Paris, Idaho -- While the Mormon church is accommodating growth with new temples in nearby Rexburg and in New York City, LDS leaders are not neglecting the historical roots of their faith.
An extensive, restoration project is being considered for the Paris Tabernacle, a 118-year-old meeting hall designed by a son of church leader Brigham Young.
The tabernacle's steps are being restored this summer to their original condition, reusing the same rocks that were embedded in the original sandstone steps more than a century ago.
While that is considered ongoing maintenance, teams of craftsmen, engineers and professionals also are on scene, evaluating what work needs to be included in the project, like restoring windows to their original condition and shape.
The church has good reason to celebrate its history in Idaho, which would likely not exist as a state if it weren't for colonizing efforts by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said Idaho State University history professor Ron Hatzenbuehler.
"That's probably a distinct possibility," agreed Frank Crawford, the local stake president. "I think Brigham Young, with the settlement of this area and other areas as well, was pretty prophetic -- pardon the pun -- with his outlook on that. He was a very pragmatic colonist."
Mormon pioneers, led by Charles C. Rich, founded Paris in southeast Idaho on Sept. 26, 1863. Franklin, settled by Mormons three years earlier 25 miles to the southwest, was Idaho's first community.
Hatzenbuehler argues that Idaho likely would have never achieved statehood without these Mormon settlements, which were followed by large-scale Mormon migrations in the 1870s and then the railroad.
He said such settlement would have eventually reached what is now Idaho. However, had it been delayed in the southeastern part of the state by 10 or 20 years, there would have been a much less compelling reason for statehood.
Instead, Hatzenbuehler said the territory would have been divided up among its neighbors instead of becoming the state of Idaho on July 3, 1890.
"It certainly could have happened that way, 49 states," he said.
It didn't happen, though, and today the Mormon church is the largest religious denomination in the state with 366,900 members. Idaho ranks third in the U.S. for total LDS membership per state population after Utah and California; but second to Utah as to proportion of state population who are LDS church members, said church spokesman Coke Newell. (The Catholic Church is the second largest religious denomination in Idaho with about 120,000 members.)
Though Paris pioneers were consumed with sheer survival at first -- "they had a couple of lean years," says Crawford -- they still planned a grand meeting hall for the Bear Lake Stake, the first outside the Utah Territory.
And, by all accounts, they succeeded.
"It's a show stopper," said Hatzenbuehler, who ranks the tabernacle and the state Capitol in Boise as among the most impressive built structures in Idaho.
Tabernacle construction didn't start until 1884, after the temple in Logan, Utah, was completed. The Romanesque Revival, red sandstone tabernacle was based on the designs of Young's son, Don Carlos Young, and includes his trademark non-identical towers on either side of the 80-foot tower hovering over the building front.
The red sandstone was quarried from the east side of Bear Lake and transported -- sometimes over the frozen lake -- 18 miles by ox and cart back to the construction site. Much of it was brought to Paris 20 years before construction started and stored until needed.
The tabernacle is just over 127 feet long, 73 feet wide, and it's 110 feet to the tallest spire. Among the many European descendants who lent their individual skills to make the tabernacle unique was James Colling Sr. He borrowed from the designs of the hulls of sailing ships he built in England for the intricate woodwork of the distinctive ceiling.
It cost $50,000 to build, and much of the work was completed by townspeople who could have been all consumed with building their own homes and infrastructure for the town, which has grown to about 550 people living about 15 miles north of the Utah border.
"So obviously it was a matter of great importance to them," said Crawford. "The workmanship, it's just second to none."
Even though the Mormon religion was still young -- the tabernacle's 1889 dedication came only 59 years after the first printing of The Book of Mormon -- he said those that built it "expressed their testimony in their work."