Town worried about changes brought by Mormon influx

Tuesday, May 28, 2002

NAUVOO, Ill. -- Over coffee, in taverns -- pretty much anywhere they can talk quietly with each other -- longtime residents of Nauvoo fret about the future of their quiet community overlooking a bend of the Mississippi River.

In a town that two years ago did not have a building taller than two stories, the cause of their concern is visible from most anywhere. The five-story, newly reconstructed Nauvoo Temple -- one of the Mormon faith's most historically significant sites -- is expected to bring throngs of tourists, many Mormon, and an influx of new Mormon residents to the mostly non-Mormon community of 1,200 in central Illinois.

"Most of us who live here, we kind of just like it the way it is now without much growth," said Jim Schaefer, 62, a lifelong resident. "It will change our way of life, that's what most people are afraid of."

Townspeople fear not only growth, but the influence of a religion-based lifestyle different from their own.

That unease has not gone unnoticed by leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who are mindful that church pioneers were driven from this area more than 150 years ago. The church builds most temples in areas with a predominantly Mormon population, and church officials are urging Mormon tourists and transplants alike to respect the differences with local residents.

"I worry more about having the people who come being properly cognizant and tolerant of the people who own this town. I want our folks, as they move in, to support these people in their own lifestyles," said R.J. Snow, director of the church-backed Nauvoo Restoration Inc.

Some parts downplayed

Snow said that includes recognizing there are congregations of five other faiths in Nauvoo and that most residents don't adhere to strict Mormon conduct rules including prohibitions on using alcohol, nicotine and caffeine. Although Mormons founded the town, he said they cannot expect to return and find an enclave run by church doctrine.

And although the church is well-known for its efforts to convert new members, Snow said, that will be downplayed here.

Mormons came to Nauvoo in the late 1830s. However, neighbors soon became distrustful of the new sect. That led to quarrels that ended with the shooting death of Smith and additional violence that forced most Mormons to head west in 1846, eventually founding Salt Lake City.

Their abandoned temple was destroyed by fire and storms within two years.

Temple reconstruction began in October 1999 and was completed in April. An open house that began earlier this month is expected to draw 350,000 Mormon and non-Mormon visitors before it ends June 22.

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