick together, items are placed separately in polyethylene bags before being stowed, McAfee said.

Placed in the inside-wall side of the cornerstone via interior access, the boxes benefit from the temple's temperature and humidity control.

"Even though the intent is not to open the time capsules, we know they sometimes get opened," said McAfee, mindful of openings that coincide with special anniversaries or temple renovations. "And we want to do everything we can to ensure the contents are in good condition."

On Thursday, Bailey transferred her collection out of the cardboard box and into the Oquirrh Mountain Temple's cornerstone box for today's dedication.

With the binders — containing writings from construction and art missionaries, temple-district members and open-house visitors — now resting inside the temple's wall, the historical committee's theme is complete.

"Quite literally," she said, "the people have become a part of the temple."

Temple dedication

The Oquirrh Mountain Utah Temple will be dedicated today, becoming the 130th operating temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

President Thomas S. Monson, who is celebrating his 82nd birthday today, will preside at the nine dedication sessions today through Sunday — at 9 a.m., noon and 3 p.m. daily. A ticket is required to attend.

Sunday's 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. sessions will be broadcast to select meetinghouses throughout Utah.

e-mail: taylor@desnews.com

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