As Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles arrived at the Helena Montana Temple during the temple’s dedication weekend, he glanced above the 9,797-square-foot building’s entrance at the uppercase inscription found on every temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: “HOLINESS TO THE LORD. THE HOUSE OF THE LORD.”
“It is really quite a profound observation to be able to see that and then think about the significance of what that means — the house of the Lord, with holiness to the Lord,” Elder Stevenson said, “and now to be in Helena, to see that and to be able to participate in the temple’s dedication, which dedicates it as the house of the Lord, and with all of that done with holiness to the Lord.”
The Apostle dedicated the Helena Montana Temple on Sunday, June 18, in two sessions that were broadcast to meetinghouses throughout the temple district, which comprises stakes in Helena, Butte, Bozeman and two in Great Falls, and covers about half of the Big Sky State.
“This temple dedication,” he said, “serves as a testament of the strength and devotion of the Saints who reside in this beautiful region of Montana.”
Joining Elder Stevenson for the dedication services were his wife, Sister Lesa Stevenson; Elder Kevin R. Duncan, a General Authority Seventy and executive director of the Temple Department, and his wife, Sister Nancy Duncan; Elder Randall K. Bennett, a General Authority Seventy and counselor in the North America Central Area presidency; and Michael Suhaka, managing director of the Temple Department.
With the Church’s latest dedicated temple — No. 178 of 315 total temples, including those under construction or announced and in planning — Latter-day Saints in that “beautiful region of Montana” can more easily and frequently attend the temple and be better connected to and with Heavenly Father and His Son Jesus Christ, through sacred covenants and ordinances and participating in instruction and worship.
Temple Trips No Longer a ‘Journey’
In thoughtfully preparing for the dedication and while studying the Church’s history in the state, Elder Stevenson said he realized how remarkable it is for the Latter-day Saints in central Montana to have a house of the Lord in their midst now.
“On one hand, they have had this relatively close proximity to Church headquarters — it is long drive, but it’s drivable,” he said of the 485-mile distance between Helena and Salt Lake City and the driving time of just under seven hours.
“And then, we think of the bookends of legacy temples that have been a more drivable distance for them,” he noted of the Idaho Falls Idaho and Cardston Alberta temples, at 270 and 230 miles respectively from Helena via the interstate.
Then, the Billings Montana Temple was announced in 1998 and dedicated in 2000, followed by the Helena temple. A third house of the Lord for the state —the Missoula Montana Temple — was announced by President Russell M. Nelson in April 2022 general conference.
“What a great blessing it is now for this great area of Montana to have access to a temple like this now,” Elder Stevenson said. “It is part of the blessings that are coming to us as our dear Prophet is so focused on gathering Israel on both sides of the veil. This temple will bless the lives of many people.”
Sister Stevenson said attending a temple dedication is always a blessing, but one close to home is an added joy, especially when the Stevensons cross paths with longtime acquaintances like 94-year-old Elsie Gruel of Great Falls. She first became acquainted with Elder Stevenson a number of years ago when he visited during a Montana fishing trip and accompanied her to a horse sale.
“But even with the people you don’t know, you’re instantly connected,” Sister Stevenson continued. “Your hearts connect — you have the same thoughts, the same goals, the same desires and a love for our Savior.
“And to have this temple here for these humble, sweet people — it’s just been their dream,” she continued. “They never thought this would happen. And now these temple blessings are taking place in their part of the world.”
Fast-Turnaround Temple Milestones
President Nelson announced a temple for Helena on April 4, 2021 — one of 20 locations identified that day during April 2021 general conference. Of the other 19 temples announced, 10 are under construction, one is scheduled for its groundbreaking, five have sites identified and three are earlier in planning and design.
Less than three weeks after the announcement, on April 20, 2021, the Church released a site location and exterior rendering for the Helena temple. Elder Vern P. Stanfill — a General Authority Seventy and native of Townsend, Montana, about 30 miles from Helena — presided over the temple’s June 26, 2021 groundbreaking. The temple sits on a 4.8-acre site at 1260 Otter Road, built atop the location of a previous stake center, which was razed to make way for the new house of the Lord. A new stake center was built adjacent to the temple and has a large room that serves as a waiting area for the temple.
The timings of the Helena Montana Temple milestones have been among the Church’s fastest turnarounds in the past two decades. The two months and 22 days from announcement to groundbreaking is the shortest, and the 26 months and 15 days from announcement to dedication is the second fastest, just behind the 24 months and 27 days of The Gila Valley Arizona Temple in 2010.
Still, up until the temple’s 2021 announcement, Latter-day Saints in Helena and throughout west-central Montana thought a local house of the Lord was something of the future. Helena sits among four temples — the Billings, Cardston, Idaho Falls and Rexburg Idaho temples, all within a three-and-a-half to four-hour car ride.
“We didn’t anticipate having a temple this soon, because it seems we lacked the growth and numbers necessary to support one,” said Donna Romney, wife of Helena Montana Stake President Bret R. Romney.
“Now we get to be part of this miracle of temples being brought to smaller areas. The temple is providing more opportunities to share the gospel of Jesus Christ, and we are already seeing growth as people are drawn to the house of the Lord.”
And President Romney sees a wide swath of blessings to Latter-day Saints in the temple district — not only by making and keeping the covenants through temple ordinances and strengthening testimonies of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, but also by simply serving in the temple.
