The sting from hearing it was an arson-caused fire that reduced their church to rubble last November is still there. But when about 1,500 members of three wards attend Easter services Sunday at three scattered sites, their stake president says they’ll look beyond that loss without bitterness.
“The whole message of the Resurrection and the Easter message is one of hope and one of love and one of forgiveness,” said Craig Ahlstrom, who oversees the Lehi Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “We look forward with hope. We are going to rebuild, and we are going to be moving forward.”
The stake center at 1430 N. Grand St., built in 1980, had been home to the Mesa Vista, Hillside and Lehi 2nd wards, each occupying the building for their three-hour Sunday block that includes a sacrament meeting, Sunday school classes and separate age-level priesthood and gender-specific groups.
Those wards, or congregations, were displaced by a middle-of-the-night fire on Nov. 19 that the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ruled arson 10 days later. Officials said there was no reason to call it a hate crime. No arrest has been made, and Mesa Fire Department arson investigators continue to work the case.
Four months after the fire, the three wards are settled into a routine in which they share space with wards at three other church buildings within three miles of their former campus tucked behind the northwest side of Mesa City Cemetery. Hillside Ward members are accommodated at a church building at 700 S. Evergreen Road in Tempe. Mesa Vista Ward now meets at a church building at 15 W. First Ave. in downtown Mesa, and the Lehi 2nd Ward found a home in a meeting house at 810 E. Lehi Road.
“They were not at full capacity, so they were able to go in and assimilate into those buildings,” Ahlstrom said. “It is working out as well as to be expected.” The arrangement includes using overlapping schedules that permit the main hall to be used by one ward when members of another ward occupy the classrooms. Overlap is typically no more than an hour or so, he said.
Leaders at church headquarters in Salt Lake City have not announced whether a new stake center building will go up on the property, which was cleared of rubble and is still surrounded by a fence, Ahlstrom said.
“We hope within 30 days we will have a decision and know exactly what is going to happen — rebuilding or relocating,” he said.
“Certainly, it has been a challenge to drive past and see an empty lot now,” said Darlene Clifford, the stake’s Relief Society president.
Yet the setback has not had an impact on the work the three wards are doing, she said.
“It has been amazing — these women,” she said. “I visited each ward that was displaced, and it is just business as usual. They have this wonderful spirit about them.” Clifford said she expected to hear complaining about families having to move to another site or the extra drive time from their homes. “Every one of them found something very positive to say about the buildings. ... They were all extremely positive about the change,” she said.
“They just conduct themselves like they always have,” she said.
Clifford told of a “wonderful outpouring” of support and offers to help from people.
Many church members came and went in the night and morning hours of the fire and grimly watched the meeting house incinerate. Two church computers melted in the fire, yet information was retrieved from their hard drives. “That’s almost in the category of the miraculous,” Ahlstrom said.
Clifford recalled telling her 15-year-old daughter, Shelby, that morning about the fire. “I was trying to be real strong, and I said, ‘Honey, it is just bricks and mortar,’ and she looked at me very sincerely and said, ‘Yes, and memories, Mom.’
“My son’s eagle feather from his Eagle Scout award was in that building and went up in smoke, along with all the memories of all the activities and things we did in worship there,” she said.
Ahlstrom said church members have felt more a sense of loss than grief from the fire.
“A lot of people were baptized there and had funerals for some of their children, parents and grandparents,” he said.
“We are a pretty forgiving people,” said the 52-year-old stake president. “There is nothing we can do about it. We can sit there and feel vengeful and say, ‘Man, I’d really like to know who did this and get them put away,’ but I don’t think anyone is harboring those feelings at all.”
If someone were arrested, he said, members would “just hope they can get their personal issues resolved and move on.”
Clifford remembers the morning call about the fire. “I woke my husband up, and we were just sick. This felt horrible,” she said.
“I heard it was not a hate crime, but it was arson,” Clifford said. “I don’t know how you differentiate between the two, but it wasn’t particularly directed at the faith. It made me feel sad for the people who had done it because, I thought, this is something they have to live with, and the consequences of it.”
Clifford said if a new stake center is built, it will likely take two years before it could be occupied. “We are settled in for whenever it happens — taking the time it takes and making the most of it,” she said.
“We forgive,” Ahlstrom added. “We are not going to hold any grudges. We will move forward and not look back. That is what the gospel of Jesus Christ is about, and that is the big part of our lives, and we emulate that in everything we do.”