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Home | Lifestyle | Video+Gallery+Story: The First Ward, The First Mormon Chapel and El Paso

Video+Gallery+Story: The First Ward, The First Mormon Chapel and El Paso

My sister used to live on Douglas Avenue, just down from Copia. Several times a week I would pick her up from work and drive her home. It was during that first trip I noticed the church building that was right across the street from her apartment.

The building is constructed of red brick, has marble like windows, and a cupola. Looking at that building, for the first time, I became intrigued. I wondered who built it, and when. And that’s where the questions died.

I had forgotten about the building until about a month ago when I found myself back in that neighborhood.

This time around, when I saw the building, that is when I noticed that it was designated a historical landmark. Also noticed that it was one of the chapels that belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

I took photos of the building that day, and when I returned home, I began to look at them. A quick Google search showed just enough to make me want to know more. Google tends to do that to me, shows me results that only produce one or two lines, and that drives me out of my seat, and into the real world to learn more.

This past Tuesday I sat down with Robert Dinsmoor, attorney and former District Judge here in El Paso, who has a wealth of knowledge of the building and the history of the Mormons in El Paso.

We meet in the main room of the Chapel, where they hold sacrament meetings. The room itself, like all LDS chapels, are bereft of decoration. From Wade Richardson, former Bishop of El Paso’s Redd Ward, I learned that this is so the people attending church can focus on the message, and not the architecture.

But the architecture of First Ward is what drew me in.

“The Church really started in El Paso in 1876,” Robert began. “That is when the first Missionaries arrived here. There were seven of them that came, and they were going to be going into Mexico. But they stayed here during that winter in January of 1876.”

At that time, El Paso was on the other side of the river. What we had were Franklinville and Magoffinsville. After the winter, the Missionaries who arrived went down into Mexico.

In the late 1890’s Isaac Pierce moved up from the colonies down in Mexico. He moved up to Juarez and ran a lumber mill. His son, Arwell moved over to El Paso in 1906, as well as a few other Mormon families. In 1912 there was a significant change, the revolution in Mexico.

During the revolution, the Mormons who were living in the colonies were, as Robert says, for the most part, driven out of Mexico. So, they came to El Paso.

At the time, El Paso’s population was just a bit over ten thousand. The numbers of Mormon refugees who came to the city? Between three and five thousand. Some of the research I have, because of my conversation with Robert shows the number closer to five thousand.

Image, if you can, a city of that size taking in that many people. The stress it could have placed in the city, and its resources. The conflicts that could have occurred. But, we are talking about El Paso, a city known for its hospitality and welcoming spirit.

By 1915-1916 the first branch of the Church was established here. Philip Hurst was the first branch president. By 1918, that branch became a ward (a branch is a small group or church. A ward is larger than a branch.)

During this same time, some of the individuals who had come up from Mexico began to return. One of those who came up during the revolution was Mitt Romney’s father, George W. Romney.

A tent city was established so that the Mormon colonists would have a place to stay. Others were invited into homes, and others could move to different parts of the country with the railroad providing free passage to any Mormon who had family anywhere the train stopped.

In 1918 the First Ward was established, and it was the first ward in Texas. A ward is the larger of two local congregations, with the branch being the smallest.

During this time, they began to meet in different homes around the area. After a time, they began to meet in the old Odd Fellow’s Lodge, which once stood where the scoreboard is at Chihuahua stadium.

On Sundays, when they would meet for Church services, they would meet on the first floor. The second floor was a pool hall. “Sometimes, from what I read,” says Robert, “it made interesting verbiage during church services.” I can imagine the language, and how those attending church would react when they heard this!

In the 1920’s Arwel Pierce began to look at buildings in different parts of the West: California, Arizona, other places. He, and others wanted to know what works well for the chapels, and what doesn’t work.

They wanted to build something, I can imagine, that would stand out as well as be functional. They bought the property located at 3625 Douglas Street, and then they were ready to build. However, the Great Depression started in 1929. “But,” said Robert, “that didn’t deter them.”

In October of 1930, they began the work on the Douglas Street Chapel.

One aspect of construction and funding that really stood out for me was that, even though people were having a hard time to meet their basic needs, members of the Church would give one day, out of every three days wages to the building fund. This was, you must remember, during the great depression.

October 24, 1930, they began the ground work. On Christmas Day 1930 they laid the corner stone. “That they did it on Christmas day I think meant great significance to them,” said Robert. “Because they wanted to show on the day that we celebrate the birth of the Savior was born that the Church was going forward.”

There is a photo of the corner stone after it was placed. For me, seeing that picture answered a few questions for me. I always wondered about corner stones, and what they looked like without the rest of the building.

That corner stone, according to Robert, is also a time capsule. Enclosed within it is a copy of the Book of Mormon, newspapers from the day and certain other memorabilia. When I spoke with Emily, and another lady (My call recorder didn’t capture the whole call. So, I apologize) from the Church History

Department they said that, during the renovation of the Chapel the corner stone was left intact. So, I am interested in the future, when that corner stone is opened.

