ISLAND PARK, Idaho — Nearly 3,000 vacationing Mormons overwhelmed a small LDS chapel 25 miles outside Yellowstone National Park for services on Sunday, with churchgoers spilling out into hallways and onto the lawns, sidewalks and driveway surrounding the building.
The little building is regularly packed around big summer holidays. The Island Park Ward's congregation on the Fourth of July weekend swelled to more than 3,200 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Visitors and ward regulars find the experience faith-promoting.
"It just makes me want to cry to see this," said Alpine's Shari Dutson, who has attended the ward five times this summer. She and her husband own a cabin in the Aspen Ridge subdivision just north of the meeting house and didn't realize how early they'd have to arrive on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend to get a seat inside. Instead, they joined the dozens seated on the cement stairways outdoors.
"You'd never even guess you'd have that many people around here," Dutson said, "and then you see them go to church and you realize there is a good percentage of LDS people who are camping alongside you."
A rosy glow of freshly earned suntans accompanied the crowd, many of whom came from out of town to enjoy one of the last weekends of good weather at the popular vacationing spot.
Although most came prepared with white shirts and ties, some showed up in typical garb fit for a camping trip on Labor Day weekend, including the occasional flip flops, athletic shoes and golf shirts, even shorts and T-shirts on a few.
Several years ago, church leaders added overflow accommodations adjacent to the ward house, but on Sunday every room in the buildings was filled. Sacrament meeting services were broadcast through speakers inside and outside the two buildings.
Rance Dye, who conducted the meeting and has lived in the Last Chance area for 36 years, said Sunday's was one of the largest crowds he's seen, and that such turnouts "make us feel welcome here."
With three different meeting services, the Island Park chapel accommodated Mormons from all over eastern Idaho, southwestern Montana and northwestern Wyoming.
Dave Bott, who was visiting the area from his hometown of San Diego, said he'd "never seen this many people at church." He was among the handfuls of deacons, boys age 12 and 13, plucked from the crowd to help pass the sacrament, a weekly renewal of covenants Latter-day Saints make at baptism.
It took nearly 45 minutes to give everyone attending a chance to partake of the bread and water, a service that reminded some of Jesus feeding the 5,000 people, a story depicted in the Gospel of Matthew.
"It is really something that is special to me, to see this," young Bott said. "It's a great strength to my testimony to know that people come from all parts of the world and go to church while they are here."
When the hourlong meeting was over, Dye instructed visitors to be careful leaving the area, as cars lined the streets to and from the building, even filling the parking lots of local businesses and side streets.
"It took everybody 2½ hours to get here and it will probably take everyone 15 minutes to get out of here," he said. "Please be patient. But thanks for coming."