“Over the years, we’ve always heard temple workers relate how impactful their temple service is individually and for their marriage and family,” President Romney said. “Now we’ll have eight to 10 times more temple workers from our stake. It’s exciting to anticipate how that will bless the lives of our stake members and wards and branches.
“So many blessings will come from having a dedicated house of the Lord so close.”
‘A Wonderful History’ in Montana
Early in the second half of the 1800s, Church members began acquiring livestock from emigrants through present-day Montana and hauling freight from Salt Lake City and back again. A small number of Latter-day Saints settled in Montana to mine or to sell supplies when gold was discovered in 1862, and more moved in later to establish ranches or help build a railroad linking Ogden, Utah, to Butte.
The year 1896 proved pivotal for the Church in Montana, only a year after the state’s first branch was established in Lima, a small town just north of the Idaho’s northeastern border.
That year, Edward Stevenson of the First Council of the Seventy — Elder Stevenson’s third-great-grandfather — toured the area with Matthias Cowley of the Oneida (Idaho) Stake presidency to minister to Latter-day Saints and gather the less active. Besides organizing several branches, they met with Montana Gov. John E. Rickards, who became a friend to the Church. And that same year, the Montana Mission was formed, a precursor to the present-day Billings Montana Mission.
“So, within three years of the Salt Lake Temple being dedicated, we have the Montana Mission being organized — that is pretty remarkable,” said Elder Gary E. Stevenson. “The Church has had great representation here for many, many years, and has a wonderful history here.”
By the end of 1920, Church membership in Montana totaled more than 1,000. In 1953, Elders Spencer W. Kimball and LeGrand Richards created Montana’s first stake, in Butte. And by 1960, membership had increased to nearly 24,000.
Today, Montana is home to some 51,000 Latter-day Saints in 13 stakes, with two dedicated temples and a third announced.
The Temple’s True ‘Beauty’
Elder Stevenson joined with others in marveling at the Helena Montana Temple’s beauty. “Yet, more powerful than the awe-inspiring physical elements of the temple are the feelings it invokes,” he said, adding that it was an unexpected result of the temple open-house visits made by friends, neighbors and residents of Helena and the surrounding region.
“Many were touched to learn that even our young people serve in the temple and how [they show] their love to their departed ancestors by offering them sacred proxy ordinances,” the Apostle said. “Others were fascinated to learn that husbands and wives are married here — not just for time but for eternity.”
Temples, then, are beautiful buildings designed to provide something even more beautiful: the Lord’s sacred ordinances.
“We honor the Lord by building a beautiful structure, as did Solomon in the Old Testament, but we honor Him more by performing the sacred ordinances that only take place in a dedicated house of the Lord,” said Elder Stevenson, who then cited Doctrine and Covenants 84:20: “Therefore, in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest.”
The Open House and a ‘Temple Language’
More than 30,000 people — two to three times more than expected — attended the Helena temple open house, held May 18 through June 3. Latter-day Saints living throughout the temple district received talking points suggested by the Temple Department and given to volunteers helping with the public tours.
Jim and Suzi Stanger, co-chairs for the open house and dedication committee, said local members not only used the talking points in inviting friends and neighbors to the open house, but the doctrine and principles contained carried over to Latter-day Saints’ testimonies, talks and expressions.
“There’s a fluency now — it’s like now our five stakes speak a ‘temple language,’” Suzi Stanger said. “It was amazing how it transformed being able to share the temple in a personal way as a member with both members and nonmembers.”
Jim Stanger said many visitors came intrigued by the temple’s unique construction — the Church’s first modular method using a design-manufacture-install process.
He and others leading tours would talk about the physical building outside. After stopping and pointing out the “Holiness to the Lord; the house of the Lord” inscription above the entrance, the tours then focused on the talking points of covenants, ordinances, Heavenly Father’s plan, Jesus Christ and His Atonement, covenants, ordinances and the purpose of temples.
Said Suzi Stanger: “You could see it was transformative, that they felt the Spirit. … Montana people are very sincere, and I think that was one thing that really captured them — the sincerity of the focus on the Savior.”
What They Were Saying
Dedication attendees came from Helena, across the temple district and beyond. They included a foursome from the Utah National Guard’s 19th Special Forces: Maj. Chris Biesinger, Spanish Fork; Lt. Andrew Minkler, Cedar City; 1st Sgt. Bradley Curtis, Draper; and Staff Sgt. Benjamin Hardy, West Jordan. All were training at nearby Camp Fort Harrison and received permission to attend.
What did attendees feel during the dedication?
“I just felt an incredible amount of peace and joy, and I’m looking forward to bringing my children here and being together as a family,” said Tiffany Hobson of Rivers Edge Ward in the Great Falls Montana Stake.
Added her husband, Brad Hobson, as his voice cracked with emotion: “I felt love from God. I felt gratitude. And I felt like He cares about the Saints here in this region.”
Three young women from the Helena Montana Stake shared what they learned from the Spirit.
“During one of the talks, it just hit me that we weren’t the only people in that room — other people who have passed on, they were in the temple with us,” said June Lay of the Helena 4th Ward. “And so it’s really cool to know how important this temple is to everyone.”
Added her sister, Ruth Lay: “I was super happy to be able to go in. This is the first dedication I’ve ever been to — and I really felt the spirit.
Anna Christensen of the Helena 6th Ward agreed. “I felt the Spirit, and it helped me feel peace in this world.”