Every day that Cheya Wheeler’s friend picks her up for school, the same thing happens. They drive by a stately red brick building, one tower topped by a golden figure, and Cheya’s friend starts singing, “I Love to See the Temple.” Cheya usually joins her. “It brings a good spirit,” she says.
Cheya and her friend live in Vernal, Utah. The temple, created from the old tabernacle, has brought a whole new spirit into their valley. The Vernal Temple has stood as a building for more than 90 years, but during its first 90 years, it served as a tabernacle, a meetinghouse for a local ward and stake, a lecture hall, a place for musical recitals, a gathering place for the community. This great old building eventually fell into disuse and was closed. Most teenagers in Vernal had never actually been inside the tabernacle.
“When they first announced that we were going to have a temple at stake conference,” says Jeff Ross, 15, “I was there. It took forever for the meeting to go on. Everyone was turning and talking to each other. It was great.”
The Vernal Tabernacle had always been a prominent landmark and favorite spot in the town. Growing up, most young people in the area have ridden their bikes around the block containing the building and had picnics on the tabernacle lawn. It was a great old building, but it was no longer feasible to hold church functions there any more. What would become of it?
In 1907, after seven and a half years of work, the Vernal Tabernacle was completed and ready for dedication. A little seven-year-old named Porter Merrell was there, ready to attend the dedication with his parents. His father had worked as a carpenter on the tabernacle.
Approaching his 98th birthday, Brother Merrell remembers that day. “When it came time for the dedication, there were too many people to fit inside. They rounded up all of us kids about the ages from seven to ten and took us down to the east of the tabernacle. Before I left, I looked down from the balcony. All the ladies wore hats. They decorated their hats, and looking down it looked just like a flower garden.”
President Joseph F. Smith had made the long journey from Salt Lake City to dedicate the tabernacle. Brother Merrell was in the group of children chosen to greet the prophet as he arrived in their city. President Smith also visited every ward in the Uintah Stake. Porter was seated with the other children on the little chairs in front of the prophet. He still remembers what the prophet with the flowing snow-white beard said.
“He told us,” says Brother Merrell, “that he wanted us all to remember. The Spirit of the Lord was going to be poured out upon the world. There would be more development and more progress in the world during the next 30 to 40 years than there had been in the history of the world. He looked at us and said, ‘I want you little fellers to remember that and see if there won’t start to be progress.’”
Once again, 90 years later, Brother Merrell attended a dedication in the Vernal Tabernacle, only this time it was a temple, the house of the Lord.
It has always been difficult traveling in the area that is now the temple district of the Vernal Utah Temple. It includes parts of Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado. It is a country where the weather is unpredictable and the winters can be downright dangerous. Several youth choirs that were planning to sing for the Vernal Temple open house had to cancel at the last minute because winter storms had closed roads, preventing them from traveling.
One group, the Smart family choir, was asked to sing an additional hour in the cold morning hours of the temple open house because another choir had been prevented by the weather from making the trip.
The Smart family chose to hold a family reunion and form a family choir to coincide with the open house of the Vernal Temple. They have a particularly warm feeling about the tabernacle building itself. Their relative William H. Smart was the stake president of the Uintah Stake when the tabernacle was dedicated. For the teenagers attending the reunion, the trip to Vernal meant learning a little more about their heritage and about temples.
“There’s always a special feeling in the temple,” says Michelle Maddocks, 20, from the Salt Lake Grant 12th Ward, and a member of the Smart family choir. “You feel the Spirit there.”
Another Smart descendant, Hales Swift, 15, from the Academy Ward of the Colorado Springs North Stake, was looking forward to going through the Vernal Temple after the family choir’s performance. For Hales, his knowledge about the truthfulness of the Church came from his family. “Prayer is a peaceful time for me. I have always accepted the gospel as being true, partially because I was brought up in it, and also because it makes sense.” In a serious moment, Hales tries to explain what the Spirit of the Lord feels like. “It’s something hard to put your finger on. It’s overpowering. It testifies of the truthfulness of the gospel. It’s sort of like when you hear something that is really truly good. It’s the same sort of feeling.”
Also singing in the family choir, JoAnnie Everett, 14, from the Grove Creek Fifth Ward in Pleasant Grove, Utah, was looking forward to going inside the Vernal Temple. She has been to several temples, including the Mount Timpanogos Temple near her home. She had the opportunity to go when her brothers and sisters were sealed to their family after their adoption. “The temple is special before it is dedicated, but it has an even better feeling after.”
The Young Men and Young Women of the Vernal Third Ward have a unique outlook on the new temple. In Sunday School class, they just have to glance out the window to see the temple. They can’t be rowdy in the parking lot after Mutual, because it somehow doesn’t feel appropriate when it’s right next to the temple.
“I live right across the street. The angel Moroni looks down on my house,” says Curtis Ogden, 17. “It’s just a reminder every day when I walk outside and I see the temple. It makes my day a lot better.”
Emily Malouf, 15, says, “I think with the temple being next door to our church house, it’s brought a level of reverence to our ward. When you drive past it every day, you have to strive for the goals you know are right so that one day you can get married there.”
“When I went through the open house of the temple, something occurred to me,” says Jeff Ross, 15. “It’s perfect. It sets the standard. It’s kind of a wake-up call to me that we need to strive to make our bodies, our minds, and our homes like the temple, perfect like that. It sets the standard for everything else in our lives.”
These young people watched the transformation take place. An old, dilapidated tabernacle was turned into something heavenly—a temple. They heard the stories of the miracles that took place during the construction. They saw the dedication of those who worked on the project. They noticed as their friends and neighbors started reconstructing their lives to be worthy to enter the temple.
“The building was in bad shape,” says Leslie Richards, 16. “It’s the same kind of thing with our lives. If you get off track and wicked, it takes a lot of work and time. No matter how long it takes, you can still come back to the temple.”
The Vernal Temple brought a spirit of change. “A lot of that is taking place in this valley,” says Sam Malouf, 17. “There are a lot of people who have changed so they can attend the temple. I’ve seen a lot of kids our age quit drinking, quit doing a lot of things so they can be worthy to attend the temple.”
For most of the young people in this ward, the most impressive and memorable moment of the temple open house was when they entered the celestial room and saw the welcoming portrait of Christ. “It took my breath away,” says Cory Hunter, 17. “It was just like, this is where it is. This is where it happens. He’s here. It was amazing.”
The Vernal Temple is the 51st temple in operation. It is also the first temple ever made from a building originally built for a different purpose. But somehow it seems appropriate that it should be put to use serving the Lord again. The Vernal Temple quite literally stands as a monument to change. Just as a decaying building can be rebuilt, we each can rid ourselves of the rubble of sin in our lives and change, change into something worthy of heaven.
Restoration of the Vernal Temple went carefully, brick by brick. However, some of the native brick was damaged and needed to be replaced. What’s more, additions to the building itself needed to match. A long-time Vernal resident had a pioneer home built of the same brick as the tabernacle. Though not a member of the Church himself, he graciously agreed to donate it to the temple. So two years before the temple was completed, youth groups from all the wards in the four stakes surrounding Vernal spent service time dismantling the house and cleaning the brick. Each small effort toward the restoration gave joy and satisfaction to those who helped.