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Building up faith: How religious buildings reflect faith's role in communities

Published: Saturday, July 13 2013 9:30 a.m. MDT

"There were concerns about safety and the incompatible moral systems at play. But at the same time, there was something wonderful about that," said Dowdy. "From the church's perspective, there is a real need to minister to people, ... to let anyone in the fraternity know they are welcome to come and find out what it is we are up to in that church."

Religion's role

Many of those preaching the virtues of religion's role in urban planning are part of the New Urbanism movement, which advocates walkable neighborhoods that encourage community engagement and easy accessibility to schools, shopping, churches, work and the town hall.

While there is some research on the economic viability of walkable communities, very little data exists on the impact of religious institutions in such communities.

But veteran planners like Spivack say experience has shown that religions that stake a role in their community can become a stabilizing influence both visually, through the architecture of their buildings, and economically, by helping develop affordable housing and encouraging their membership to become involved in the business community.

Throughout their history, Mormons were known for staking out such a role in the communities they settled. They were unique in the range of buildings they erected, from common chapels for neighborhood congregations to tabernacles for large communitywide events, and then temples, which are the faith's most holy edifice used only by worthy members.

Although The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints no longer builds tabernacles in local communities, it maintains those still standing as historical landmarks that host religious and nonreligious gatherings and cultural events.

Currently, the LDS Church is converting its tabernacle in Provo into a temple rather than tearing the historic building down after it was gutted by a fire in December 2010. Another tabernacle in Vernal, one that anchored the church's presence in eastern Utah, was converted into a temple in the late 1990s.

"It tells you something when the church turned the tabernacle in Vernal into a temple and now the same thing in Provo. They are acknowledging that tabernacles have played a significant role the community and they will continue that role," said Richard Oman, retired senior curator for the church's museum in Salt Lake City and a historian of art and architecture.

In October 2011, LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson acknowledged the historical significance of the Provo Tabernacle, located in the middle of town, and its meaning to generations of church members, as leaders decided to restore its exterior and turn it into a temple.

Dowdy said religious institutions need to carefully consider the consequences of decisions like tearing down buildings or relocating to isolated areas of a community. He said such decisions can strengthen or weaken the faith's role in the community at large.

"As churches have sequestered themselves geographically," he wrote, "their communities have sequestered the church from daily life."

Email: mbrown@deseretnews.com, Twitter: @deseretbrown

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