The Spirit in the Pegs and Panes:
Chuck Allen Handcrafts the Windows of the Nauvoo Temple
by Maurine Jensen Proctor
Chuck Allen points to original sketch of circular windows in Nauvoo Temple extrapolated from an old photograph (circa 1846) of the temple.
It is 4:15 a.m. as Chuck Allen flips on the light in his Nauvoo wood shop, casting the darkness from the room that still hovers outside. He has had his morning prayers and will pray again with the other workers who will arrive at 6:30 to begin their 12-hour day. There is joy and sobriety in their work-creating 126 windows and the doors for the Nauvoo Temple.
The joy is obvious. Chuck and his family have lived in Nauvoo for 12 years, absorbing the spirit and sacrifice that you can still feel in the air there. Turn a corner in Nauvoo and, like a surprise, it all washes over you-the sense that still lingers of a people who finished a temple while they turned their homes into workshops to build wagons to head West. Across the river, their last glimpse of Nauvoo would be of that temple shining on a hill. Pioneer Priddy Meeks said of that last glance, “I have no words with which to convey a proper conception of my feelings when taking a last look at this sacred monument…After the lapse of thirty-six years, I can scarcely restrain my feelings when I write of it.”
When Chuck, whose specialty is historic woodworking, was asked to make the windows for the re-creation of the Nauvoo Temple, tears filled his eyes, and he rushed to tell his family of the privilege extended him. Yet, at the same time, his is a sober responsibility. The windows he must make are far more challenging than those made by the pioneers. They have to look historic with the square pegs and wavy glass, yet meet today’s tough code and building expectations so they can stand the test of time..
How does anyone know how to do that? Though Chuck had worked on Mark Twain’s boyhood home, the Scott Joplin Historic Site, several sites in Nauvoo, and had spent a lifetime at the unique job of handcrafting historic windows, nothing could have prepared him for the scope and pressure of the job, as well as the new path he must forge through an unmapped wilderness.
On receiving his assignment, Chuck asked Robert T. Dewey of the Church’s Temple Construction Department, “What are my marching orders?” The only answer was, “Just get it right.”
Yet, no manual existed to get it right. No elder historic window maker existed for Chuck to look for advice. No formula was perfected to create Nauvoo temple windows. He would be finding his own way with one major exception-he would have to rely on the Spirit to teach him what he didn’t already know. In the months that followed he would be nudged and taught, enlightened and moved-often in small ways until he came to declare with his whole soul something he already understood in his mind, “The Spirit knows woodworking.”
Of course, we say. The Spirit knows all things, but to Chuck, watching intricate woodworking solutions flash into his mind where there were no apparent solutions before, it has been humbling and amazing. Chuck was in a New Hampshire motel pondering how to create the bucks-wooden frames that go into a concrete pour-and suddenly the idea of a control pattern flashed into his mind. It was a gift-just a gift.
Another day, so overburdened and exhausted he had to clear his mind– he left the wood shop to drive to Keokuk to get some dog food. He had been mulling over how to create the star-patterned windows at the top of the temple, “And suddenly, in 1/100th of a second I saw it,” he said, “the picture of a polywood ring about four inches wide that slips over five posts that I could use to mark the ends of my star points.”
He’ll be cutting wood, and find that he has just the right number of pieces. It is in little things that he is reminded he is on the Lord’s errand.
It is not the landlubber Nephi building a ship, Chuck says, for he has had years in his work, but “the Spirit has enlarged my experience,” he said, and he couldn’t do it without that heavenly help.
Prepared to Hear the Spirit
Who the Lord calls, he qualifies. Chuck wasn’t only prepared in the necessary wood-working skills to craft the Nauvoo temple windows; he was shaped through the soul-stretching experiences of his life which had taught him to hear the Spirit and rely on God. How can anyone hear the Spirit who hasn’t hungered to hear? Chuck tells his own story:
“I remember,” he said, “the experience my sweetheart and I had very early in our marriage when we found out that our first born, a son, was afflicted with cystic fibrosis, a terminal condition, that we, as parents, had passed on to him. We had no knowledge that we were carriers of a devastating disease. He was 18 months old at the time of his diagnosis and we also had a sweet daughter who had been born 6 months earlier. Our world changed completely at the understanding of the disease with the expectation that our little boy would not live to see his fourth birthday. What use would it be to have any plans for the future? All expectations we had seemed to vanish.
“Our first daughter was tested and found to be free of the condition our son had, and she proved very quickly to be a stabilizing influence for us during this time. We made a decision not to have any more children since there was the distinct possibility that we might pass on to them suffering and early death.
