This is the first installment in a series of at least monthly articles on Relief Society activities of the past, a specimen of that “history [that] inspires us to be the women of God we need to be” (President Julie B. Beck in January’s Visiting Teaching message). I don’t know yet any better than most of you do what will be included in the announced Relief Society history, but these articles will be Keepa’s specific contribution to supporting an understanding of, love for, and inspiration from the Relief Society organization.
Suppose you are a Latter-day Saint woman a hundred years ago, who takes the train down from Ogden to attend a Relief Society conference or to work in the Temple for a few days. Or maybe you’re a woman who takes the train up from Provo to spend the day shopping or consulting with a doctor in the capital. Or you could be a teenage girl from Southern Utah who comes to the big city to find better employment than is available in your sleepy ranch village.
Where are you going to stay if your visit is an overnight one? Where can you find a rest room – not only a toilet, but a room to sit or lie down and rest in after hours of travel and being on your feet? Where will you live while you look for work and a long-term home?
If you have friends or family in the city, you’re okay. But if you don’t know anyone who can host you, your choices are limited – public rooms at the train station, or a hotel or rooming house “which offer all kinds of accommodations but security, friendship, and association with our people,” according to a Relief Society report. “The hotels are good in their time and place, but not what is needed by such visiting women.”
In 1911, the need was so acute that the Relief Society General Board decided to do something – even if they sounded as though they needed to talk themselves into doing something so “selfish”:
The sisters of this Society have contributed of their mites to build meeting houses, carpet temples, purchase silver for sacrament purposes; have sent money to the missionaries, nursed the sick, educated the nurses, clothed the dead and nurtured the orphan. But the day has come when they are going to be placed in positions where they can do some wise and kind things for themselves.
The Board formed a committee to address the problem. Those sisters worked for two years with the First Presidency and the Presiding Bishop, making plans and collecting supplies and physically working. The Presiding Bishop offered the sisters their pick of a number of houses owned by the Church. They chose one that had been built in 1874 by apostle Brigham Young, Jr., for his wife Jane Carrington (subject of an early Keepa favorite, There was an old lady who swallowed a … lizard). The house was directly across the street from Temple Square’s north gate, on the site of the present Conference Center.
The sisters renovated the home, using donations from the YLMIA, the Primary, the Tooele Stake Relief Society, and private donations of numerous individual women. Relief Societies around the state donated bedding, and merchants contributed supplies. Joseph F. Smith supplied the name of the infant institution: “The Relief Society Home for Women and Girls.”
Even before the Home was dedicated on 19 December 1913, some 72 guests had found temporary lodging there, paying from $6 to $25 per month depending on accommodations (not merely size and quality of room, but whether board and other services were provided). “Each one had given expression to their great pleasure in finding such a place, permeated as it was with the spirit of kindness and charity.” Those women had found a written set of house rules (I’m still looking for them), and a matron who presided over the Home to ensure that it was governed as a well- regulated home. Some of them took advantage of the on-site employment bureau dedicated to finding safe and respectable work and long-term quarters for the Home’s short-term guests.
The dedication services included speeches and songs, and a dedicatory prayer by Joseph F. Smith that beautifully expresses the women’s hopes for their new home:
Our Father in Heaven: We thy children have assembled here this evening for the purpose of dedicating this House for the object and purpose for which it is designed. While we call upon Thy name, may Thy spirit direct our minds and thoughts.
We are very grateful for this expression of Thy kindness towards us Thy children in permitting us to obtain a Home for those who may seek its shelter. We would always remember Thy kindness and Thy much mercy towards us in all these things. To this end we ask Thee to bless those of thy daughters who have contributed of their means to this enterprise; may they feel abundantly blessed, and may their reward be multiplied unto them; for inasmuch as they have cast in their mites may they feel that they have not invested them in that which perishes with the using.
To this end wilt Thou bless the General Board of this great Society. May they be united as the heart of one. May they be joined together in the bonds of love and true fellowship; and may each one have a voice in the affairs of this organization, and each therefore feel the responsibility which rests upon all.
So wilt Thou bless Thy handmaids. Especially bless those who preside over this Society and the sisters who are in immediate charge of this home. May each receive the spirit of her work and calling.
Bless the Matron, that she may be inspired in all her duties and labors,. that wisdom and great intelligence may go hand in hand with the spirit of human kindness which would pervade this Home, that kindness which is tempered with prudence and wisdom. Let all work together for the good of the whole, that nothing out of harmony with the principles of truth and righteousness may enter or obtain in these walls. Bless and sanctify the sisters who labored to this purpose. And if at times they are called upon to assist the poor or succor the afflicted, may they help and minister in the spirit of charity and love, with the aid of those principles that make for happiness here and hereafter.
Father, look upon this Home and bless it, we pray Thee. Accept all that has been done and contributed by the Church, and by the sisters who have assisted. Bless this building; preserve it from the devouring elements. May it be solid in its foundations, and safe in its appointments. May it be indeed an abode of peace and righteousness. May the walls of the rooms thereof be filled with the spirit of peace and that spirit which gives us all understanding and joy. May every object desired be realized by all who need that assistance.
We dedicate this Home and bless it and ask Thee to sanctify it as a place of peace and rest for the weary, that the poor may not be spurned from its doors, but that they may be ministered to as they need and require, that in the day of judgment we may realize that it may be said of us: “I was an hungered and ye fed me; I was sick and ye ministered unto me; I was in prison and ye visited me.” For inasmuch as we do this unto the least of His children we have so ministered unto Him. We do dedicate and bless this Home, and we do it by virtue of the Holy priesthood invested in us. Amen.
The house was a small one, and the sisters knew from the beginning that “it is somewhat limited for room and will not be adequate long for the purposes of the Home. But it is a modest beginning, and it was felt wiser to begin thus simply and spread out as occasion may require.” I do not yet know how long the Home served its purpose; at some point, the Lion House, operated by the YMMIA, took over its functions of providing safe quarters and employment advice for girls coming to the city alone. For whatever the length of its service, conceiving, providing, and operating the Home met a real need.
I don’t believe that we appreciate the magnitude and greatness of the work you sisters are engaged in. To be ministering angels, to wear the garb of charity, to bless and teach mankind – this is a wonderful work and calling. ‘Ye are not of the world for I have chosen you out of the world,’ said the Savior. This organization should be different from anything in the world, greater in its scope, bigger in its work than anything the world can do, and not patterned after the foolish habits of those who know not God and His kingdom.
– Bishop Charles W. Nibley, at the Home’s dedication