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.
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
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.
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.”
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.