Few wards in the Church average 150 percent attendance at sacrament meetings in the middle of summer vacation. But the Saints in Palmyra Ward, Rochester New York Stake, like it when they do.
When attendance zooms, it’s Hill Cumorah Pageant time and that means hundreds of cast members and some 150,000 visitors to see not only the Pageant but the Sacred Grove, where Joseph Smith had the First Vision in 1820; the Smith farm a mile and a half south, where the Angel Moroni instructed Joseph; the Hill Cumorah itself, where Joseph received the plates; the Martin Harris and Peter Whitmer farms, and the site where the first edition of the Book of Mormon was printed (downtown above the Ben Franklin store).
The ward and townspeople team up to feed and house the Pageant participants in a spectacular example of community cooperation. But Church members—and the gospel—have been absorbed into the community in subtler ways.
Much of the mutual cooperation has come only in recent years—notably since Church members got involved in Historic Palmyra Inc., a society that works to maintain historic integrity in the area.
It began when Historic Palmyra was planning the first of its two museums, the Alling Coverlet Museum, and a missionary couple serving at the Hill Cumorah Visitors’ Center got involved. They were Asahel and Dorothy Woodruff, and they opened doors on a wide scale.
The museum had an unusual collection of woven bed covers, but needed funds badly. And visitors to the Hill Cumorah Pageant wanted nice souvenirs. So Sister Woodruff and other women in Historic Palmyra collected and dried flowers from the hill, arranged them in frames, and sold them at the museum.
The ongoing venture has brought thousands of dollars to the museum, and has sent satisfied tourists home with a memorable treasure, according to Jackie O’Connell, former president of Historic Palmyra, now serving on its board of directors.
As the Woodruffs got interested in Historic Palmyra, so did other Church members, including President Milton Barlow of the New York Rochester Mission and his wife, Gloria Gregerson Barlow.
Community involvement was not new for Church members, but it increased. Former Bishop Arnold Garr, who has since moved, became active in Rotary and helped with projects sponsored by the local clergy association.
Friendly things happened as relationships deepened. When Harold Hansen, director of the pageant for forty years, was released from the assignment in 1977, a Palmyra couple, John and Martha Jack, honored him and the missionary couples in the area at a reception. Historic Palmyra accepted the Woodruffs’ invitation to visit the Joseph Smith Farm as part of the association’s Christmas party. And the Church was included in a community Bicentennial celebration on the Fourth of July, 1976. These sorts of things hadn’t happened too often before.
A particularly active community worker is Richard Pickett, sustained last April as bishop of the Palmyra Ward at the age of thirty. A convert who joined the Church while attending college in Massachusetts, Bishop Pickett and his wife moved to Palmyra when he was hired as landscape architect for the Church historical sites in the Palmyra area.
He first got to know townspeople through his landscaping. “People thought it was great,” he says. “They began to understand that the Church cares about these properties. Then they began asking questions, like how to make their grass greener.”
Bishop Pickett first got involved in community affairs after giving a presentation to the Palmyra Rotary. He was asked to join and then asked to run for a directorship. He was elected—“which surprised me a bit.” He served as parade chairman for three years running for the annual Canaltown Days celebration. (Palmyra Ward floats in those parades won top prizes.) Bishop Pickett soon was appointed to the village planning board, and then to the zoning board of appeals.
Many ward members, like Bishop Pickett, are eastern converts. Several lived within a few miles of the Hill Cumorah for years before investigating the Church. One, Larry Scott of nearby Williamson, was raised Catholic but investigated every Protestant sect and major religion. At the age of twenty-two, he attended a Pageant performance. It was rained out, but he filled out a referral card anyway, and was subsequently taught by missionaries. He still hasn’t seen the Pageant.
“I thought it was kind of funny that this was the closest church to me. Here it was, just down the road, and I’d never looked into it,” he says. Now he hopes to serve a full-time mission.
Another convert is Douglas Porschet, now twenty-nine-year-old second counselor in the Palmyra Ward bishopric. A convert in his teens, he served a mission for the Church and attended Utah State University at Logan, where he met his wife, Alma Jean Jewkes, also a returned missionary.
Brother Porschet’s ancestors moved from Vermont to western New York about the same time the Joseph Smith family did. An antiques restorer, his involvement in Historic Palmyra was natural. Also a gourmet chef, he and his wife help prepare food for the Pageant cast each summer.
“I was in the Pageant a couple of times, and I remember going out and interviewing people. They’d say, ‘Every year we’ve come from Buffalo.’ And that’s a long drive! Or, ‘Oh, we’ve come to the Pageant for twenty-some years.’ That isn’t unusual at all.”
Sister Porschet, who works in their small general store, says, “With two exceptions, every comment I’ve had in the store has been positive. When people find out you’re a Mormon, they ask questions.”
What’s it like, being a member of Palmyra Ward? In some ways, it’s just like being in any mission-field ward with a couple of hundred members—busy! Brother Porschet remembers his college ward, so overstaffed that the bishop made distributing hymnals a calling. “But in Palmyra, A. J. teaches the Gospel Doctrine class in Sunday School and the Spiritual Living class in Relief Society, plays the organ for all the meetings, is the Primary pianist, and a visiting teacher. That’s quite a bit, but it’s rewarding.”
Sister Porschet concurs: “Because of the challenges and the opportunity to really study, I find a fulfillment that I would have to seek somewhere else if it weren’t for the Church.”
