The Relief Society was founded on March 17, 1842, in Joseph Smith’s store in Nauvoo. The society quickly outgrew this space and began meeting outdoors in the shadow of the rising temple. But the cold prevented their gatherings during the winter and left them wanting a building of their own. Joseph Smith donated a lot and a house the sisters could repair and use for their meetings.
The Saints’ abrupt departure from Nauvoo in 1846 prevented the Relief Society from establishing a permanent home there.
Beginning in 1868, local ward Relief Societies in Utah began to construct halls in which to meet, care for the poor, conduct business, and sell goods.
Over the next 50 years, dozens of local halls sprung up, dotting the landscape of Utah and the surrounding areas. But the general presidency and general board of the Relief Society did not have a permanent home. For about 29 years they borrowed space in the offices of the Woman’s Exponent, a newspaper for women. But this space was limited and moved several times over the years.
In 1896, Sarah Granger Kimball proposed that the sisters construct a building for the general presidency. The sisters sustained her proposal with a unanimous vote.
Thousands of Relief Society members donated to the building fund. Some gave money they earned selling the eggs their chickens laid on Sundays.
By 1909, the sisters had raised over $21,000. President Lorenzo Snow donated to the society a lot east of Main Street in the shadow of the Salt Lake Temple.
But the sisters were disappointed to learn in 1909 that offices would be furnished for them on the second floor of the new Bishop’s Building instead.
Though reluctant at first, the Relief Society general presidency remained comfortably housed in the Bishop’s Building for many years. They even declined an offer by former board member Elizabeth McCune to donate her mansion in 1920 for the use of the women’s organizations of the Church. But by the late 1930s they began to outgrow the space.
In 1939, Belle S. Spafford was editor of the Relief Society Magazine. Her office in the Bishop’s Building was so noisy she could hardly concentrate.
She asked President Louise Y. Robison if she could have her own office. Robinson replied, “Before you can get a new room we will have to get a new building.”
When Spafford was called as Relief Society general president in 1945, a new building was among her first priorities. In July she wrote to President George Albert Smith about this “proposed undertaking which has been dear to the hearts of Relief Society for many, many years.” He approved the idea and added, “I don't care how . . . beautiful it is, it will not be better than you deserve.”
With architectural plans in hand, the sisters awaited news from the First Presidency, who had offered to donate a lot near the temple but had yet to select it. In October 1952, they gave the Relief Society a site across the street from Temple Square, north of the Bishop’s Building. Sister Spafford felt that the site fulfilled “the dreams and express designs of our sisters of the past.”
As with earlier efforts, the Relief Society needed to raise funds for the building. But how would they gather the almost $1 million the plans called for? Sister Spafford's stake was the first to donate. "I feel now with this tangible evidence we will have a new building," she said. Spafford and her counselors proposed a financial plan at the 1947 Relief Society Conference.
The plan called for a $5 donation from each of the over 100,000 Relief Society members. The First Presidency agreed to match the sisters dollar for dollar.
The women responded enthusiastically. Within weeks the branches and stakes began to send in donations. Many sent letters describing how they raised the money.
When sisters could not afford to donate, wards held fundraisers to help the women earn money. They created cookbooks, organized bazaars and put on dances.
President Marena H. Grigsby of Martin, Kentucky wrote, "Every Saturday one of the sisters bakes a large cake and we sell it amongst ourselves for 10¢ per slice. The sister getting the dime hidden in the slice bakes the cake next time and so on. We have turned in $18 on the building fund in this manner.... To say I am grateful and proud of them is putting it mildly."
Agnes Kunz Danzie sold eggs from her chickens and raised enough to make a donation for herself and each of her daughters and granddaughters.
The worldwide missions of the Church were not given quotas, and the sisters in Europe—in the aftermath of World War II—were not expected to donate at all.
But women around the world responded, donating cash as well as gifts reflective of their native cultures to adorn the building. View album showing gifts
By the close of 1948, every stake in the Church had filled its quota and the necessary amount had been raised. President Spafford later remarked: “From the far north lands, to the sunny south, from the little villages of the islands of the sea to the great metropolitan centers [the building program] has sealed together in one the great sisterhood of Relief Society.”
The long-awaited groundbreaking ceremony for the Relief Society Building was held on October 1, 1953. President Spafford addressed the crowd, choked with emotion: "I think this is the happiest day of my life," she said. "We are deeply grateful for the goodness of our Heavenly Father to his daughters in opening the way whereby we might have a home of our own."
By September 1954, the foundations had been laid, and the building was ready to receive its cornerstone. The stone would be hollow and contain, among other things, a list of every person who had donated to the construction.
Construction continued until the late summer of 1956 when the building was completed and the Relief Society readied for the dedication and opening reception.
Representatives from each local Relief Society were invited to attend the open house and the dedicatory service held on October 3, 1956.
Marianne C. Sharp remarked, “We look forward to the future, when our daughters shall be Relief Society builders," and admire "this house our mothers built for us.”
At the opening, one sister admired the building and said to another, "We didn’t know our five dollars would buy you so much, did we?”
Belle Spafford hoped every Relief Society member would "feel the pride of ownership” in the building. Since 1956, it has been more than simply an office for the General Presidency. It has been a place where the women of the Church can gather, work and learn together, and reflect on the sisterhood of the Relief Society.
Heidi S. Swinton and Larene Gaunt, "The Relief Society Building: A Symbol of Service and Sacrifice," Ensign, September 2006.
Alphabetical list of donors to the Relief Society Building, Church History Library Catalog.
List of donors arranged by Stake, Church History Library Catalog.
Proceedings of Relief Society Building Dedication, Relief Society Magazine, December 1956.
Jill Mulvay Derr, Janath Russell Cannon, and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Women of Covenant (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1992), 195-198, 363-366.
"A Worldwide Circle of Sisterhood," Daughters in My Kingdom.