“The Saints in St. Louis,” Ensign, Mar. 1988, 77–78
St. Louis, Missouri, has been a tolerant oasis for Latter-day Saints since the early days of the Church when members sought relief from persecution in Illinois and western Missouri. The first wave of immigrants passed through the “Gateway to the West” as early as 1841. At one time, donations were contributed to destitute Mormon exiles stranded there, and hundreds of pioneers were able to find temporary work.
The 2 June 1949 St. Louis Post-Dispatch summed up the early Mormon experience: “[St. Louis] was the only town in the Middle West large enough to give the Saints some degree of anonymity, cosmopolitan enough to be tolerant of a new and strange religion and prosperous enough to provide work for newcomers.”
The first St. Louis stake was organized in 1854, then disbanded in 1858 when Brigham Young called all Church members to Utah. In 1958, Roy Oscarson was chosen as the first president of the St. Louis Stake. About 1,750 members then lived in southern Illinois and eastern Missouri, with six congregations scattered over a 200-mile radius.
Since then, Church growth has come in abundance to the St. Louis area. More than ten thousand members live in four stakes—St. Louis Missouri, St. Louis Missouri North, St. Louis Missouri South, and Fairview Heights Illinois.
Most of President Oscarson’s family still reside in the St. Louis area and are carrying on a family tradition of service in the Church. “We have sent four generations of missionaries to Sweden, our native country,” he says.
Other longtime leaders include R. Grant Rees, Boyd Schenk, Henry Beal, Mardean Steinmetz, and Patricia Keyes, most of whom still reside and serve in St. Louis.
Missionary work and temple work are stressed in St. Louis. “This is a strong missionary area. One year we had about six hundred baptisms,” says Neal C. Lewis, St. Louis North stake president.
The number of members traveling to the Chicago Temple from the St. Louis South stake doubled from 1986 to 1987, says Vernon Stromberg, stake president. “We took six busloads in 1987, and we plan to take at least seven in 1988.”
New converts make St. Louis an exciting place to be a member of the Church. Black, European, Hispanic, and Oriental faces can be seen in most wards. Jerry Willis, a former black minister, and his wife, Eva, are members of the St. Louis Tenth Ward, where Brother Willis serves as elders quorum president. They have been instrumental in teaching other blacks. “I’m very impressed with the emphasis on family unity in the Church,” Brother Willis says. “I’m a more dedicated family man now, and my marriage has improved.”
Mary Herrera Hunt’s ancestors were from Mexico, but Mary grew up in Texas, met her husband, Ken, in St. Louis, and joined the Church in Las Vegas, Nevada. “We had just moved to Las Vegas and were invited to church,” Mary recalls. “Ken was out of town, but I went. It was fast Sunday, and I was impressed with the blessing of the babies because we were expecting our first child. The friendliness of the people and the feelings of love and compassion were very comforting to me. When Ken returned, I could hardly wait to tell him about the Church. We were both baptized within the month.” The Hunts eventually moved back to St. Louis, and most of Ken’s family joined the Church. Mary is Relief Society president in the St. Louis Second Ward.
While members and missionaries find most converts, some converts find the Church on their own. Genealogy and the institute program brought the James Cunningham family of the St. Louis Twelfth Ward into contact with the Church. “We first went to the stake center to do genealogy and saw the posters offering fascinating institute courses,” Brother Cunningham recalls. “We knew nothing about the Church but called to find if nonmembers could attend; ‘Of course!’ was the answer. We knew the Church was true from the beginning. We belonged to another church before, but we were looking for something better. We found it!”
St. Louis has been historically significant to the Church. This is where William Clayton’s book, The Latter-day Saints’ Emigrants’ Guide, was published, where Joseph Smith’s Egyptian mummies and papyri were exhibited, and where the type font for the Deseret Alphabet was cast.
The Mormon Pioneer Trail Foundation has erected markers to honor pioneers who have unmarked graves in the St. Louis area. During the St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904, the Church sponsored one of its earliest exhibits.
President Spencer W. Kimball served a mission in St. Louis in 1915 and was instrumental in procuring the Saints’ first permanent building in the city, which was on Maple Avenue. A few of the local Saints still remember when President Kimball served as a missionary there.
St. Louis has been good to the Saints, and they have been good for St. Louis. Local members have contributed many volunteer hours and much financial help to charity organizations. For instance, convert Menlo Smith has helped lead the Salvation Army Tree of Lights drive. Hundreds of other members regularly give to political causes and the needy through fund-raising events.
This “spirit of St. Louis” lives on, both in civic pride and in the opportunities available to its citizens for growth in the gospel. “Meet Me in St. Louis” is more than a song for Mormons here—it’s practically a second national anthem!
Correspondent: Free-lance writer Violet Kimball is music director in the St. Louis Second Ward.