The Relief Society Building: A Symbol of Service and Sacrifice


Fifty years ago, on October 3, 1956, President David O. McKay dedicated the Relief Society Building. It still stands prominently in the shadow of the Salt Lake Temple and is adorned with bronze sheaves of wheat, emblematic of the Relief Society’s commitment to caring for the poor. President McKay offered the dedicatory prayer from the new structure as the sisters gathered in the Tabernacle and Assembly Hall on nearby Temple Square to hear his prophetic words.

“As we dedicate this edifice,” he said, “we also dedicate our lives to Thy service and pray for divine assistance in all our efforts to serve Thee by serving Thy children.” 1

His prayer has been answered time and again through the work of auxiliary leaders and officers who now occupy the building. Cheryl Lant, Primary general president, affirms his words when she says, “We know the work is not about us. We are here to bless the women of the Church, to bless the children, and to move the kingdom forward.”

Indeed, when the three auxiliary general presidents—Bonnie D. Parkin, Relief Society; Susan Tanner, Young Women; and Cheryl Lant, Primary—describe working in the Relief Society Building, they use words like love, heart, and spirit. Clearly this building is much more to them than the offices, meeting rooms, and reception halls.

“A wonderful spirit of love and cooperation abounds here,” says Sister Parkin. “We are blessed to work side by side, trusting in one another as we fulfill our commitment to the Lord.”

Sister Tanner enjoys the gracious boardroom where portraits of the previous general presidents of all three auxiliaries (including her mother, former Relief Society president Barbara W. Winder) hang on the wall. “I feel like they care about what is happening here. We feel honored to work within walls that speak of the heritage of women who have been so valiant.”

For Latter-day Saint women, this building is more than an office building; it is a place where women can gather, learn from educational displays, and hear the testimonies of auxiliary leaders. General Relief Society president Belle S. Spafford said at the building’s dedication that it “represents the spirit and character of Latter-day Saint womanhood in its strength, its beauty, and its usefulness.” 2 It stands today, as it did when it was dedicated, as an example of service and sacrifice.

Donating in the Spirit of Love

In the years before the First Presidency announced that ward and stake budgets would pay for all activities on the local level, each auxiliary had its own budget and raised its own funds. Relief Society sisters paid yearly dues, and local Relief Society units held annual bazaars selling homemade items. Similar activities took place in the Young Women Mutual Improvement Association and in the Primary. Such was the situation in October 1947 when Relief Society general president Belle S. Spafford asked all Relief Society sisters to donate $5 and each stake Relief Society to donate one-half of their funds for one year to the building of the proposed Relief Society Building.

President Gordon B. Hinckley has said: “I was pleased to see that my wife paid her $5. That represented, as we’ve calculated it, $50 in today’s money. … To think that over 100,000 women contributed $5 was a most significant and wonderful thing in my judgment.” 3

Sister Parkin’s grandmother, Agnes Kunz Dansie, wrote a column for the local newspaper and sold eggs from her chickens. “With that little bit of money,” says Sister Parkin, “she contributed $5 to the Relief Society Building fund in the name of each woman in her family and each granddaughter.”

Mary Mitton Kennedy, now 99 years old, says, “We were having somewhat of a struggle to make ends meet, so I decided to do something to earn that money. I had a sister with five daughters, and I loved to sew for them. It was natural that I decided to make a beautiful little dress and sell it. This paid my donation to the fund.” 4

I Will Go and Do

Dolores Torres served as Relief Society president in the Salt Lake Mexican Branch. At first she felt that the sisters in her ward were too poor to meet the goal. Then she considered that this request had come from her Church leaders. She remembered the story of Nephi when he said, “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded” (1 Nephi 3:7). Sister Torres wrote to Belle Spafford and said, “I don’t know how we can do it. But the First Presidency has authorized it. If they authorize it, it is right. If it is right, we can do it.” 5 The whole branch rallied behind the challenge, and the Salt Lake Mexican Branch was the first branch in the Church to meet the goal.

Gifts Instead of Money

European sisters desired to contribute also, but in the years just after World War II, laws in many of their countries prohibited sending money. Instead, women gathered money on behalf of their mission and purchased fine art representations of their cultures to adorn the new Relief Society Building. For example, as Hermine Weber Cziep searched for something that would represent those in the Swiss-Austrian Mission, she found an exquisite Meissen vase (page 56), 30 inches high and ornately covered with figures and blossoms, that once had been displayed in a German castle. When she noticed it was dated 1830, the date of the organization of the Church, she knew she had located just the right gift.

