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Nicole Boliaux, Deseret News
Past members of the Ogden LDS Deaf Branch tour the old building on East 21st Street during a celebration for its 100th anniversary in Ogden on Saturday, May 6, 2017.

Roy and Darlene Cochran had come home.

The couple, respectively 75 and 74 years old, sat together on the front pew of the old LDS Chapel for the Ogden Valley Branch where both attended services going back to the 1950s. Their memories were drawn to the many times they used sign language to give talks, sing hymns and serve in various leadership positions.

The Cochrans, along with a host of other past and present branch members, returned to the old red-brick church, located at 740 East and 21st Street, Saturday morning to celebrate the 100th anniversary when the Ogden Deaf Branch was created. Surrounded by dozens of friends smiling and greeting each other excitedly with happy hands, the Cochrans savored the nostalgic moment.

"We are so grateful to see all these people here," Darlene Cochran said with shining eyes through an interpreter. "We are so grateful to have this branch."

A group of about 100 people from around the country gathered at the old church to tour the building, reflect on the history and renew old friendships before driving over to the LDS congregation's current building at 5640 S. 850 East in South Ogden for lunch, birthday cake and more activities.

It's a special reunion, said Mark Erwin, the branch president for the last 14 years.

"It's not just the Ogden Deaf Branch, it's the LDS deaf community," Erwin said with his hands. "As it has grown and spread, those feelings of family are still there. That never dies."

Timeline

In the early 1990s, Doug Stringham served an American Sign Language mission and became interested in the history of interpreters in the LDS Church.

In time he connected with Anne Leahy, also an ASL interpreter who shared a mutual interest in deaf LDS history. Together they have done extensive research and presented at conferences on the topic (see history.deaflds.org). They hope to publish their research in the near future, Stringham said.

The following timeline offers several highlights of the rich history of deaf members in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

1881 — Laron Pratt, a son of apostle Orson Pratt, asked Wilford Woodruff if he could preach the gospel to the deaf community. Laron Pratt had contracted a high fever and became deaf at a young age, but was highly intelligent, had good speech and knew sign language, his life history states.

1892 — Just over a decade later, Laron Pratt helped to establish a Sunday School for those with hearing and speach impairments in the Salt Lake City 19th Ward at the University of Deseret. He was named the assistant superintendent and served as a Sunday School missionary, his history reads.

1896 — The Deaf-Mute Sunday School, as it was called at the time, was relocated to Ogden after a storm damaged its building in Salt Lake.

1902 — Max Woodbury became supervisor of boys at the Utah School for the Deaf, even though he didn't know any sign language. Later in 1945, he was promoted to principal of the school.

1915 — The First Presidency discussed the construction of a building for Sunday School in Ogden. Once approved, the building incorporated some unique features for the visual needs of deaf or hearing impaired members. The floor slopes down toward the rostrum so each row can clearly see the speaker. The pulpit is centered on an elevated rostrum with seating to the sides but not behind the pulpit to enable leaders to view the signing of the speakers. The design included extra windows and a large skylight above the pulpit for additional natural lighting. The basement classrooms all included an extra light bulb to signal the end of classes. The building was located a block and a half southwest of the old campus of the Utah School for the Deaf.

1917 — On Jan. 14, LDS Church President Joseph F. Smith dedicated the new chapel. Woodbury recalled the dedication nearly 50 years later, writing that President Smith was visibly moved to tears as he surveyed the congregation.

About a month later, the Ogden Deaf Branch was organized with Woodbury as branch president. He went on to serve in that capacity for 51 years. Members recall always being welcomed at his home where his wife, Katie, always had a pot of chili and warm cookies waiting.

For Max Woodbury, there is a deeper connection and tender mercy in the organization of the deaf branch. His father, John Woodbury, was serving a mission in Hawaii when 15-year-old Joseph F. Smith arrived in the islands. John Woodbury was a mentor who kindly took the future LDS Church president under his arm. He helped him to learn the language and adjust to mission life. Decades later when Max Woodbury and Elsie M. Christiansen composed a letter to President Joseph F. Smith about the need for a building to have services and activities, the prophet recognized the Woodbury name and granted permission, Stringham said.

1919 — A small Sunday School for those with hearing impairments was organized in Bountiful.

1921 — Apostle Melvin J. Ballard prophesied success among deaf Latter-day Saints at the first meeting for those with hearing impairments held between sessions of general conference. "We desire you to be faithful in coming to these meetings and not neglect them," the apostle said. "I will promise you that if you will be faithful to your meetings and doing your duty, in saying prayers, in keeping the Word of Wisdom, in paying your tithes, then the Lord will bless you above all the deaf … people in the world and your present defects will not be a serious handicap to you for the Lord is able by his power to help you be just as faithful and devoted and understand the gospel as well as anybody else."

In the decades that followed, members of the Ogden Deaf Branch who graduated from the school and gained leadership skills went on to become leaders of LDS ASL branches from California to Washington, D.C. A small branch was also formed in England in the early 1920s.

"The early years in the Ogden branch were the flashpoint for the next 100 years of deaf LDS members and today's deaf LDS congregations are the beneficiaries — and trustees — of that legacy," Stringham said. "Deaf church members are incredibly proud of this legacy."

Legacy

Dan Mathis and Stan Bassett have something in common. Both can trace their membership in the church back to a family member who converted through an ASL branch.

Mathis is a former branch president of an ASL branch in Washington, D.C., and he's currently the high priest group leader in Ogden. He said his grandfather, Jack White, became interested in the church as a young teen when his friends came to the branch every week for activities. He started to come, liked what he found and wanted to get baptized. His parents said no, so White appealed to his aunts who were members. He asked them to change his parents' minds. Eventually he was baptized, Mathis said.

"It felt so good to come here today," said Carol Mathis, Dan's mother. "I have never been in this building."

Bassett's father joined through an ASL branch in California. The branch was led by a leader who had come from the Ogden branch. Bassett grew up with ASL as his first language and interprets at general conference. He became emotional as he reflected on Woodbury's 51 years of service as branch president and its ripple effect among the LDS deaf community.

"The generational impact after 51 years, creating branches for the deaf, is not really calculable," Bassett said. "The scope of that influence from this humble building is huge."

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In 1999, the Ogden Valley Branch left its longtime building on 21st Street and became part of the Ogden Utah Pleasant Valley Stake in South Ogden. Stake President Mark Furniss, who attended Saturday's celebration, said it's been a "sweet blessing" to associate with the deaf branch for its example of tight-knit family unity.

"If we go to a ward reunion, we are happy to see old friends. But they have an elevated relationship. They are even tighter and closer with each other. We see that family feeling among the members," Furniss said. "They function so well and it's impressive to watch."