When I turned eight, my family lived in Rhode Island. We were members of the Newport Ward and attended church in Middletown – aptly named for its geographic location between famous Newport, on one side, and humble Portsmouth, on the other. The chapel that we attended was an odd structure, consisting of a brick chapel attached to the side of an old white farmhouse. I didn’t realize there was anything different about the building at the time, but I have to admit the small second-story room with the baptismal font where I was baptized would likely raise eyebrows today.
A few years later, the ward had outgrown the building. Since the property was too small to accommodate a typical one-story LDS meetinghouse, plans to construct a new two-story structure on the lot were prepared. As soon as the initial go-ahead for the project was given, Bishop Robert Wood asked members of his congregation to gather on a Thursday evening and move everything out of the building in preparation for its demolition. A number of congregants grew sentimental as they emptied the old house and asked if they could take some of the fixtures as keepsakes. Since the structure was to be razed, Bishop Wood saw no reason to refuse. As members left the work party that night, they carted off windows, lights, doors, mantles and anything else they could salvage.
The following morning, Bishop Wood received a disturbing call from his stake president. Having reviewed the project’s projected costs again, the powers-that-be in Salt Lake had determined that they might as well wait to acquire more land in Newport that would accommodate a traditional meetinghouse. Without confessing the events of the previous night, Bishop Wood protested, noting it would be almost impossible to obtain additional land on the island. With the help of his stake president, Bishop Wood arranged a meeting with the Church Building Committee for the following week, when Bishop Wood would be in Utah for a speaking engagement.
At the meeting, Robert Wood gave a thorough, if somewhat aggressive presentation as to why the church should continue with the original building plan. The committee chair ultimately conceded, but noted that the final decision would have to be made by the Finance Committee, chaired by Gordon B. Hinckley who was then a counselor in the First Presidency.
A few days later, Bishop Wood received a call from President Hinckley’s office. In a one-on-one meeting, a significantly humbler Bishop Wood laid out the reasons for continuing with the original project. President Hinckley listened carefully, leaned back in his chair, and said, “You know, Bishop, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you’d already destroyed that house.”
“President Hinckley, how could you say such a thing?” was all Bishop Wood could muster, given that he had yet to admit the state of things to anyone outside his ward.
President Hinckley simply grinned and, with a twinkle in his eye, said, “Well, you know, I am a prophet. Okay – let’s go ahead!”
And that is how the current chapel in Middletown, Rhode Island, came to be. Thank goodness for prophets with a sense of humor!
References: Robert and Dixie Wood, interview by Robert Fletcher. January 17, 1999. Belmont, MA: The Clayton Christensen collection of Boston Latter-day Saint Oral Histories, MSS 7770, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT.