Kathy McCartney hands out bulletins as people enter Sunday morning sacrament at a Provo LDS Church on Sunday, July 16, 2016. The church is currently experiencing population growth in Provo and surrounding areas. Sammy Jo Hester, Daily Herald

In September 2016, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Provo Freedom Stake organized the Provo Freedom Fourth Ward.

There was one family in the ward: the new bishop’s.

The following week was LDS General Conference, the next week Bishop Eric Speckhard had approximately 250 at church and a good start to a ward — but a comparatively small congregation. The ideal average for a church ward, according to Speckhard, is approximately 350 to 400 members.

In April, seven months after the congregation’s original September open date, Provo’s new Central Park apartments opened with 59 units of mostly 2-, 3-, and 4-bedroom units. That meant families.

Speckhard’s LDS ward doubled almost overnight and is now one of the largest wards in the Provo Freedom Stake.

With further growth in downtown Provo, the ward could be divided sooner rather than later.

“The difficult thing is the wards are not being created by homes, but apartments with constant turnover,” Speckhard said.

Downtown Provo growing pains

When the Provo Tabernacle burned on Dec. 15, 2010, the community felt a sense of great loss. A vigil was even held at Utah Valley University for the brick and mortar icon that housed community and church meetings — particularly stake conference meetings.

On Oct. 2, 2011 President Thomas S. Monson announced the tabernacle, like a phoenix rising from the dust, would be rebuilt, restored and renovated and would become the Provo City Center Temple — there was much rejoicing.

According to folks in Provo’s Community Development Office and in the Economic Development Office at the time of the announcement, the decision to build a temple would advance economic growth and building by 10 years.

They weren’t wrong. Provo’s downtown has grown with businesses and dwelling units like a garden full of Morning Glory.

A handful of apartment buildings and complexes were announced between 2014 and 2015 for Center Street including Cowboy Development’s Liberty Center on 300 West and Center Street that is now leasing. Other apartments in the downtown and intermodal hub area include 63 East, City Center Apartments, Startup Crossing, Central Park Station, and a handful of other smaller apartments. Currently on the docket is a large complex of 1-, 2-, and 3-bedroom apartments being developed by a partnership between Cowboy properties and Utah Transit Authority. It will feature 500 to 700 units near the FrontRunner area at 600 South and 100 West.

When all of the above mentioned units are completed, there will be more than 1,217 units. Several of them are already completed and occupied. Waiting lists are not uncommon. City Center Apartments are the next to be completed and should be ready for leasing in 2018.

Growth is not just hitting Provo, but throughout Utah County. The housing market cannot keep up with the demand, according to Wayne Parker, Provo’s chief administrative officer during an interview earlier this spring.

“There is a housing shortage along the entire Wasatch Front,” Parker said. “A lot of investors are buying up homes and anticipating flipping those homes.”

While Provo may not be growing faster than Lehi, Parker says its growth highly affects the Provo/Orem area.

New jobs in high tech and supporting businesses are keeping college graduates here and bring new blood from out of state to the area — many of them are Mormons.

What has been less predictable is the number of church-going Mormons that have sought out and are still seeking the urban life; causing LDS wards to blossom overnight.

Amassing Mormons

Utah County has already been pegged as one of the fastest growing areas in the nation, with Provo/Orem being No. 7 by U. S. Census Bureau reports. Lehi is No. 3 and other areas such as Saratoga Springs, Eagle Mountain and Vineyard are also outpacing growth projections.

In 2016 that Utah County growth number floated around 20,000 new residents. In LDS terms that equals about 57 new wards. That pace is not expected to slow for a while yet to come.

Actual LDS membership growth as provided by LDS Church Public Affairs indicates that between the third quarter of 2013 and 2016 the church had grown in Utah County by 37,475 members.

According to Speckhard, the average ward is around 400 members. Church growth numbers that means 93 new wards in Utah County in the past three years. Typically there are eight to 10 wards to a stake. With church numbers that equals approximately 10 new stakes in just three years.

Approximately two years ago, the Provo South Stake was split and the new Provo Freedom Stake was formed. Michael Merz, who served as a counselor in the South Stake was called to be the new stake president of the Freedom Stake.

“It was divided because of growth,” Merz said.

The Freedom Stake has eight wards and one branch and is an agent stake to the Utah Valley Corrections Facility.

Merz noted the South Stake had around 5,600 members. A normal stake would have between 3,000 and 4,000 members.

“It’s more challenging to meet the needs of the members when you’re over 4,000,” Merz said.

But Merz says he has great support from church leaders and he acknowledges the extreme amount of effort being put out by the LDS Church to meet the local needs.

“The church is making a real effort,” Merz said. “The church has teams of realtors, architects, and legal counsel that go through the area trying to look for long-term needs.”

