Nov. 3—When Margaret Cheney was first came to Casper, the nearest House of the Lord was more than 400 miles away.

Fellow worshipers would pile into a charter bus in the middle of the night, Cheney recalled, and head for Salt Lake City. After seven, eight, nine hours, they'd arrive before a towering fortress of white stone and spires.

They'd spend a few hours inside while a napping bus driver awaited their return, she said. Then, they'd all ride back home.

That's just what you had to do back then, to get to a temple.

For the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as Mormonism, temples are especially sacred ground. To "go through the temple," as it's sometimes called, is to visit somewhere closer to God.

"We did it as often as we could," said Cheney, who heads a local LDS Sunday school.

The temples are reserved for special ceremonies and rituals — distinct from chapels, where more typical religious services take place.

But there are only so many LDS temples out there, and local congregations can't just start their own.

New locations are intentionally selected, funded and planned by the church's central leadership in Salt Lake City. What's more, they're costly and time-intensive to build. They can only go up so fast.

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And so for many church members, far-away trips to temples are just a given.

Maybe Casper would have a temple of its own day, Cheney remembers thinking. But who could say when?

"I thought, would I live to see this happen?" Cheney said.

Then church prophet and president Russel M. Nelson revealed in April a temple would be built in Casper.

It'll be the second LDS temple in the state, joining the Star Valley location, which opened in 2016. Earlier this fall, the church announced Cody will soon get one, too.

To Cheney and others in Wyoming's LDS community, it's an answer to generations of prayer and sacrifice.

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In 1959, Casper's LDS community was small. There were just two branches, or congregations, in the whole city, Cheney said.

But Casper was small back then, too, she recalled. Then came the economic boom of the '70s, which brought in new families in droves, she said.

Casper as she knew it was changing — and so, too, was her church.

The Latter-day Saints have been evangelists from the beginning; the church has had missionaries since the days of its prophet and founder, Joseph Smith.

Though the fold has always been growing, the second half of the 20th century was a time of unique expansion for the church.

There were about 1 million Mormons in 1950, according to church estimates. But by 1990, that number had surpassed 7 million worldwide.

In the decades in-between, the Latter-day Saints were building up and out — launching more overseas missions, building more meetinghouses, more temples.

Even so, much of the church's growth was still concentrated in the American West. So as the first temples went up in Taiwan and Peru, occasionally one would spring up a bit closer to home.

For decades, Cheney and her family would huddle around the TV watching the General Conferences — the church's twice-a-year meetings in Salt Lake City — to hear sermons from church leaders and any important news.

Major announcements are common at General Conferences: changes in leadership, in doctrine or church operations. New temples.

For a long while, temple announcements were somewhat rare, arriving only once every few years or so. By the '80s and '90s, they came in spades.

The church unveiled plans in '67 to build a temple in Ogden, Utah — only marginally closer to Casper than Salt Lake.

A decade and a half later, a temple opened in Denver. A five-hour drive from central Wyoming. Thirty years after that — in August 2016 — came the temple in Fort Collins. Three hours away. Progress.

Temple-building has been especially prolific under Nelson, who has been prophet and president of the church since 2018. As of October, more than 40 are under construction, and 50 more have been announced. That's in addition to the 168 already standing — meaning in the coming years, the total number of LDS temples worldwide will increase by nearly two-thirds.

Still, Casper surprised everyone. Not even the local leaders knew the announcement was coming.

Steve Higginson, president of the church's Casper East stake, said he was driving home from a family retreat when the news came.

Casper? Casper, Wyoming?

"I didn't believe what I'd just heard," he said.

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In 1846, the Latter-day Saints sent their first pioneers westward.

The faithful were forced to flee Illinois after Joseph Smith's murder in 1844. Their flagship city, Nauvoo, wasn't safe anymore — but maybe the mountains would be.

The Salt Lake Valley was a thousand miles away, and at least until 1850, still belonged to the Republic of Mexico.

Smith's successor, Brigham Young, led advance parties into Iowa Territory, and onward into what would one day be Nebraska and Wyoming. The fledgling party followed the arc of the North Platte and Sweetwater rivers — first north, then south.

Most of the region was still dominated by the Plains Indians, the autonomous nations who have lived there for thousands of years. In just a few decades, the U.S. government would sanction their starvation, displacement and death to make room for white settlers.

Nine men in the wagon train were left near present-day Casper to help later travelers cross the North Platte. They would operate a log raft to carry wagons over the freezing water — remembered today as the Mormon Ferry.

