A Good Turn in Palmyra

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“A Good Turn in Palmyra,” Ensign, Feb. 1993, 75–77

A Good Turn in Palmyra

The golden statue of the angel Moroni shines brilliantly day and night atop forested Hill Cumorah, near Palmyra, New York. The captivating scene recalls the ongoing fulfillment of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s prayer that the Church “come forth out of the wilderness … and shine forth fair as the moon, clear as the sun.” (D&C 109:73.)

The Smith family left the area in 1831, but clouds of prejudice toward Latter-day Saints lingered for decades. Passing missionaries and converts would pause reverently in the Sacred Grove and gaze at Hill Cumorah, then quickly depart, to the relief of resentful residents.

Joseph Smith Home

Today, however, the image of the Church in Palmyra is generally very favorable. And Palmyra Saints are making further strides—not only for their church but also in partnership with other Palmyrans, for the community.

Recent milestones for the Church in Palmyra build on the legacy of Elder Willard Bean, a former boxing champion called as caretaker of the Smith family farm in 1915. In a few years’ time, the doughty Elder Bean and his wife, Rebecca, cooled public disfavor toward the Church by winning respect and friends. Their investment in the town was noticeably genuine: Living there twenty-four years, they became increasingly involved in community affairs, and they even named one of their children Palmyra.

Palmyrans today respect Latter-day Saints whose interest in the community is similarly genuine. Mayor Jim Elliott and other people unaffiliated with the Church speak fondly of John Russon, a dynamic LDS missionary who personally raised a considerable amount of money for the town historical society’s endowment fund.

Missionary couples at the area’s Church historical sites donate at least four hours weekly to community service. They also enjoy doing good turns whenever they can, like organizing a town cleanup campaign, operating information booths during the annual Canaltown Days celebration, or delivering loaves of homemade bread to thank Main Street merchants for putting up with teeming tourists during the Hill Cumorah Pageant season.

Joseph Smith resided in this frame home near Palmyra from 1825 until 1829.

Joseph Smith resided in this frame home near Palmyra from 1825 until 1829.

But missionaries are not the only ones doing good turns for the people of Palmyra. Members of the Palmyra Ward, Rochester New York Palmyra Stake, are pulling together with other residents—a healthy “cross-fertilization” of talents and energy, according to Reverend Clinton McCoy of the Western Presbyterian Church—for the common good of the town.

As Relief Society president years ago, Marilyn Dahneke felt she should serve the community, so she got involved in Historic Palmyra, Inc. Today, as a board member of the organization and office director at Hill Cumorah, she’s busily engaged in two worthy causes, not out of duty but freely, “because I now feel part of the community and naturally want to help.” But such service “gets us nowhere,” she cautions, “if we appear to pat ourselves on the back and draw public attention.”

Her husband, Barton, a physicist and past president of Historic Palmyra, appreciates the many community-minded, non-LDS individuals who anonymously serve the town welfare. “We should use our gifts to help people out of concern for them, acting on our own initiative so others see our goodness and respond to us as individuals,” he says.

Palmyra resident Robert Palmateer, a school principal in nearby Newark, points out that because Palmyra is a conservative town, the Church is “perceived better when it takes a less visible role, going about its business quietly.”

That does not mean that Palmyra Saints do not make their voices heard in community affairs, however. Soon after joining the Palmyra school board in 1981, Lynne (Tinelli) Green spoke out on a controversial moral issue. Her objection helped break the board’s deadlock. “If we feel strongly about an issue, we’ve got to speak out strongly. Sometimes we’ll be outvoted, but people listen, and it’s a chance to uphold good values,” she says.

Palmyra Ward chapel.

Palmyra Ward chapel.

Because the Palmyra Ward consists mostly of young families with children at home and spouses who work in Rochester (and thus do not get well acquainted with other residents of Palmyra), it is difficult for some members to be civically active. Another limiting factor is job mobility in Rochester: Many LDS families who move to the area leave after a few years because of out-of-state job promotions.

