This article originally appeared in Vol.66, No.2 (2019) of Pioneer Magazine.
In 1927, Hollywood Stake president George W. McCune announced to members of his stake plans to build what became the wilshire ward/ Hollywood Stake Tabernacle. He told them that while it would be easy for them to build a “cheap structure”on the Church-owned property near downtown Los Angeles, his view was that given the relatively few Church members living in Los Angeles and the fact that the Church was generally little known, the stake should take the opportunity to “preach the gospel … by means of a structure that would place Mormon ism on a par with her sister churches? He then asked, “Should The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints take a back seat to any of these?”‘
While Church members in Los Angeles bought into McCune’s vision, Church leaders in Salt Lake did not necessarily share it. At this time the Church largely matched local building contributions 50-50, but the anticipated cost of the Wilshire Ward far exceeded what the leaders in Salt Lake were willing to match, which meant that if plans for the building went forward, the stake would have to come up with most of the additional funds.
As the structure neared completion, McCune’s desire to erect one of the finest Church buildings outside of the temples faced a financial challenge. The stake had not raised enough money to finish the building, which meant that the purchase of stained-glass windows that were to be an important feature of the chapel was in jeopardy.
To address the situation the stake created a special gifts committee, which included Adele Cannon Howells, wife of David P. Howells, bishop of the Wilshire Ward. The committee then drew up a list of individuals who might be able to make special donations.
One of those on the list was Ernest Rich Woolley. His daughter, Helen Woolley Jackson, recalls that one morning around 6:00 am, the family received a phone call from Adele Howells, who informed them that she would be by in half an hour for breakfast. Since this was not out of character for Adele Howells, Helen and her mother, Emeline, quickly prepared breakfast for their guest. A little after 6:30, Adele arrived at the Woolley home. During breakfast she asked Ernest Woolley to contribute the cost of the stained-glass window that was planned for the front of the chapel. He agreed to make the donation in honor of his great-grandfather, Charles C. Rich, and Emeline’s great-grandfather, Parley R Pratt.2
This stained-glass window represented Christ as “The Light of the World,”and was taken from the painting of the same name by William Holman Hunt. Based on Revelation 320—”Behold, I stand at the door and knock”—the painting depicts Christ standing at a heavily paneled door in a garden at midnight. With his right hand he is knocking on the door, and his left hand holds a lantern. One critic, upon seeing Hunt’s painting, told the artist that he clearly had not finished it, for there was no handle on the door. “That,” replied Hunt, “is the door of the human heart—it can be opened only from the inside?3
In addition to the large window that would hang at the front of the chapel, ten smaller stained-glass windows depicting various Christian images were envisioned to run along the length of the chapel’s north wall. Such images included the Bible, an Anchor, a Sheaf of Grain, the Cup of Friendship, a Cluster of Grapes, the Dove of Peace, a Holly Wreath, a Lily, a Torch, and Clasped Hands. Each of these windows was paid for by an individual or organization at the cost of about $100 apiece, the equivalent of about $1500 each today.The Gleaner Girls of the Wilshire Ward donated one of the windows, and Joseph W. McMurrin, the president of the California Mission, another.
Additional funds were still needed to complete the building, and while fund-raising efforts continued, President McCune, an eternal optimist, grew discouraged and asked Church leaders to release him.4 On April 9, 1929, two weeks before the planned dedication, President McCune wrote a letter to President Heber J. Grant asking to be released because he was concerned that he was out of step with the brethren. However, his letter repeated his conviction that Southern California needed the building he envisioned:”Our people are very proud of the building they have erected, and we feel that it will do inestimable good for the Church in this locality. I regret very much that you brethren feel that we have spent too much money on its erection but I believe that within a short period of time the growth here will justify this expenditure and everybody will be happy with the matter.”5
After receiving this letter, President Grant replied to President McCune with the good news that he and his associates had reconsidered their position: “It seems to us that it would be a fine thing for you to remain in your present position for at least a few months after the completion of your building, to enjoy some of the fruits of your energetic labors. The thought of you retiring just at the completion of your building has caused our hearts to soften, and we have decided to help you an additional $10,000.”6
In the end the stake and Church had constructed a magnificent edifice. When President Grant first saw the building, he declared:”! am paralyzed. I thought you were building something good, but it is far more elaborate and substantial than I ever dreamed of. It is splendid.”7
Over the years the building has received high praise from both within and without the Church. It is a fine example of California’s art deco period and has received recognition by architectural publications.Today, more than ninety years after its dedication, individuals entering continue to be inspired by the stained-glass windows and other beautiful details designed to encourage reflection and worship.This impressive house of worship continues to exemplify to its surrounding urban community that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a vibrant, forward-looking church with Jesus Christ at its center.
Extracted from Chad M. Orton, More Faith Than Fear: The Los Angeles Stake Story, 75-98.
1 “Dedication Program for Hollywood Stake Tabernacle, Hollywood Stake Herald, April 1929,2.
2 Chad M. Orton,”Helen Woolley Jack- son Oral History,” 1986, untranscribed, Los Angeles Stake Collection.
3 Memory Book for Wilshire Ward Annual Reunion, 3.
4 George W. McCune to First Presidency, 9 Apr 1929, photocopy, CHL.
6 First Presidency to George W. McCune, 12 Apr 1929, photocopy, CHL.
7 Hollywood Stake Herald, Oct 1928,11.