August 22, 2002

SUSQUEHANNA, Pa. (AP)--Always conscious of its past, the Mormon church has opened temples at two important historic sites in recent years and now has made another purchase inspired by faith - about 25 rural acres contaminated by diesel fuel and other chemicals.

The land is needed for the church's plan to rebuild the home of founder Joseph Smith and improve access to the nearby Susquehanna River, where Smith was baptized in May 1829.

Church tradition holds that in his small, wood-frame house in northeast Pennsylvania, Smith - an uneducated farmer's son - translated most of The Book of Mormon from a series of golden plates given to him by an angel named Moroni. Along with the Bible, the Book of Mormon is one of four books in the church's scriptural canon. It tells of migrations of ancient Israelites to the Americas and of Jesus Christ's second ministry, in the New World.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has long promoted pilgrimages to its historic sites, and the Pennsylvania project is part of a new wave of such development. (With last week's land purchase, the church now owns a total of 185 acres in Susquehanna County).

The church dedicated a temple two years ago to serve visitors to sites in Palmyra, N.Y., where Smith said he received the golden plates. In June, the Mormons dedicated a reconstruction of the five-story temple along the Mississippi River in Nauvoo, Ill. There, Smith established a city and originated the religion's secret temple rites; he was assassinated nearby in 1844.

Susquehanna County has often been skipped by Mormon tour operators because it is far from other sites important to the faith, said Clinton Day, owner of the Mormon Heritage Association, a tour operator in Salt Lake City. But Day predicts higher tourist demand if the church develops the Smith homesite.

``It's a crucial site, absolutely crucial'' to church history, said Day, who runs about five tours a year to Susquehanna.

Smith and his father came to Susquehanna County in 1825 in search of buried treasure.

While there, Smith fell in love with Emma Hale, and they eloped. The couple bought a 13-acre farm from Emma's father, Isaac Hale, and lived in a house near the Susquehanna River. That was the place where Smith did most of the work on the Book of Mormon and where tradition says he received several important revelations from God.

Church teaching also says that Smith and his scribe, Oliver Cowdery, were visited on the banks of the river on May 15, 1829, by a resurrected being who identified himself as John the Baptist. The angel bestowed what Mormons call the Aaronic priesthood on Smith and Cowdery, giving them the authority to baptize. Smith and Cowdery then baptized one another in the river.

Latter-day Saints have been baptized there ever since, including Betty Purtell, who returned earlier this month for a visit with her husband, Steve. Purtell, of nearby Binghamton, N.Y., said she has come back many times to reflect on her faith.

``If you believe that John the Baptist was actually here, wouldn't you come?'' said Purtell, 67, who was baptized in 1943.

Several acres near the river, including the footprint of the Smith house, have already been developed into a park. Historical markers explain the importance of the site, and a bronze-and-granite monument depicts John the Baptist laying hands upon Smith and Cowdery.

The foundation of Smith's home is still there, although it has been covered with dirt and grass to prevent vandalism. Smith's in-laws and infant son are buried in a small cemetery nearby.

Last week's $60,000 purchase involved a 24.9-acre tract owned by the Susquehanna, Oakland, Lanesboro Industrial Development Authority, or SOLIDA, a down-on-its luck economic development group that is $450,000 in debt.

The land will connect the park to the river, which is somewhat difficult for visitors to reach now. The property also is contaminated with diesel fuel and chemicals from the days when the now-defunct Erie-Lackawanna Railroad operated a diesel-filling station and reupholstered passenger rail cars there.

While the church will have to do some environmental cleanup work, county officials hope tourists will one day flock to a region where the primary industries are mining and logging. The church has set no timetable for the project.

``We would be looking (to) capture them for a day or two to spend the night in a hotel or bed-and-breakfast, eat here and do a little shopping,'' said Justin Taylor, economic development director of Susquehanna County.

Larry C. Porter, a retired professor of church history at Brigham Young University who has visited the site often, predicts it will eventually attract lots of interest.

``Wherever the church has developed their properties and restored them, lots of people come,'' he said.

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