On May 24th , 1931, the Chapel was dedicated. Heber J. Grant was the president of the Church at that time, and he came down for the dedication. He is in one of the photos below. Look for the one taken outside, and for a very tall man, the Bishop of the Ward is standing next to him, holding a child.

Other notable individuals were present at the dedication was the mayor of El Paso, Ray E. Sherman, who gave a speech. The President of the Chamber of Commerce. I also learned there were also many from the community who were in attendance.

An interesting fact about how, and when LDS Chapels are dedicated is that it is not done until the land, building, and construction is paid. Once everything is paid for, in full, then space can be dedicated, and not before.

In the 1950’s First Ward had an extension added to the building. This extension was both upstairs, and in the basement, adding additional rooms and classrooms for the growing church. They also added bars to the windows, not because of crime, but because of the basketball court. The balls kept breaking the windows.

About the building itself, what used to be the Bishop’s office has the original fireplace. This was the only room that was heated at the time and was used for consultations with the Bishop.

The organ, though not installed before the dedication, is there. Well, the pipes are. The organ was removed to be refurbished and will be returned soon.

In the basement, at the foot of the stairs, is an old safe that is part of the original construction. I learned, from Robert, that for the longest time there was no way for the Church to deposit monies collected on Sundays. That led to the safe being installed.

In the central part of the Church, where the meetings are held, the woodwork is all original. It is the same solid woodwork that was created during construction.

During restoration, the local Church, under the direction of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints History Department, attempted to keep everything the same or bring back what was there in the 1930’s, like the style of carpet in the meeting house.

It is a fascinating building. Robert shared with me something that was said by President Heber J. Grant.

President Grant said that as far as he was concerned that this (First Ward) was one of the finest chapels of its size. It’s also the only Chapel dedicated by the President of the Church outside of Utah.

If you ever find yourself in this neighborhood, take a moment to stop by and look around. It is a beautiful building, and one of the hidden treasures of El Paso.

If you would like to hear the audio of my interview with Robert Dinsmoor you can follow one of the two links: Hear it on Soundcloud or YouTube

Would you like us to write about your church? If so, send an email to news@epheraldpost.com

Black and white photos provided by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and are used by permission. Color photos by Steven Cottingham.

About Steven Cottingham

Steven Cottingham is an artist, poet (haiku, tanka, senryu) as well as a photographer. Growing up, he wanted to be a columnist, as well as photojournalist. Life, and poor decision, led him down a different path. Today, Steven is chasing those dreams.

He is currently working on his next book, as well as starting a small poetry journal. You may visit Steven, online, at www.StevenCottinghamPhotography.com

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29 comments

  1. Rachel Anderson

    What a lovely article. Thank you for the background into a beautiful, historic building. El Paso is so full of many treasures.

  2. Amazing. All too often Leadership may sale older buildings. I am glad to see that not only is this on still in the hands of the church, but is an active ward.

    Great story! Thank you!

  3. My family is LDS and we are planing a trip to the Temple in Juarez. My son has just received his Temple Recommend, and we’ll be passing through El Paso. We are going to stop, and visit this Ward for Sacrament meeting.

    I am thrilled that a newspaper is taking a positive interest in covering anything LDS.

    May Heavenly Father bless you all.

    Chuch

  4. I am a member of the LDS Church here in Toronto, Canada. Seeing this very historic Ward, and hearing Br Dinsmoor’s recounting of the history gladdens my heart to know that at such a time as war the members of the Church found a home in Texas.

    You Americans need to share more positive news such as this story. It has made my day.

  5. Willard Sensiba

    That Chapel is where my wife and I met. I asked her for a date while we were sitting on the stand awaiting our turns to speak at a Sunday evening meeting. We have been married for 57 years, so the Douglas Street Chapel has a special place in our heart.

    • My husband and I also met at this chapel in 1968 as young adults. I grew up attending meetings in this building and it holds many wonderful memories for me. BYW, we have been married 49 years.

  6. This is the ward where we first took lessons from the missionaries. We were not to be baptised here because my husband was to be stationed at Ft. Hood before that happened.

    It is a beautiful little church that is full of loving, caring people. I loved the article and hope to see more in this format of article and audio interviews. The interview with Brother Dinsmoore added so much more to what was written.

  7. I used to live in El Paso and remember the Post. Didn’t know it was back until this post was shared.

    First Ward was the Ward my Grandparents belonged to. I used to attend Redd Ward before we moved to Colorado Springs. I’m happy to see some attention paid to the building, and it’s storied history.

    Keep up the positive work, and I’ll be sharing this story with others!

  8. Ay the very beginning, In your video, the word first is misspelled!!! Great presentation!!!

    • Hi David,

      I am glad you like the package we put together. I am in awe that so many people are taking the time to read it, and share it. I am amazed.