But the fluid ward is also vibrant, says Bishop Steve Heltemes; new members and missionaries nurture fresh bonds in the ward and in the community. One example was Elder F. “Mac” Bay, past director of Church historical sites, says Methodist minister Todd Goddard. “He is very affable and got along well with the local ministers and townspeople, even though it usually takes a long time to prove oneself in Palmyra.”

A museum director, school teacher, home restorer, and ten-year resident of Palmyra, Gail Harmston is pleased when fellow teachers ask her to teach a history segment (“Mormon Trek”) to eighth-grade students. It’s an opportunity to put timeworn rumors to rest.

In 1989, Palmyra’s bicentennial, Historic Palmyra published a history that contains an LDS-authored article on the Church, correcting errors in the 1877 Wayne County history. Even so, misconceptions about the Smith family and the Latter-day Saints persist.

Bill Boys, a resident of Palmyra for more than fifty years, has seen prejudice toward Church members soften during the last decade; he says unfavorable community attitudes have been “slowly but surely overcome.”

He talks about how William Avarell helped “crack the ice” in Church-community relations while on a family history mission there with his wife in 1984–85. Mr. Boys urged Elder Avarell to “get his people to mix socially” with other Rotary members. “He became a real entrepreneur, an excellent Rotarian,” says Mr. Boys. The Avarells befriended and mollified many merchants who had resented Pageant-goers for not patronizing town services as fully as merchants desired.

Beginning in 1991, Church officials let local service clubs set up concessions at the Hill Cumorah Pageant, with the stipulation that all proceeds go to support community improvement projects.

The cooperative spirit has brought happy consequences. Some non-LDS residents have since referred to Hill Cumorah as “our hill,” notes full-time missionary and Church historical site director Joseph P. Kjar. Second only to Canaltown Days in popularity, the pageant is now more of a community affair than an exclusively LDS event.

Despite doctrinal differences that hinder the Church from being fully accepted in Palmyra, says Pastor McCoy, Latter-day Saints are respected for their visibility in the community and for the work of “top-notch” missionary couples who serve there. He chuckles at how impressed he was when LDS women responded with alacrity to an invitation to join other Palmyra church members in preparing meals for workers engaged in improving a school playground. “Sometimes getting people to help is like pulling teeth, but [the Latter-day Saints] do it without complaint,” he says.

Such service flows both ways. While the Presbyterian church let ward members use its roomy Fellowship Hall to prepare meals for the six-hundred-plus pageant crew, members of the Zion Episcopal Church made sandwiches for the public. The goodwill shown by another “Four Corners” church (one intersection in Palmyra is well known for having a church on each corner), the United Methodist Church, when it offered its meeting facilities to area ward members whose chapels were being renovated, is also appreciated.

Although those of other faiths generally hesitate to accept invitations to attend social events at LDS chapels and historical sites, efforts are continually made to include those of other faiths in local LDS events. Last year, for example, history buffs gathered at the E. B. Grandin Building, where the first edition of the Book of Mormon was printed in 1830, to hear Elder Keith Watkins, a retired printer from Providence, Utah, explain early printing methods. And some one hundred area ministers attended the annual pageant banquet, held at the Palmyra Ward meetinghouse.

A small yet significant token of the goodwill toward Latter-day Saints in Palmyra is a souvenir sold by the historical society. The brightly enameled lapel pin commemorates three key aspects of early Palmyra history: a cannon honors Palmyrans killed in the Civil War, a canal lock recalls the prosperity brought by the Erie Canal—and a Book of Mormon marks not only the origin of the restored church but also Latter-day Saint acceptance in the community.

Photography by Don L. Brugger

Palmyra mayor Jim Elliott

“The page has turned” in LDS community relations, says former bishop Paul Baldauf, right, shown here with member Chuck Collie.

Methodist minister Todd Goddard lives by a historic site that draws many LDS tourists to view Alvin Smith’s gravestone.

Clara and Gus Kommer, front, enjoy visits by LDS missionaries like Elder and Sister Verl Perry, who conducted tours in the nearby Smith home. Gus was a friend of early missionary Willard Bean.