The area is, of course, not lacking in LDS Church buildings or membership.

Besides the massive residential construction taking place in Lehi and Vineyard, which is predicting 30,000 population before 2025, Provo and Orem have waiting lists for new apartments and single-family home developments are selling quickly.

LDS members are not just looking for apartment complexes that have opened in Provo, but those waiting lists indicate the urban interest in multi-family dwellings like Startup Crossing, Central Park, Liberty Square, 63 East, and soon to be completed City Center Apartments. Other apartments such as the Aston at University Place and Midtown 360 in Orem are filling up fast as well.

As for single-family homes, look just north of the new Provo High School on the west side and you’ll find the Broadview Shores subdivision at 1408 North and 3050 West. Broadview touts 1,200 new homes.

Broadview is just one major development that on its own will bring families with children that could be enough to form a new LDS stake.

“It’s exciting. Growth in the church is always exciting,” Speckhard said. “When I joined the church, there were only three million members.”

What is not as exciting is trying to keep home teaching and visiting teaching records when your ward has a 40, 50 or 60 percent turnover each year.

Home teaching and visiting teaching are ways members of the LDS Church stay in touch with each other’s needs and spiritual growth. Individuals and families are assigned two home teachers and women also receive two visiting teachers that connect with them at least once a month.

Speckhard said he has lived in the same home for 25 years and has lived in four wards and two stakes.

“The church is constantly looking at boundaries,” he said.

Chad Thomas just purchased his first home in Provo’s Franklin Neighborhood. He is not in Speckhard’s ward but lives in a nearby congregation that is feeling the same effects of apartment growth.

Part of his LDS Church responsibilities includes ministering to members as a home teacher.

“From a community perspective, it’s really nice to have diversity,” Thomas said. “However, setting home teaching routes is a nightmare. Growth is constantly changing quality of life which does affect your spirituality.”

Thomas added, “In some neighborhoods close to downtown, we see an evolving, changing product. We have to evolve with it. We really appreciate renters and they are not to be looked down upon. The majority of renters are a great asset to our community.”

Part of Speckhard’s responsibility as a bishop is to not only care for his ward members temporally but also spiritually, that includes those who attend regularly or don’t attend at all. In a recent study being used by the Utah Valley Interfaith Association, it doesn’t matter what church you belong to, attendance averages about 60 percent of the membership.

“The biggest problem is turnover,” Speckhard said. “We have almost 50 percent every year. The growth problem is trying to get people involved in church. It is difficult when wards are being created by apartments and not homes.”

What could affect Thomas’ and Speckhard’s church experience is the potential for a 500 to 700 multi-family unit complex now being considered between Utah Transit Authority and Cowboy developers.

The current question is where will they go to church? Going by statistics, that is enough for two new wards. Area church buildings are already servicing three wards each.

Folks like Speckhard and Thomas would like to see more open coordination between developers and the LDS Church.

“I’ve never heard a developer say we’re going to talk to the LDS Church,” said Dixon Holmes, Provo’s director of economic development.

However, Jordan Swain with UTA has contacted the church about the intended project.

“We met with the church and left the meeting saying we’d be collaborative with the church,” Swain said. “I think we can grow together.”

Speckhard not only has a high percentage of young single adults and young married couples in his ward that live in area apartments, but older single women who enjoy the convenience of living downtown are there too. He also has a few families with older children.

“It’s hard trying to provide a fun activity for youth when there’s only one to four in your ward,” Speckhard said. “The problem is trying to have continual cohesiveness and build relationships.”

It is not uncommon for several wards to get together to have activities such as Scout troops, and Young Women’s activities like girl’s camp.

Rumors abound as to what the LDS Church will do to offset expected growth ranging from building multi-level church buildings to service several wards, to cutting out Sunday School to make room for more wards in established buildings, to renting public facilities. Whatever the answer, there is no question the expected growth has arrived and won’t be leaving for some time.

Beyond LDS growth

It should be noted that while the LDS Church is the predominate religion in the area and has a unique dynamic in how it divides its members into congregations, other denominations are also seeing growth.

That growth has facilitated the need for larger buildings or additions to meet the congregation’s needs.

According to information from the Utah Valley Interfaith Association, St. Francis Catholic Church in Orem has only three bilingual priests who serve a growing congregation of about 15,000 members including a large Hispanic community.

Centerpoint Church in Orem has a new, large building just off Interstate 15 and is seeing about 1,000 people out to Sunday services.

While it has gone up and down in its congregation size, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, established in Provo since the late 1800s, has a full chapel every Saturday and its recently added gymnasium is in constant use by either the church members or other local groups needing a meeting location.

The Utah Valley Islamic Center in Orem is filled nearly to capacity during Friday prayers every week.

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