John O’Neal was working in his garage in East St. Louis, Illinois, when missionaries knocked on his door. They spotted him busily restoring an antique pickup truck—one of his favorite hobbies—and hurried over to introduce themselves and try to make a teaching appointment.
“I grew up in a God-fearing household, and the gospel was nothing I shied away from,” John said. “I always recognized Jesus as my Redeemer even though I wasn’t familiar with Joseph Smith.”
John invited the missionaries back the next week. During that meeting, the elders asked if they could open their discussion with a prayer, and John agreed. “We had that prayer, and I was hooked from then on,” John said. He was baptized on January 21, 1992, and later became the first African-American man to hold the priesthood in East St. Louis. “[At my baptism] I was buried in the water and resurrected a new man with a new spirit and with a new joy, never realizing what I had been missing all those years,” he said.
That testimony of joy and peace contrasts sharply with the reputation usually associated with this city across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri. With one of the highest crime rates in the United States, East St. Louis conjures up images of drive-by shootings, rampant drug use, poverty, neglect, and gangs. Yet on January 27, 2002, the Church dedicated a new chapel in East St. Louis—a physical representation of the new spirit that is blessing the lives of men and women like John O’Neal. This chapel has come to represent the hard work, diligence, and decades of service that are part of the East St. Louis gospel story.
Although many people have helped nurture the Church in East St. Louis, the Kanipe family is especially known for its pioneering efforts in the early 1900s. Eulie Kanipe was not a member of the Church when he married Latter-day Saint Pratt Woodburn in 1916 and moved to a simple mining town in the St. Louis area. So in order to have the gospel taught to their two children, Pratt requested that the traveling missionaries, who came through the area about once a year, organize a Sunday School in the Kanipe household. From that moment on, the Kanipe family became an integral part of the Church in East St. Louis—a relationship that was strengthened by Eulie’s baptism in 1932. Not only did the Kanipes open their hearts to the people of that area; they opened their home and allowed Church meetings to be held there.
As the Church in East St. Louis grew, so did the opposition. Hostility from locals was a constant struggle, and people would often throw tomatoes at the missionaries. Other times, protestors would publicly shred Church pamphlets and tracts. A high inactivity rate threatened to cripple the work. But as faithful families focused on activation, the branch’s numbers swelled so much from 1930 to 1935 that they needed a larger meetinghouse than the Kanipe home.
Indeed, at one time the only thing more varied than the trials the Saints faced were the meetinghouses in which they met. Members tried renting several buildings for services, including an old Protestant church and a Lithuanian chapel. But perhaps the most memorable rented room was an upstairs hall on St. Louis Avenue. Every Sunday morning, members came early to clear the room of cigarette butts and beer bottles left from the Saturday night parties. Needless to say, the members strongly desired a place of their own in which to meet and worship.
So despite the difficult economic times caused by World War II, East St. Louis branch members decided to raise funds and build a chapel as soon as possible. Eulie and Pratt’s 19-year-old daughter, June, was called to serve as a building fund chairman. She organized plays, set up bake sales in downtown store fronts, and rented the hall for dances. At the time, she was teaching at Summers Business College and would invite her female students to the dances. Then she would invite soldiers from Scott Air Force Base to attend also. The gentlemen were required to pay 10 cents a dance and got to dance with the girl of their choice. Through these and other efforts, they raised more than $2,000.
Even with the funds raised by the branch, providing East St. Louis with a chapel proved to be a frustrating undertaking. A fire destroyed their first unfinished building on March 9, 1951. But the members persevered and completed the building six months later. The chapel stood for only 10 years after its dedication, because Illinois began building Interstate 64—which ran right through the chapel property. The Church had little choice but to sell the building to the state of Illinois, and the chapel was razed to the ground.
