The History of the Alberta Stake Tabernacle: A Tabernacle in the Wilderness

2 April 2019

Latter-day Saints led by Charles O. Card arrived at Lee’s Creek (later Cardston), Alberta, in the late spring of 1887. Within days, the band of pioneers began to hold their first religious services. At first, these gatherings were held out of doors, in tents, or under a small bowery. Amid the press of establishing the settlement, planting crops, and building log homes, Card and others also set their sights on building a more permanent place for community education, entertainment, and worship.1

By late January 1888, a twenty-foot-square log meetinghouse had been completed to suit the purpose. But the population of Cardston quickly outgrew this modest structure, and in 1893 it was replaced by a larger frame building. The “Assembly Hall,” as it was known, outlasted its predecessor by only six years. By 1904, with the arrival of the railroad in Cardston, there was need for a larger place of worship to serve the needs of the rapidly growing number of Latter-day Saints in the region.

On August 31, 1903, the Alberta Stake was divided and Edward J. Wood was called as president of the newly formed Alberta Stake, headquartered in Cardston.2 One of the challenges issued to the new stake president was to build a tabernacle.

The building of tabernacles was by then a well-established Mormon tradition. Typically, ward congregations in a stake or several stakes pooled their means and labor to construct larger places of worship for shared use. These tabernacles were each unique, usually built with local materials and reflecting the craftmanship and skills of local latter-day saints.

Wood at first proceeded with patience, sensitive to the demands a grand building project would place on the fragile local economy. On February 28, 1904, he spoke to his stake members of “the urgent necessity of a stake tabernacle, but said it would not be required of the people until their financial condition had improved.”3

On November 27 of that year, Apostle John W. Taylor attended a quarterly conference in Cardston. During his remarks that afternoon, he “had the spirit of [the] Stake Tabernacle and on the spur of the moment he took a vote as to all who favored the building of a suitable building and dedicate it by Jan 1 [19]05.” The assembled saints voted unanimously in favor of the motion, and a building committee was selected including Edward J. Wood, Thomas Duce, James Eldredge, J. W. Woolf, William Smith, and James Ellison. That evening, Wood and others had a “good enjoyable time … in talking [about the] Stake House.”4

The following Saturday, the “committee and Sam Newton and excavation foreman Bishop Caldwell who now lives in Cardston, went up [to] Tabernacle block and laid off the grounds.” The site was near the northeast corner of the block and oriented at an angle running toward the southwest. Wood noted in his journal, “The building will likely be 60x90 ft and all stone – Sam Newton will be architect and chief builder.”5 Newton was a master bricklayer and had worked previously on the construction of the Salt Lake Temple.6 On Tuesday, December 26, Wood and others broke ground for the building.

The first task was to excavate the basement. This took only a matter of weeks as the energized saints braved the January cold. On January 26, Wood recorded, “Our excavation for [the] Tabernacle is about complete and rock hauling is in progress.”7 The stone for the foundation was to be extracted from a sandstone quarry a few miles from the site and transported on boats down Lee’s Creek into town.

At this early stage, there were at least two competing plans for the building: One put forward by Alex Campbell and the other proposed by Sam Newton. The committee favored Newton’s plan, as indicated by Wood: “We find frictions between the followers or sympathizers of Alex Campbell and Sam Newton on account of their respective plans for the Tabernacle altho[ugh] to us Bro Newton’s suits us and our needs better than the other, and that we feel Bro N. to be the more practical man of the two.”8

During the coming months, efforts were made to secure funding through donations from local church members. Each ward was given an allotment to raise based on an early cost estimate of about $30,000.9 The ward in nearby Aetna preserved a record showing donations to the Tabernacle as early as late 1904. These donations were mostly made in cash, though some members fulfilled their obligation by laboring in the quarry or making in-kind contributions such as horses or dressed pork.10

Early progress on the building was encouraging. On January 19, 1905, a Deseret News correspondent reported, “Especially gratifying is the progress being made upon the new stake tabernacle.”11 On April 2, Wood noted with pleasure, “Our tabernacle work is [going] nicely, quite a number are at the quarry and several stone cutters on the block.”12

However, the difficulties incident to sustaining life in a small farming community plagued the project for the next three years. Summer hailstorms and floods devastated the farm crop in 1905, and it took some time for the community to rally economically.13

Further delaying construction was the purchase in 1906 of the Cochrane Ranch, a 67,000-acre area twenty miles north of Cardston that Wood acquired on behalf of the Church. The acquisition required time and attention from Wood and other authorities—time and attention they were therefore unable to devote to the tabernacle.