But in other ways, Palmyra is different. Sometimes ward functions are held at the historic sites. Members try not to take that privilege for granted.
“It’s special to live around the sites,” says Marilyn Dahneke, whose husband, Bart, is a research professor at the University of Rochester. “It’s special because I knew Joseph Smith was a prophet long before I ever moved here.”
Stake President Dale Dallon says that the Palmyra Ward has developed into one of the strongest units in the stake spiritually.
“It’s not an affluent ward by any means, but there’s been real progress made in the lives of individuals,” he said. Sacrament meeting attendance went from 34 percent average in 1976 to 46 percent in 1978. In January 1977, 36 percent of the young women attended sacrament meeting. In January 1978, 70 percent attended.
President Dallon says that while he has been stake president, he has seen friction concerning Mormons diminish, although the area is still not “terribly productive” for missionary work.
Townspeople are equally aware of the cordial atmosphere. George Larsson, president of Historic Palmyra, commented, “People here used to be down on the Mormons. They didn’t believe it was a valid religion. That changed, and now everybody is willing to cooperate with the Mormons.”
Why? He attributes it to the nature of the members themselves. “All those problems and arguments were growing pains. Now we know all the fine, upstanding people that are coming out of the organization. We know that they’re that way because of the organization. Now they have earned respect. They are hard-working. It is something to be admired.”
In fact, sentiment toward the Church has improved enough that when the Mutual youth staged a sweetheart dinner in February one-third of those attending weren’t members and many nonmembers helped. One store loaned, delivered, and picked up three microwave ovens. The Presbyterian Church loaned silverware and trays. A restaurant donated sour-cream cups. A woman made cheesecakes at cost. A florist provided corsages at cost. Both cooks were nonmembers who donated time and effort. Aprons and candles were made by a nonmember. Another donated floral arrangements.
It hasn’t always been that way.
The Saints left New York in 1831, only eleven years after the First Vision. When Willard and Rebecca Bean were called in 1915 to live in the Joseph Smith home after the Church purchased it, small groups of angry men and women threatened them more than once and demanded that they leave the area. It took about five years for the hearts of area residents to begin to soften toward the Beans and—ultimately—toward the Church.
Mary Sawyer, librarian in Palmyra for more than thirty-six years, recalls her father’s accounts of anti-Mormon sentiment:
“My father was born in 1858, so he grew up when there were people still here who had known the Smith family. It was very definitely an anti-Mormon feeling, even up to the time when Mr. Bean came here; but Mr. Bean and my father became rather good friends. I think it was because the Beans conducted themselves so kindly and nicely. They didn’t force themselves in. They were just there.”
Harriet Fose Anderson of Rochester, a 1917 convert, recalls missionaries being evicted from their apartment because the landlord found out they were Mormon. Missionaries were not allowed to hold meetings in Syracuse, New York, in 1922, until—with help from former boxing champion Willard Bean—they met in spite of orders from local authorities.
Even now, tracting is not well received in Palmyra. “Tracting was greatly resented,” says Palmyra Village Mayor Kay Davin. “It was like calling for the cancer fund. Everybody wants to fight cancer, but they don’t want you knocking on their door.”
Community leaders outside the Church have theories on how attitudes have changed. The Reverend Bill Emblidge, Methodist minister, has been aware of community acceptance. “In the community, I don’t know that there’s a great deal of we-and-they-ness with the Mormons. I know individual persons, and they have standing and respect in the community.
“When Pageant comes, then the Church becomes a ‘they,’ because of all the kids. But the kids are tremendous people. Once some of them broke a window, but they left a note and came back to pay for it. They’re the right kind of people to represent a church.”
Another factor is a widely shared interest in Mormon history. Many nonmembers are knowledgeable about events at the Sacred Grove and at the Hill Cumorah.
Sheldon Fisher of Valentown, has a “Mormon room” in his museum of area artifacts. It contains items that he thinks may come from such sites as Brigham Young’s workshop.
Another nonmember with an interest in Mormon history is Mort Brockway, a former Rochester businessman. He particularly studies Smith family history and says he can sense an aura of spiritual excitement in the Palmyra area.
One nonmember with an interesting point of view is the Reverend John Burgess, minister of Western Presbyterian Church in Palmyra. He chose the assignment in Palmyra partly so that he could “study the Mormons from a closer view.” He wanted to learn why the Church grows so fast.
His first year there, he went to the Pageant and picked up a tract recounting Joseph Smith’s First Vision. In the account, the Prophet tells of discontent among the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians, among other churchs. The day after the performance, Mr. Burgess was to conduct a joint worship service for those three churches.
“I wondered why I would be called—the first time out—to preach to the same churches that Joseph Smith referred to,” he muses. “So I developed my first sermon on that theme. I told them that if their spiritual predecessors had been less hardhearted, the Mormons might not exist. I told them that if they didn’t like Mormons, they had no one to blame but themselves and their spiritual ancestors.”
Actually, Mr. Burgess hasn’t noticed many people disliking Mormons. “The Mormon presence has gone past the toleration stage to what may well be acceptance in the community. I hear some people say, ‘Some of my best friends are Mormons.’ People are reaching out for positive relations.”
Thus, in many ways, Palmyra mirrors the history of the Church’s rejection and acceptance in its wider society; and in many ways, a return to the roots of the Church in Palmyra is, for the members who live and visit there, a reaffirmation of spiritual beginnings and fulfillment.