4 June 2011
Membership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Arizona continues to grow from small beginnings in 1877. Presently, with nearly 400,000 members in Arizona, Latter-day Saints, most commonly known as Mormons, represent nearly one in every 17 citizens of the state.
Throughout the state there are more than 700 local congregations, called wards or branches, and 88 stakes, the equivalent of a diocese. Members of the Church in Arizona have a rich heritage of community and public service. They are active in the PTA, community councils, the Boy Scouts and state and local government. They are teachers, dentists, construction workers, mothers, fathers and your neighbors.
Brief History of the Church in Phoenix
The first Mormons, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, came to the Salt River Valley in 1877 and settled near the present site of Mesa. Within 30 years migration towards what is now Phoenix had begun and a few families crossed the Salt River to settle. By 1912, just 10 months after Arizona became a state, a group of nine members met in a Knights of Pythias Temple, a room above Donofrio’s Confectionery, in Phoenix for the first time.
They continued to meet in various places including a laundry shop and over a bicycle shop until the first Church building was constructed in 1918.
Even after Phoenix had several Church buildings, the smaller branches in places such as Avondale, Glendale and Buckeye, met in mortuaries, movie theaters, a Piggy Wiggly store or just out under the trees in someone’s yard.
J. Robert Price was the first bishop, or head of a congregation, and then the first president of a group of congregations called a stake. The first Phoenix chapel, located at Seventh Street and Monroe, was built at a cost of $18,000. There were 298 members in attendance when it was dedicated in 1918. The building is gone now; in its place is Heritage Square. Sister Susa Young Gates, daughter of Brigham Young, spoke at that first building dedication. By1927 the membership of the Church had grown in the Salt River Valley to the point where a temple was constructed in Mesa. Church presidents Heber J. Grant, David O. McKay, Harold B. Lee and Spencer W. Kimball were all frequent visitors to Phoenix.
Local Church leaders, such as Junius and John Driggs also served in civic and political positions. Local community leaders who are members of the Church are too numerous to name, but many members are dedicated to their communities and show it through their service.
By 1954 there were 15 congregations in the Phoenix area, along with units in Glendale and Scottsdale and small “branches” in Avondale and Buckeye, for a total membership of 8,200. Today there are 16 stakes in the same area as that first stake in Phoenix, which now includes Glendale, Peoria, Scottsdale, Paradise Valley, Buckeye, Goodyear and Surprise, serving more than 51,000 members of the Church.
Early Church members were dedicated and willing to build up the Church in Arizona. They built the first buildings by the sweat of their brows, often dedicating one day a week to the manual labor needed, working at night under special lights and hosting special fund-raising dinners. They prepared dinners at the state fair each year and baked bread to sell, and the local residents always supported their efforts. At one time, the Church stepped in to help save the Good Samaritan Hospital during the Great Depression. We are grateful for that heritage and for Church members’ continued community involvement in Phoenix today.
Good Samaritan Hospital
During the Depression in the 1930s, many businesses experienced great financial stress, and many failed. Good Samaritan Hospital, one of two Phoenix hospitals, did not escape this fate. Hospital superintendant J. O. Sexson was frantically trying to keep his institution afloat but was meeting one obstacle after another. The patients were out of work in many instances and could not pay their bills, and meeting the hospital payroll was becoming impossible. The board of directors of this Methodist Church-sponsored institution had done all they could, but it wasn’t enough. The banks could not help, in fact, the hospital had to have $75,000 soon or it would have to close.
At the Rotary Club meeting that week, J. O. Sexson sat next to his good friend, J. R. Price, and said, “J. R., your Mormon Church recently built, paid for and dedicated a new chapel here. Could your church loan us $75,000 and let us pay it back in monthly installments? I know we can do it.” The answer came quickly: “We just don’t have that kind of money locally, but if you are serious, I’ll be happy to arrange an appointment with our president in Salt Lake City.”
Mr. Sexson agreed to the meeting in Utah and met with the three members of the First Presidency (the governing body of the Church) and reviewed the Good Samaritan’s financial problems. They listened, questioned Mr. Sexson and then retired to an adjoining office for a few minutes. When they returned, President Heber J. Grant said, “Mr. Sexson, you have a very worthy cause, but we don’t loan money. We are not a bank. But we have a large membership in your Salt River Valley and we have heard good things about your hospital. We have decided to give you the funds you are in need of, and with it our blessings for your continued excellent service to your community.”
It was a memorable day when local Church leader J. Robert Price presented a check for $75,000 to the superintendent and board of directors of Good Samaritan Hospital. With this donation, Mr. Sexson was able to see the hospital through the trials of the Depression and keep the school of nursing operating, which also provided some 1,400 registered nurses during the years of its existence.
To learn more about Mormons in your area, follow this link to mormon.org