Work began again in earnest in 1908. On March 18, the Deseret News in Salt Lake City reported, "Contracts have been let for the completion of the new stake tabernacle and work is already begun on the building.”14 By late summer 1908, the foundation and stone courses forming the top of the basement walls were laid. Despite some delays in obtaining lumber,15 the project was making headway and prompted one reporter to observe, “Work on the stake tabernacle is progressing nicely, considering the wet weather. The basement is now nearing completion and makes a good showing up on the hill.”16

The time approached for the laying of the cornerstone. This important ceremony was held on the occasion of a quarterly conference on August 23 and presided over by Elder David O. McKay. Wood captured his excitement in his journal:

“At the close of [Sunday] school we all went up to the Tabernacle, and in the presence of thousands, we laid the corner stone[.] Bro Hinman led in prayer, Bro Williams laid the stone and Apostle McKay offered [the] dedicatory prayer and Brother McMurrin made [the] closing prayer. It was an imposing sight. We placed in the stone a galvanized box – 12x4x3 which contained – Book M[ormon] – D&C., list of Stake and local officers, building committee, Alberta Star, Lethbridge Herald, our stamps and many coins. The whole ceremony was a success.”17

Work continued in fits and starts as weather permitted and funding became available, but paying for the project was no easy task for the cash-poor farming communities in the stake. This extraordinary project would require extraordinary sacrifice. After severe floods in the summer of 1909, some even questioned the viability of building the tabernacle at that time. In view of these challenges and setbacks, Wood, the committee, and other local authorities worked tirelessly with local bishops and preached during conferences and other meetings about the importance of completing the tabernacle.

On September 11, 1909, Wood wrote, “Bro Williams and I and some of the High Council went first to Beazer then to Leavitt then to Mt View. We went specialy to talk Tabernacle, and put the question squarely before the Saints of finishing the building. We found the great majority felt that we should go ahead with the building.”18 On Friday, October 16, 1909, Wood “paired the brethren off and appointed them to go to each ward each Sunday till the end of the year – preaching tithing – Word of W. Tabernacle.” In the course of their preaching, they encountered some who “rather opposed the building,” but in general the Alberta saints responded with vigor to the challenge.19

When Susa Young Gates visited Cardston during the summer of 1910, she observed that, as of yet, there were only “the foundation walls of an elaborate stake tabernacle.”20 Hoping for steadier progress, the committee met September 4, 1910, and reviewed “bids for completing the building; the bids ranged from [$]28,640 [from] to [$]37,000 [from] an outside firm.”21 The decision was made to accept the bid of James C. Cahoon, a local contractor. Under his management, the building project moved ahead more steadily. Cahoon’s Alberta Lumber and Manufacturing Company also provided lumber for the construction.

Resting upon its sturdy sandstone foundation, the two-story building was supported by a framework of timber and finished with thousands of red bricks. Six dormer windows lined the roof, and six tall, gothic-arched windows graced the brick walls on either side of the building. Massive wooden beams supported the roof and floors. At some point late in construction, a strong wind got under the eaves of the partially installed roof, tearing off some of the materials and causing a brief setback.22

Before the end of the 1911 building season, the exterior of the building was complete and attention was turned to finishing the interior, particularly the large meeting hall on the main floor. By the spring of 1912, the hall was nearly complete and plans were made to hold a quarterly conference in the new building on May 18 and 19. On May 5, Edward Wood recorded, “We are hurrying the Tabernacle along, and are meeting many obstacles as is generaly the case, but we shall meet there whether it is finished or not.”23

The following Sunday, Wood was “still worrying about the Tabernacle not being ready for occupancy, but hoping strongly for the best.”24 In the final days leading up to the conference, they “all worked early and late” and their frantic last minute efforts paid off.

On Saturday, May 18, the doors of the Alberta Stake Tabernacle opened to the public for the first time. The morning meeting “was appreciated by nearly 600 people. The stand was nicely decorated with flowers and bunting. The building looked well, and pleased all who attended. On Sunday afternoon we had over 900 present and in the evening we had another good meeting – the building looked well lighted.”25

Over the coming months, additional finishing touches were added to the building. In January 1913, Wood wrote, “We are working now on the fine oak pew seats or benches in the Tabernacle. Mr Smith of the Valley City Seating Co came and assisted very materially in laying out the floor. The seats being circular had to be set on a radius, which was difficult to do.” The benches were purchased with funds raised by J. F. Ellison. Wood further noted, “The heating plant is also being pushed.”26

