SALT LAKE CITY — The three women who have spent the past five years together running the LDS Church's international children's organization are splitting up.
One of them is leaving the Primary General Presidency for a new calling, so all three have bittersweet feelings heading into the faith's springtime general conference, which begins Saturday night with the General Women's Session.
"If you learn one thing about me, I'm sentimental," Sister Rosemary M. Wixom, the Primary general president, said this week, "but if you learn another, you'll learn that we are a unified presidency. This is three voices that harmonize, so of course, this is a tender time."
By the end of next weekend's concluding conference sessions, Sister Jean A. Stevens, Sister Wixom's first counselor, is expected to be released and replaced so she can prepare to serve as a leader with her husband in the England London Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
For five years, Sister Wixom, Sister Stevens and Sister Cheryl A. Esplin, the second counselor, have traveled the world, each meeting thousands of the 1.1 million LDS Primary children between the ages 3 and 11.
One of the biggest changes they've overseen will be evident Saturday night in the Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City and in LDS meetinghouses in many nations: For just the third time, girls 8 to 11 will attend the General Women's Session with their older sisters, their mothers, their aunts and their grandmothers.
"That has to be one of the highlights of the last five years," Sister Wixom said Tuesday, when she sat down with her counselors for an interview in her office.
A women's session
For years, the church's Young Women program for girls 12 to 17 had an annual general meeting a week before general conference each spring. The faith's Relief Society auxiliary, for women 18 and above, held a general meeting a week before the fall general conference.
An annual Primary meeting was discontinued decades ago.
The idea to bring all three organizations together in a single worldwide meeting began to form two years ago during a much smaller meeting shortly after Sister Bonnie L. Oscarson was called as the Young Woman General President in April 2013.
The nine women in the three auxiliary presidencies of the Relief Society, Young Women and Primary determined that they should meet monthly in the Relief Society Building adjacent to Temple Square, where they each have their world headquarters.
"It became so critical to our service, we meet weekly now in a healthy two-hour meeting," Sister Wixom said.
They gather each Wednesday afternoon, alternating between the organizations' separate boardrooms. Sister Wixom said one early discussion was, "How can we meet the needs of children, youth and the sisters in the gospel? And what is the venue? Where could we teach the concepts that are so important?"
"I consider it," Sister Wixom said, "a huge inspiration and unselfishness on the part of the Young Women and Relief Society to say, why not include all three auxiliaries? Why not provide this opportunity twice a year for them to join together?"
Sister Wixom, Sister Oscarson and Sister Linda K. Burton, the Relief Society general president, decided to recommend combining the general Relief Society and Young Women meetings into a General Women's Meeting each spring and fall, and to invite Primary girls 8 and above.
"It was a group effort," Sister Wixom said. "Our priesthood leaders were behind us. They encouraged us to meet together. They supported us in this effort. I will never forget standing before the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles with Sister Oscarson and Sister Burton, with this recommendation and seeing their unified support. It was historical to me, personally, but to the world, to know that together —together — the priesthood and the sister auxiliaries had received inspiration that was truly for our day at this time."
The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve unanimously approved the recommendation.
Sister Stevens said she got the feeling from some that the 8- to 11-year-old girls might learn something being with older girls and women.
"After the General Women's Meeting, we very quickly realized those girls brought a special spirit that we all needed," she said. "We needed them."
Sister Wixom memorably welcomed the Primary girls to that first General Women's Meeting in April 2014 by having those ages 8 and 11 stand and sing the first verse of a Primary song — "Teach me to walk in the light of his love ."
She had them remain standing while the Young Women and Relief Society women sang the second verse to them — "Come, little child, and together we’ll learn ."
"When we train Primary leaders around the world, Primary music is part of our training," Sister Wixom said. "We always invite someone to come up and begin by humming a Primary song, and when we recognize what song it is, we stand and join in. I kept thinking, do I dare? Do I dare do that in the Conference Center?"
She mentioned it to David T. Warner, former chairman of the church's General Music Committee.
"He said, 'If you want the spirit there, if you want the 8-, 9-, 10- and 11-year-olds to feel included, and if you want them to see themselves as a part of this, then do it."
The risky part was that Sister Wixom is not musical and can struggle to find the right note.
"You could put something in my ear and you could give me a note, and I still couldn't find it, so it wouldn't make a difference," she said, laughing. "They wouldn't let me in high school choir. It took every ounce of courage I had."