      I do apologize for the error at the start of the video. Thank you for pointing it out, I don’t think I would have ever noticed it. I have corrected it. I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw it.

  9. That is not the only chapel dedicated by a President of the Church outside of Utah. The chapel in Fort Wayne Indiana was dedicated by David O. McKay in the 1950’s. I was there and met him there.

    • While other LDS church presidents have dedicated chapels outside Utah, the article refers to the Douglas Street chapel as being the only one dedicated by President Heber J. Grant– while he was the President– outside Utah.

      • No – Larry is right.
        Please re-read the paragraph. The key sentence says:
        “It’s also the only Chapel dedicated by the President of the Church outside of Utah.”

      • In this context I am referring to the President of the Church at the time-consuming President Grant.

      • Fred l. Wharton

        I went to church there from 1950 to 1959 when we moved to the upper valley. I sang in the choir and played the organ for Priesthood.

  10. Heather Kendrick

    Thank you for such a wonderful article about this beautiful building. My great grandfather was AL Anderson who was a part of this Ward building this chapel. Love the pictures.

  11. My home chapel.

  12. This is a wonderful story that brings out an important part of history connecting El Paso to the LDS Church. I was impressed with the photos, as well as with the audio of the interview. I don’t think anyone else is including audio with their articles (I don’t think I’ve ever seen it with the websites for the papers here in Slat Lake).

    Again, love the photos.

  13. I just want to take a moment to thank you all for taking the to read this article, listen to the interview, and share. I am in awe that something I have written is reaching as many people as it is and that it seems to be bringing out fond memories for others. Thank you.

    I love writing about our community here in El Paso. It is an amazing city with an equally amazing history. I hope you’ll continue to join me on my virtual tours of El Paso- discovering parts of this city that even I’ve never seen, and I’m from here!

    Thank you! You guys have made my day!

  14. I was baptized in this beautiful building. I am so glad the church still owns it. It is a treasure.

  15. Charlotte Sullivan McAllister

    I lived next door to this chapel on the Douglas Street side when I was a freshman in high school. Being LDS, I remember attending church and Saturday night dances at a time when I was just starting to think about boys. My mother and her family also went to church here when she was young. I also attended church here when I lived in El Paso from 1950-1956. My great-aunt Louise Jarvis lived across the street from the church as well. My grandfather’s family was also one that came out of Mexico to El Paso during the Revolution. Thank you so much for the pictures and the article.

    • Fred l. Wharton

      We lived across the street from the basketball court, the house on the corner On Bisbee Street. As boy Scouts, we played “football in the dark” in the basement and went to the dances each Saturday night. Fond memories.

    • I also attended this building, from 1938-1946 and 1951-1958. I knew both Charlotte (a cousin) & Fred. I have only been back to El Paso twice since 1958 and attended church in this building. Both times it felt like I had never left because of the memories that came flooding back. I even got to speak from the pulpit as I attended once an a Fast Sunday. My Dad was 3 years old when he lived in one of the tents at the lumber yard.

      Thanks, Steve, for the great article & pictures.

  16. Ah, but the gems you sometimes encounter on the LDS Today website. It was on that site I discovered this article, photos, and interviews. And I must say I am rather impressed!

    The LDS Church has a long history. For me, my avocation is the study of Church history, following its (the Chruch) progression around the globe. I now have this marvelous bit to add to my studies now.

    Thank you for sharing this Herald-Post and Mr. Cottingham. You have just made the world that much more connected to me.

    Cheers!

    Jimmy

  17. Is it possible to get a copy of the article and video? Very interesting and we’ll done.

  18. We live in California & visited El Paso in June. My husband and his sister lived in EP as children when their dad was stationed at Biggs Field. My husband was baptized in this building. Visiting this LDS church building was a highlight of our trip. Thank you for this article and video. It gives the building even more meaning.

  19. Sterling D Neblett

    This is the chapel where I grew up and learned the Gospel. It was also the place where my parents were married in 1939 by Bishop Pearce. I was baptized here on my birthday in 1952. My bishops were Pearce, Turley, Kleinman & Abersold. I have many fond memories of the cultural hall where we had many dances and where we had a stake dance band that played for them.

    Thank you for all the memories and pictures.
    Sterling D. Neblett

  20. God bless you El Pasoans 🙂 I was a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints missionary in your illustrious city from October 2001-February 2002 and January-July 2003! This chapel is really special and we have a temple in Ciudad Juarez. Perhaps you’ve seen that as well. I will come and visit as soon as I can!

  21. Thank you for writing this article and I also love seeing the pictures of where I grew up going to church in this beautiful chapel. So many memories from the late 50’s to the year 1971. We loved the Saturday Night dances, playing basketball outside. I loved seeing the picture of the inside of the chapel. I can still remember where I would sit with my family, sang in the choir, gave talks and at 17 years old lead the music in Sunday School. So many wonderful memories of my childhood. This is something to treasure.

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