The rest of the vanguard party reached Salt Lake in July 1847. Over the next 20 years, between 60,000 to 70,000 settlers would follow the same winding path west.

For most, the Mormon Trail would have been miserable, but not life-threatening. First-person accounts tell of the bitter cold winters, muddy summers, malnutrition and disease. But the vast majority survived the exodus, records suggest.

The journey, however, wasn't without tragedy; in fact, one of the deadliest disasters to take place on the Mormon Trail occurred just a stone's throw from Casper.

The Martin Handcart Company, a group of immigrant converts from the British Isles, set out for Salt Lake in July 1856.

Their point of departure was Iowa City, and it was abnormally late in the year. By the time they reached central Wyoming, summer had turned to fall, and winter was imminent.

In early November, the group found itself stranded in a snowstorm. They were forced to wait out the weather in Martin's Cove, a rocky nook just 55 miles from Casper.

Rescue wagons from Salt Lake City brought some supplies and helped protect the company while the weather cleared. By the time they reached Salt Lake later that month, it's estimated more than 100 of the party had died.

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To the Latter-day Saints, temples are the loci of all things eternal; where heaven meets Earth, some say.

Church members visit temples to participate in sacred ceremonies that help prepare them and others for the afterlife. For a faith forged in upheaval and uncertainty, they're a sanctuary of permanence.

The main temple ritual is endowment — a special blessing given to adult members of the church.

Marriage ordinances, known as sealings, also happen in temples. In the LDS faith, families are meant to last forever — so sealings are performed to bind marriages not just in this life, but also the next.

Another common ceremony is baptism of the dead, more commonly called a proxy baptism.

The practice is just what it sounds like: a baptism, a conversion ritual that many Christian faiths consider essential to salvation. The difference is, in a proxy baptism, the goal is to baptize someone who's already died.

It's intended for those that didn't have the chance to join the faith when they were alive; a way church members allow past generations to share in the gifts of the present.

The church recommends members perform proxy baptisms for at least four generations of their forebears. The baptized doesn't have to convert — that's up to them.

To this end, many Mormons become adept genealogists. Thanks to the combined efforts of its members — the vast majority of them volunteers — the church says it's archived hundreds of millions of family records.

For Emma Hardy and her family, it's something like a part-time job. The high school senior said she's used to sifting through online records — linking a name here with a document there.

"We have this family tradition where we'll all get together and tell stories that we've learned," Hardy said.

As far as proxy baptisms are concerned, genealogical research certainly serves a practical purpose. But church members say it's also about connecting with your roots, showing gratitude toward those who came before you, making sure their sacrifices aren't forgotten. And sometimes, simply satisfying a burning curiosity about the past.

Pride for family and church history has a special place in Latter-day Saints culture. In addition to Christmas and Easter, the church also celebrates Pioneer Day on July 24 — the day the first wagons arrived in Salt Lake.

Any time of year, families will plan vacations to their ancestral homes, or church historic sites. Martin's Cove, for example, welcomes tens of thousands of visitors annually — most of them Latter-day Saints. The church operates a visitor's center there with exhibits and artifacts on display.

Then there's the "trek": a popular youth excursion that's half camping, half historical reenactment. Church teens spend a few days living like the pioneers, hauling handcarts across the countryside in period clothing.

Treks are a way to help kids experience, internalize and appreciate what the early church went through, said Brandon Smith, president of the church's Casper stake.

Smith said he and his wife joined a trek as a "Pa" and "Ma": pretend pioneer parents who serve as teens' chaperones and mentors.

The experience is all at once exhausting, exciting and eye-opening, he said.

"It's those kinds of things that change your life," Smith said.

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The church broke ground at the Casper temple in early October.

The 10,000-square-foot building is set to be finished in early 2023, church leaders estimate. For a short time after its completion, the temple will be open to the public — anyone will be able to stop by to see it.

At a special service Oct. 11, Cindy Blevins, a longtime church member, gave a brief history of the LDS church in Central Wyoming.

She spoke of the pioneers who risked their lives crossing the country, and the more ordinary, everyday work of today's church members: spending hours and hours pouring over records and travelling to temples to help their families.

"The many saints who sacrificed so much, whose shoulders we stand on, are part of our heritage," she said.

Casper has been a place of sacrifices both "large and small," she said. And out of great sacrifice comes great blessing, she added.

In just a matter of months, that blessing will open its doors.


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