But it worked. As she hummed, the Primary girls immediately stood and joined her.
"It was something special for each of us," Sister Stevens said. "There they were singing with all this hope and faith in their lives, and their mothers and sisters looking at them. It was a moment of coming together."
Sister Esplin said that many Primary girls are the only members of the LDS faith in their schools or communities.
"They feel isolated and alone sometimes," she said. "To let them be a part of large gatherings like this helps them see they are a part of a larger whole."
The church announced last fall that the meeting is officially a session of general conference, the General Women's Session. The women's leaders had not recommended that change. Sister Stevens remembered her excitement when she received an email announcing the move while she sat in an airport in Colombia.
"We were thrilled," Sister Wixom said. "I think it says volumes about how the brethren love and want to meet the needs and are concerned and care about girls and women."
All three women recall the journey they began after they were called in April 2010 and Elder Robert D. Hales of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles asked Sister Wixom to consider a question she brought back to Sister Stevens and Sister Esplin.
"What," Elder Hales asked, "is the taproot that will anchor a child in the wind?"
"I won't get the answer to that question," he added, "but you will."
The answer took months to learn.
"We've come to know," Sister Wixom said, "that if a child knows who they are — a child of Heavenly Father — and that they are now on a covenant path back to him, and that he has a plan for them and that that plan is centered in the gospel of Jesus Christ, that is a taproot that will anchor a child in the wind."
They deliver that message every time one of them is with children, whether it is in Madagascar, the Dominican Republic, Russia, Zimbabwe, Mexico or Canada.
"We do it by asking them questions," Sister Wixom said. "Where did you live? With Heavenly Father. Now you are walking a path back to him, what should you do? Do you want to go alone? No, they say, they want to go with their family.
"The last question is, What happens if you step off the path? Their little eyes get big and there's a feeling of disaster, but we tell them, oh, you can always get back on the path. Heavenly Father wants you there."
She said the General Women's Session is helping Primary girls see in older girls and women the future waypoints on their path.
"When an 8-year-old child prepares for baptism, they know that they are stepping into his kingdom," Sister Wixom said, "and that they are taking his name upon them, which means that his will becomes theirs. That's a concept that sometimes we don't teach our children. Baptism puts them on the path; it changes them forever. They are never the same again."
What is it like to have responsibility for 1.1 million children in 27,815 congregations? For helping ward and branch Primary presidents and teachers and pianists and choristers who speak 122 languages in 179 countries?
"It's about one by one," Sister Wixom said. "I don't ever think of it that way."
"Rosemary is just so personable, inclusive and loving and you would never ever think of her as the head of a big organization," Sister Esplin said. "She's just down here in the grass roots. It's the one that she's concerned about."
"She's the perfect servant-leader," Sister Stevens said.
The three women shared stories of meeting young Primary girls in "home visits" to families in humble circumstances in places halfway around the world.
"Sometimes they break your Primary heart," Sister Stevens said, adding, "You feel the Lord sent you and you're on his errand."
One night in her travel journal, Sister Wixom captured her feelings:
"If I could spend the rest of my life walking up crooked stairs into little rooms with brightly colored, painted walls and look into the faces of children and parents, I would be happy."
The three also laughed about the statue on Sister Wixom's desk. It portrays six chairs in a row, like in any Primary room on any Sunday in any LDS meetinghouse in the world. Five children sit in various states of attentiveness — or inattentiveness. Two of the children face forward the way the chairs do, away from where Sister Wixom sits. Two others are looking at the first two.
The fifth, a boy, is turned all the way around in his chair, facing back at Sister Wixom's chair. He delights her. The entire 3-D scene does.
"That is Primary," she said, laughing. "And it's OK that that is Primary. It is where a child should feel so secure and so at home and so loved that they can be themselves and that we can accept them as they are and find the joy of being together and learning from the children, because they have much to teach us."
What: LDS General Women's Session
Where: LDS Conference Center
When: Saturday, March 28
Time: 6 p.m. MDT
How to watch: KBYU-TV, BYUtv, BYUtv International, LDS.org, LDS General Conference YouTube channel, MormonChannel.org, Mormon Channel YouTube channel, Mormon Channel mobile app. To find local cable and radio broadcasts, visit www.bonneville.info/broadcast.cfm. Visit www.lds.org/maps to find a local meetinghouse with a broadcast.