SALT LAKE CITY
It's the weekly Thursday night rehearsal of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the concert hall is dotted with tourists. Most have not likely heard a crisper, more stirring version of Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean. At least not in person.
That's the beauty of 350 voices singing with one purpose and, even during the stops and starts of practice, it's easy to understand why this is one of the most famous choral groups in the world. Perhaps the only other one that's as widely known is the Vienna Boys' Choir.
O, Columbia, the gem of the ocean,
The home of the brave and the free
The power of the orchestra, the beauty of the unified voices carry us away, doing what patriotic songs are supposed to do. Inspire. Motivate. Maybe even move listeners to heart-swelling tears. Okay, forget the maybe. It's a bit sappy, but we are caught up in the moment.
Not so for music director Mack Wilberg. He is not as satisfied as the audience. After all, he's helming a group whose history goes back 150 years. More clipped, more precise, he flamboyantly exhorts in a language the singers understand but that is lost on lay listeners. From the cushy seats in the Conference Center near Temple Square, Columbia sounds beyond pretty good. As do Grand Old Flag and God Bless America.
We stifle the urge to march around the hall when Seventy-Six Trombones comes "thundering, thundering louder than before."
A diverse tourist attraction
The free Thursday rehearsals and the subsequent live radio broadcast on Sunday mornings, both open to the public, are two of the reasons more than 3 million people visit Temple Square, the world headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, every year.
Temple Square is part of a 35-acre compound near the state Capitol that houses a church history museum, a five-floor genealogy library, two visitors centers, several restaurants, an assembly hall, the Tabernacle and the Salt Lake Temple, along with the church's business offices. The square is one of the state's top tourist attractions, rivaling the attendance of the national parks in the southern part of the state. Many visitors are Mormons, who view a visit to Temple Square as a religious pilgrimage. Non-Mormon visitors might be in Salt Lake City on business or on their way to a nearby ski vacation, and others are on a quest to uncover family history at the free genealogy library.
The history of the Mormons is intertwined with the history of Utah. Settler Brigham Young (1801-77), one of the church's most important early leaders, was the founder of Salt Lake City and the first governor of the territory of Utah. Young laid out the city's grid, and it's because of him that the streets are wide and the blocks so big. He also brought together the first Tabernacle Choir. A university down the road in Provo bears his name.
Visitors can tour Young's home, the Beehive House, next door to the Lion House, which has a cafeteria-style restaurant. The Beehive House is a rambling colonial structure that was added on to over the years, perhaps to house Young's growing family. Young had 55 wives and 56 children with 16 of them. Where all those people slept is a mystery; the house isn't that big. He supposedly had a wicked temper, too.
Polygamy has been outlawed by the church for more than 100 years, but it's an image that has been difficult to shake. The HBO series Big Love, about a fundamental Mormon polygamist and his multiple mates, is one reason. Now Sister Wives, a new reality series on TLC, brings more attention to the church's splinter groups.
Many sisters, few protesters
In addition to welcoming visitors, the gates of Temple Square also draw anti-Mormon protesters who oppose the church's stands on some social issues. On our visit, the protesters are few, and the grounds hum with tour groups. The black-pants-white-shirt-and-tie male missionaries on bicycles are replaced in Temple Square by young women — sisters they are called — in modest calf-length skirts and flat shoes. They walk the grounds in pairs, ready to assist visitors.
A group of music teachers has plenty of questions about the massive organ in the Tabernacle. (Built in 1867, it has 11,623 pipes and 206 ranks.) Someone else wonders about the missionary program. (Young men serve for two years; women for 18 months.) Several people are weepy after the film that tells the story of church founder Joseph Smith Jr. (1805-44). He came to a grisly end, portrayed dramatically by church filmmakers.
Visitors are welcome nearly everywhere except inside the Salt Lake Temple, which looms large in the city's downtown. At night, its spires are artfully lit and the Gothic-inspired structure looks like something that sprang from the mind of Walt Disney — more castle than church. But it opened in 1893, long before any mega theme parks.
The temple is open only to church members in good standing, as are all Mormon temples, though visitors are allowed in for a short time after a new temple elsewhere is completed. Part of what contributes to good standing is adherence to all church doctrine and being a faithful tither.
Because so many are curious about what's inside the Salt Lake Temple, a scale model of the interior is now on display at the South Visitors Center. The model shows a large baptismal font mounted on the backs of 12 golden oxen on a lower floor. There are several meetings rooms and larger halls, all looking more like well-appointed great rooms than what we typically think of as a place of worship.
Weddings are commonly held in the temple and at other places at Temple Square. On our visit, we see several young couples, the men in black tuxedos and the women in formal wedding gowns, getting their photos made in front of the temple and the Reflection Pool. Weddings are held every day of the week except Sundays and are more about religious significance than a rip-roaring reception. Mormon doctrine forbids alcohol and smoking.
Many couples also dine at sunset at the Roof restaurant on the 10th floor of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, a nice setting for a special occasion. Smith was the founder of the church, and it's quite certain he never experienced a spread as opulent and overflowing as the buffet here. We pick a bit at the entrees only because we want to reserve room for the 15 or so dessert options.
As the sun sets in the west beyond the temple spires, the lights of the city and the square provide a romantic backdrop. We see why guys pop the question here. In fact, we hear that a young man just a few tables away is going to take the plunge as the sky goes pink-orange.
We aren't all that dreamy-eyed at the view, pretty as it is. Remember, key lime tarts, pots de creme and apple pie await.
Digging into roots
The Family History Library has drawn ancestry seekers to Salt Lake City for decades, and holds the world's largest collection of genealogy records. Any family tree picker would be positively giddy at the five floors of data. These days, much of the information can be found online through the church site, FamilySearch.org. Still, on the day we visit, every computer is taken by someone seeking someone.
Mormons — there are about 13.5 million worldwide — believe families and couples can live on as whole units in the afterlife. But church members won't know who needs to be together until they find out who everyone is. That's a simplified explanation but it is the general idea of why searching for ancestors is so important to Mormons.
One floor of the library contains the British Collection, and if your people are from the United Kingdom, Australia or New Zealand, you're bound to find something here. The library houses information on 2 billion deceased folks, and that includes birth and death certificates, christening and marriage records, ship manifests and lots of census information. Records are mostly from the United States, Canada, the British Isles, Europe and Latin American with fewer from Asia and Africa. We head to the International Collection, one level down, to see what we can find about our Danish and German kin.
It has been years since I've turned the knobs on the microfilm reader, but it quickly comes back. I find something but can't read the German, though the handwriting is oddly familiar, sort of like my Oma's. A kind woman with a German accent helps locate my father's 1923 christening records from a small Lutheran church near Bremen. Born on Jan. 17, baptized on Feb. 4. That is my dad, I say. We also find the passenger manifest from the Yorck, which brought my dad to the United States in 1930.
Earlier, my husband learns that his great-grandfather was a doctor near Philadelphia. (Finally, a doctor in the family!) We leave clutching our photocopied prizes (you have to pay for them) and wonder how much more we would learn if we really drilled down. Maybe spend a week here.
People do that.
But we only have a couple of days in Salt Lake City. By Sunday morning, we are in southern Utah, searching frantically on the car radio for the station playing the live performance of the songs we heard at the Thursday rehearsal. We've already missed part of the 9:30 a.m. show and are afraid we won't hear any of it.
And then, it's there.
Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.
Crisp and clear, as the director wanted it. And as we heard it the first time.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8586.