Furthermore, the plans for the tabernacle called for a baptismal font in the basement. The font was completed prior to the fall of 1913 but did not have adequate drainage. Work began on the addition of a cesspool that fall that would open the way for regular use of the font. The Calgary Daily Herald reported, “As soon as this is completed the baptismal font will be called into use, and baptisms which have been held all summer in Lee’s Creek, will be held in the tabernacle.”27

Another important later addition to the tabernacle was a balcony at the northeast end of the main assembly room. It added about 200 additional seats and brought the total seating capacity to roughly 1,200.28

The completed building featured an exterior stairway on the northeast side leading to large double doors that opened on a vestibule or entrance hall. From this lobby, one could enter the main floor assembly room from the rear, or take stairs down to the basement rooms. In addition to the font, the basement featured several classrooms and a chapel. These rooms were illuminated in part by windows that pierced the sandstone foundation walls.

The main hall had a stand at the southwest end with gallery seating on each side and two pulpits, each in the center of one of the elevated rows of seats. Behind the pulpits was a choir loft and organ with faux pipes affixed to the wall. The hall was known for its acoustic quality. In addition to electric lighting, the room was illuminated during the day through colorful glass windows. There were also doors entering the hall from the southwest behind the choir loft.29

Final cost estimates for the building ranged from $55,000 to $65,000. Considering the economic setbacks faced by the community during those years, either number represents an enormous consecration of time and means. It would take an additional five years from the opening of the building before the contract with James Cahoon was paid in full.

The May 1912 stake conference was the first of thousands of functions that took place in the tabernacle. The Cardston 1st Ward met regularly in the basement rooms and chapel for their Sunday services. The main hall played host to countless conferences, funerals, and concerts. Numerous General Authorities spoke from its pulpits, including Church presidents Joseph F. Smith, Heber J. Grant, George Albert Smith, and David O. McKay.

One of the most memorable meetings held in the tabernacle occurred July 27, 1913, when Joseph F. Smith came to Cardston to dedicate the site for the proposed Alberta Temple. President Smith spoke to the saints assembled in the tabernacle that day prior to retiring to the temple site—located on the same block—for the dedication.

It was not until Sunday, August 5, 1917, that the tabernacle was finally dedicated. Visiting authority Elder Hyrum Mack Smith of the Quorum of the Twelve offered a dedicatory prayer that day during a quarterly stake conference. Hinting at the reason for the delay, Wood exulted, “What a relief we feel now that our debts are paid on this beautiful building.”30

The tabernacle was the civic center of Cardston as well as a religious structure. It was host to several visiting dignitaries including three Governors General of Canada.31 One memorable meeting held in the tabernacle was a memorial service for King George V of England. Brigham Y. Card called it “one of the most colorful meetings yet held in the Alberta Stake Tabernacle."32

As Cardston had outgrown the old log meetinghouse and assembly hall, so it eventually outgrew the tabernacle. By the early 1940s, the stake was once again in need of more space. In 1944, “President Willard Smith appointed his Councilor, President Gordon S. Brewerton, as chairman of a new building committee to plan and build an extension to the old Stake Tabernacle.”33

Unfortunately, the remodeling plan proved impractical. The division of the Cardston 1st Ward necessitated a more modern chapel to accommodate the two wards. A new stake center was built on the block to the west of the temple and tabernacle.

In 1953, local authorities, in consultation with Presiding Bishop Joseph L. Wirthlin, decided to raze the building even though it was still structurally sound—a decision made just years before nationwide historic preservation movements swept the U.S. and Canada. The removal of the tabernacle would also make room for an annex to the temple and additional improvements to the temple block.34

The planned demolition provoked a mixed response from the many long-time residents who had attended meetings in the tabernacle over the previous four decades. One anonymous member of the Alberta Stake wrote a letter to the editor of The Cardston News pleading the Tabernacle’s case:

“Why should we abandon it and tear it down? A few thousand dollars well spent would put the building in first class condition. … Our tabernacle is not expendable. … It belongs to us it was built by our pioneers and given to us as part of our heritage surely it was meant to stand for more than forty years.”35

In spite of such pleas, the building was dismantled during the spring and summer of 1954. On September 5, 1954, the Alberta Stake Presidency and Historical Committee opened the galvanized box that had been placed in the cornerstone, examining its contents and reminiscing about the building’s storied history. Edward J. Wood, then 88 years of age, expressed his hope that “the new Stake House will become as dear to many as the old building.”36

In 2006, the Cardston Company of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, with the blessing of President Gordon B. Hinckley, placed a marker commemorating the tabernacle. Located at the northeast corner of the temple block, the marker overlooks a grassy lawn that now covers the footings of the tabernacle.37