These difficulties securing a meetinghouse paralleled increasingly hard times for East St. Louis in general. By the mid-1960s it was becoming a less desirable place to live, and the middle class began to move to outlying areas on the bluffs of Illinois. Unemployment was high as factories closed, and the area became part of what was known as America’s “Rust Belt.” People riding the railroads northward heard that jobs were drying up in Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland and decided just to stay in East St. Louis instead of moving farther north. Population was soaring, but jobs and opportunities were declining. Thanks to drugs, crime, and poverty, by the end of the 1970s East St. Louis had a reputation for being one of the worst cities in America.
It wasn’t until the end of the 1980s that the Church’s hopeful message really began to pierce the bleakness of East St. Louis. In 1987 the Church sponsored radio announcements offering copies of the Book of Mormon to anyone who wanted to know more about the Savior. These drew a significant response from the citizens of East St. Louis, and 15 people who received copies of the book began attending sacrament meeting. Another milestone for the Church came that year with the baptism of Mable Windham, the first East St. Louis citizen to join the Church in 22 years. The first African-American priesthood bearers joined the congregations in the early ’90s, and more than 20 converts were baptized in 1999.
During this time, the Saints from four stakes in the St. Louis area worked hard to improve the community of East St. Louis. They painted senior citizens’ homes, cleaned up litter, planted flowers and trees, fixed playground equipment, and helped repair churches of other faiths. The name of the Church gained a reputation that was as beautiful as the physical results of their labors. “The response has been great,” said Keith Sawyer, the O’Fallon Illinois Stake public affairs director. “We have made so many friends over the years in this community that they no longer consider us visitors, but like family. Everyone knows we are here to stay, that we love them, and they love us.”
But despite all this progress, the end of the 1990s still found the East St. Louis Saints without a chapel to call their own. Land was purchased for a new chapel, but the area still did not have enough active priesthood leadership to justify construction of a new building. A special prayer meeting was held on April 23, 2000, to help meet this need. The members came in a spirit of fasting and prayer, and many were rewarded with sacred experiences. As Brother O’Neal offered a prayer of supplication, his words reflected the willing attitude of these humble Saints: “Bless us with a building. We’ve worked so hard. If there is anything we have overlooked, manifest it to us.”
A month after the prayer meeting, word came from Salt Lake City that plans to begin construction on the new East St. Louis chapel had been approved. Although Church members do not generally have to contribute “sweat equity” hours to build the meetinghouses, the Saints in East St. Louis wanted to couple prayer with action in seeking the Lord’s blessing. Cleanup days were organized to clear the land of debris and prepare the soil for the foundation. On February 4, 2001, ground was broken for construction.
Eleven months later, the East St. Louis Saints had a completed house of worship. Finally, on January 27, 2002, the building was dedicated. This time no fire burned it down, and no interstate threatened the land. Local branch boundaries were redrawn to accommodate the growth that would inevitably result from having a chapel in the neighborhood.
At the dedicatory meeting, both old and new East St. Louis Saints gathered to celebrate the occasion. June Kanipe Russell attended the dedicatory meeting. At age 79, she traveled from her home in Minnesota to witness an event that she had tried to bring to pass so many years before with bake sales and dances. Her presence represented the spirit of the first Saints in East St. Louis, the dedication and determination that planted seeds of the gospel in the heart of the inner city. Finally, the Saints had their chapel. But more than just a building, this structure was a reminder of the new spirit that had begun to soften their city’s tough exterior—the same spirit that encouraged the Kanipes to open their arms to the Church, the same spirit that converted Brother O’Neal. And now that they have a chapel, the Saints can only hope for that spirit to continue to grow.
“We are constructing nearly 400 new houses of worship each year. It is a huge task. It is a tremendous responsibility. But we must accomplish it, and we are doing so. Some of these houses of worship are relatively small, and many of them are large. They are all attractive. They are well kept. They have beautiful landscaping. They are a credit to every community where they are found. And they become a wonderful example to the people.”
President Gordon B. Hinckley, “President Hinckley Speaks to Press, Legislators, Diplomats,” Ensign, June 2000, 72.