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Church members call for stricter preservation efforts on Manti temple renovations

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MANTI, Utah (KSL.com) — Thousands of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are upset by the recent announcement that the murals inside the Manti temple will be removed during the upcoming renovation project.

The temple holds the only murals dating back to the pioneer period from several artists that include C.C.A. Christensen, Minerva Teichert, John Hafen, J.B. Fairbanks and Dan Weggeland, according to the church.

In March, the church announced the construction project in Manti would begin this summer and clarified its plans for the murals inside, saying they would be photographed and removed. Weeks later, in an updated statement, the church said they would attempt to separate the canvas from the plaster to preserve the murals and display them in public.

“We are seeking the advice of international experts in the field of art preservation during this process,” the statement reads.

Since the announcement, members have voiced their opposition to the plans and a petition was created on Change.org imploring the church to reconsider.

“These murals were painted by artists who consecrated their time to enhancing our worship experience,” the petition reads. “These paintings are so meaningful, not only to the decedents of these honored pioneers, but to the community of Manti, and to all members of the church.”

More than 6,700 people had signed the petition as of Wednesday afternoon. The signature goal listed was 7,500.

Instead of removal, these members are asking the church to preserve the murals inside the temple.

“These paintings should be seen by people as they worship in the Manti temple,” the petition continues. “We implore The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to rethink their decision to remove these murals and ask that they be preserved and restored as was done in Idaho Falls, Cardston, and Saint George.”

Manti will be joining the other pioneer-era temples in the Beehive State that are currently undergoing renovation — the Salt Lake and St. George temples. Murals in the Salt Lake Temple will also be removed and photographed with plans to preserve some original pieces in church archives. According to a statement from the church, the artwork needed to be removed due to architectural and seismic updates, along with other logistical changes to the building.

Plans to renovate the Logan temple, which was dedicated in 1884, were announced by President Russell M. Nelson in 2019; however, construction has not yet begun for the project.

Construction on the Manti temple began in 1877 after Brigham Young dedicated the site; after 11 years, it was finished in 1888 dedicated by then-church President Wilford Woodruff. The historic temple was funded, in large part, by the pioneers of Sanpete County who contributed nearly $275,000 to the project.

“The historic pioneer-era temples have been a blessing to the Latter-day Saints for more than 140 years,” a church statement on temple renovations reads. “We know that with the updates and renovations now announced or underway they will continue to serve their sacred purpose for generations to come.”

Birgitte Smoot, co-creator of the Facebook page “Preserve the Manti Temple,” said she feels passionate about the issue and the implication of removing historical artwork from pioneer-era temples.

“We’ve put millions of dollars into recreating places of historic interest for the church and our pioneer heritage; we build visitor centers, we recreate cabins, we recreated the Nauvoo temple. How did this change come about where we were so invested in our history and our heritage?” she told KSL.com.

Smoot, who now lives in Provo, was married in the Manti temple and so were her parents. Both she and her husband also share pioneer ancestors who worked on the temple in the 1800s, as well.

When she heard the church’s plan to remove the murals, she said it hit her really hard. To her, the Manti Temple is so much more than a building.

“It’s a testament to the faith of these pioneer workers who were ready to sacrifice everything that they had monetarily, and the work, just the physical labor, to make this come to fruition in a place where there’s really not a whole lot of infrastructure,” she said.

Smoot and others say they recognize the church is trying to preserve the artwork in a way, but she says more needs to be done.

“For me, that’s not quite enough; I’d like a little bit more assurance than that,” she said.

Instead, Smoot said restoring, and not renovating or modernizing, the building is best, similar to the restoration the church did for the Manti temple for the 100th anniversary in 1988.

“The ideal situation would be a restoration, like was indicated would happen back in October 2019,” she said. “The plan was a restoration, and everybody thought that was a fantastic idea. Everybody’s thinking back to when in 1988, the 100th anniversary of the temple, and everything was polished, and systems were updated and refreshed.”

For Smoot, Losing the murals feels like losing parts of her religious heritage and pieces of history altogether.

“It’s about the hand-carved wood, the intricately designed door plates, and doorknobs — all of these things were crafted by pioneer hands, and those things have value,” she said. “In an ideal situation, I would love to see the Manti temple sensitively restored.”

However, if nothing can be done to stop the plans, Smoot said the next best thing is to see the art on display to educate about the history of pioneer-era temples — anything but being destroyed is preferred, she added.

“I would much rather see as much of the art preserved, and not just stuck in a warehouse, put somewhere where it can be appreciated with context with placards. A curated museum to the history of this building would absolutely be preferable than the bulldozer ripping things off the walls,” she said.

When asked to comment on the petition, a church spokesman referred KSL.com back to the updated statement from the first presidency made on March 24.

“The artwork in the Manti temple includes murals painted by Minerva Teichert, which are valued not only for their beauty, but also as a treasured remembrance of the faith, talent, and dedication of the artist,” the statement reads. “The Teichert murals in the Manti temple were originally painted on canvas, which was adhered to the plaster walls. The church’s intent is to separate the canvas or portions of the canvas from the plaster and preserve the murals for future restoration and display in a public setting.”

To many, including Smoot, the change feels like an end to the cherished and sacred pioneer history locals and members worldwide hold dear.

“This isn’t a painting you can take down, store, and put back up if wanted,” one signer wrote on the petition. “Eliminating these murals is permanent.”

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