Other gifts included purchased and handmade items such as a carved table from Hawaii, dolls from Japan, lace from Belgium, oil paintings, herb-dyed tapestries, and silver sets. They came from the Netherlands, Argentina, Denmark, Tonga, Africa, France, and elsewhere.

Seeing these gifts, some of which are displayed in the Relief Society building, Sister Lant says, “It is humbling to know we are building upon a great and noble past.”

Past Offices of the Relief Society

Sacrificing to Donate

More than 123,000 women made a $5 donation to the Relief Society Building. The stories of sacrifice abound, and the name of each donor was recorded. Copies of the books containing these names are located on the first floor of the Relief Society Building. A sampling of those who donated are pictured at right.

[photo] 1847 1847–71: General Relief Society leaders in Salt Lake City worked out of makeshift quarters. From 1868 to 1921, however, local Relief Society units had separate, serviceable buildings near their meetinghouses, such as this one (left) built for the 19th Ward Relief Society and located on Capitol Hill in Salt Lake City. These small buildings were an important part of life in many towns and communities.

[photo] 1872 1872–1910: The home on 243 South State (left) of Emmeline B. Wells—editor of the Woman’s Exponent (the longest running women’s newspaper west of the Mississippi)—did double duty as the office of the newspaper and the general Relief Society for more than 30 years.

[photo] 1910 1910–56: The Relief Society general officers moved in 1910 into the second floor of the Bishop’s Building, located directly east of the Salt Lake Temple. They donated the money they had raised 10 years earlier in conjunction with the Young Ladies Mutual Improvement Association and the Primary toward the building of the Bishop’s Building.

[photo] 1947 1947: With the request for donations from Relief Society sisters, the Relief Society general presidency—(from left) Belle S. Spafford, president; Marianne C. Sharp, first counselor; and Velma N. Simonsen, second counselor—also revealed an architect’s rendering of the proposed Relief Society Building.

[photos] Photographs of donors courtesy of the donors or their families

[photo] Millie Shields (left) and her daughter Wanda Naylor (right) sold crocheted and embroidered pillowcases for 5¢ to 15¢ each.

[photo] Agnes Kunz Dansie, grandmother of Bonnie Parkin, wrote a newspaper column and sold eggs.

[photo] Mary Mitton Kennedy sewed a beautiful child’s dress.

[photo] Thella Hunter Fagg gave extra music lessons and scrubbed floors.

[photo] Ida Jacobsen Farnes saved a little money each day from the milk she sold.

[photo] Leone Layton contributed $40 in her name and the names of seven of her women relatives and friends.

[photo] Conrad Gertsch Jr. donated $5 in the name of his wife, Elise, who died before the request for donations.

[photos] Historical photographs courtesy of the Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

[photo] Dolores Torres (front row, second from left) invited President Belle Spafford (front row, second from right) and other general, stake, and ward Relief Society leaders to her home for a luncheon in their honor.

[photo] A Meissen vase donated by sisters in the Swiss-Austrian Mission (photograph by Welden C. Andersen).

[photo] Singing Mothers perform in the Tabernacle at the annual general Relief Society conference on September 30, 1948. A replica of the planned Relief Society Building is in the background.

[photo] President David O. McKay (left) watches Belle Spafford turn a shovelful of dirt at the groundbreaking on October 1, 1953. A year later a large copper box was placed in the cornerstone. Among the contents of the box were the names of all those who had donated to the building.

[photo] On March 17, 2006, 164 years after the organization of the Relief Society in Nauvoo, Illinois, President Gordon B. Hinckley and Sister Bonnie D. Parkin led the celebration at the opening of the newly remodeled Relief Society Building in Salt Lake City (photograph by Welden C. Andersen).

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    “Dedicatory Prayer of the Relief Society Building,” Relief Society Magazine, Dec. 1956, 789.

  2.   2.

    “We Built as One,” Relief Society Magazine, Dec. 1956, 801.

  3.   3.

    Transcript of the DVD of the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the remodeled Relief Society Building on March 17, 2006.

  4.   4.

    Letter from Mary Mitton Kennedy to Colleen Hinckley, May 31, 2006.

  5.   5.

    Quoted in Belle S. Spafford, “The Spirit of the Gospel, the Soul of Relief Society,” Relief Society Magazine, Mar. 1949, 149.