Mormon stake center starts to rebuild - East Valley Tribune: News

Mormon stake center starts to rebuild

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Posted: Friday, October 10, 2008 5:33 pm | Updated: 11:21 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

About 1,500 members, in nine Mesa wards of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will wait another year before they can return to church work and worship on their campus at 1430 N. Grand, just across the north fence of Mesa Cemetery and east of Country Club Drive.

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For now, they remain scattered around the city and sharing space with wards at three other church sites.

Ten months after an arson fire destroyed the Mesa Arizona Lehi Stake building, one of the faith's largest stake centers in the city, ground has been broken for a 24,500-square-foot traditional meeting house.

About 300 turned out Sept. 27 for ceremonies that included Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, who is also a Mormon. Construction will begin in a few days, and Stake President Craig Ahlstrom says he expects members can move in about Nov. 1.

A stake center erected in 1980 went up in flames in the middle of the night Nov. 19. Weeks later the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ruled it arson, but no arrests have been made, and fire officials have declined to label it a hate crime.

It had been home for nine congregations, or wards, Lehi 1st, Lehi 2nd, Lehi 4th, Summit, Ridge, Hillside, Mesa Vista, Monument and Harris. Those families of each were reassigned to the nearest stake centers where schedules were adjusted to accommodate them.

"They are doing great," said Craig Ahlstrom, stake president. "They have settled in." Members have adjusted and "all understand that this is something that is out of their control. They didn't have other options, so they said this is the best situation that we have," he said.

The fire had deep meaning for an African-American congregation in Houston, Texas, which was not only engaged in interfaith projects with Mormons there, but suffered its own church burning down on Christmas morning 2005.

Maddi Merrill of the Lehi Stake had lived in Houston until four years ago and had come to know the work of Pastor Edward Lockett of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. She calls the odyssey of events "a tale of two churches."

The first connection was made November 2002 when Lockett attended a meeting in Houston to learn about the Freedman's Bank Records and genealogical resources for African-Americans. Enthused, Lockett asked Mormon leaders to help build a family history center at Christian Methodist Episcopal. Computers were donated by LDS members, they were set up and a family history library was established there. Training began for staff, and then members, to use databases.

The following August, Lockett went to church headquarters in Salt Lake City, where he met with the late President Gordon Hinckley and others. That led to the Mormon Church teaching black family history to a variety of churches in Houston.

Then came the fire that destroyed his church. Homeless people, trying to keep warm on the campus, had lit a fire to keep warm, and the flames spread.

When a Mormon public affairs specialist, Louis Hellewell, just happened to call Lockett the next day, he learned of the fire and rallied Mormons to help clean up the fire rubble and temporarily provided church space for Christian Methodist Episcopal services. For the next year, one of the bishop's offices in an LDS building was made available to Lockett.

In March 2006, Houston Mormons donated computers and office equipment and set up the church anew for family history research.

Well before that time, Merrill had moved to Mesa, but in February 2006 she had to go back to Houston to deal with a mess at the house they had rented out because they couldn't sell it. Renters had done $11,000 worth of damage. Merrill called Lockett to reconnect, told about her house problems.

"Pastor Lockett and his building contractor arrived at my house the next day," inventoried needs and they went to work doing repairs at no cost. "Whatever was broken, they fixed for me," she said. The house sold within two months, Merrill said.

Then came the Mesa fire in November. After Lockett learned about it, his church raised money and sent it to Salt Lake City for the Mesa stake's rebuilding, noting that it was one way his church could reciprocate for the Mormon Church's help following their fire about two years before. Currently, Lockett is battling cancer, but had said he hopes to be on hand for the dedication of the Mesa church next year.

Ahlstrom lauded the non-Mormon neighbors of the stake center who have told him the church has served as a "stable institution for the neighborhood."

"We had a lot of activities going on at all times and a lot of traffic in the area," but the neighborhood was receptive to the rebuilding, he said. Neighbors Matthew and Heike Parks who came out of their home in pajamas the night of the fire turned out Sept. 27 for the groundbreaking and put their feet to spades.

"We hoped that they would decide to rebuild the church building," Heike Parks said. "We have participated many times with them for various holiday events. The church is our neighbor and takes pride in serving the community." She said she and her husband look forward to their neighbors coming back.

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