“Yet, as time passed, I came to realize that this mortal life is the time that my wife and I have been given to organize our eternal family, and we needed to reconsider our initial feelings and decision. I felt that we needed to go forward with trust and accept whatever challenges the Lord had in store for us. It could be that none of our future children would be afflicted. I presented this priesthood understanding to my sweetheart and she readily agreed. Over the next few years, we were blessed with four more sweet children, one more son and three more daughters. Our fifth child, a daughter, was born with the dreaded illness and presented us with another overwhelming and emotional challenge. We continued with our family and were blessed with our sixth child, another daughter and evidently fulfilled all that the Lord required of us as no more children came to our home.
“Our son progressed long past his fourth year with the blessings of new techniques and medication and passed away a few days short of his sixteenth birthday. Our sweet daughter had the advantage of additional years of research and lived to be 19. Her death concluded a 30-year period in which we had cared for and prepared terminally ill children for their passing. That responsibility created an environment in our home that was unlike any I had ever known or been acquainted with. Your normal and petty concerns don’t seem to be important when you are concerned for the life of your child.
Experiences that Get Your Attention
“Every day in those thirty years that I left home for work, I wondered if a child would be gone by the time I returned that evening. These experiences tend to get your attention.
“When President Kimball issued the invitation that all young men should be prepared for a mission, my son wanted to know what use it was for him to even think of a mission. I told him that President Kimball’s invitation didn’t exclude those who would not live to be the proper age; he invited all young men to prepare So, we prepared. A few hours before his passing, he weakly said that it was time for him and now he could go on his mission.
“Not once in all that we have experienced over many years did I ever wonder ‘why me?’ or ‘what did I do wrong that this could happen, that my precious children should suffer and die.’ I felt that I have been greatly blessed to never have gone down that road of self-pity, blame, and guilt. Early on I had the understanding that this experience is life and I needed to find a way to accept and adjust. It is an agonizing and frustrating experience to watch your children lose ground physically and suffer, knowing that their death is imminent. My life over the years has been forever changed by this experience, but the sharpness and hurt slowly disappeared and was replaced by the sweet peaceful invitations from the Spirit to understand the things of eternity.
“When invited to work on the temple, the memory of an important event came to my mind that happened several years ago. It was a major mid-course correction for me and vital to my spiritual preparation. Not long after my son’s passing, I was fearful that our sweet little six-year-old daughter would be passing away soon, so I felt that our family would be better off moving from Missouri, where we lived at the time, to the valley east of Spokane, Washington where I was raised and had numerous long-time family friends. I made the trip to my boyhood area to check things out and felt convinced that we needed to make the move. I returned home and reported to my family in council, and our decision was unanimous to make our move late in the spring after school was out for the year.
Staying in Missouri
“A little more than a month later, the stake president, Dell E. Johnson, called to say he wanted to meet with me after church the following Sunday. As we sat down to talk, he mentioned he understood that we were moving to Spokane soon. I said that we were, and he continued that he felt it would be a mistake, that I needed to remain there.
“I told him that I didn’t feel that way and that I was going home. He said that I had been an asset to the Church over many years in the area. I told him that I understood that but felt that phase of my life was over, and I was not needed there anymore, that I could be of service to the Lord no matter where I lived. He hesitated and looked down at the floor momentarily as I sat there with my arms folded feeling good about the firmness of my stand and decision.
“He then looked up and into my eyes and said, ‘Sometimes, we make decisions that remove us from the blessings of our foreordination!’ I instantly realized that this visit went to a different level and it was a shock to my understanding. I asked him, ‘Are you telling me by the authority you hold as the stake president and my High Priest Quorum President that it is the Lord’s will that I not move?’
“He softly answered, ‘Yes, I am.’ When he said that, I knew immediately there was no room for questions. He suggest that I take time to discuss it with my wife because if we stayed, there was a call that he would extend to me. I told him that things have already been decided for us, there was no need for discussion, and that we would stay. I have my free agency, that is true, but the greatest thing I can do with my free agency is to make choices that will place me and my family in line for the greater blessings and to conform with the will of the Lord. As it turned out, it was an enormous blessing for me and my family that we decided to stay.
“A year later, I was called to be the branch president and, not long after that President Johnson ordained me the bishop of our new ward. During that time, some of our members were diagnosed with serious terminal conditions and I found myself deeply involved with the families, helping them to gain an understanding because of the experiences I had gained in our family’s trials. A few days after her husband’s passing at Christmas time, I visited the young widow and her family to find sweetness, laughter, and joy with children playing. As I was leaving, the mother walked me to the door and I asked her how could there be this joy and happiness a few days after her husband’s passing. We had not experienced that at our son’s passing. She told me it was because of the help I had given them and that I was there with them to understand their emotions and to counsel them as to what they needed to do even at the moment of the father’s passing.
“I got in my car to drive the eight miles home, discouraged with the thought of what I had to go through so that others could be happy. It was a selfish thought, to be sure, but I couldn’t help myself. By the time I got home, I had worked myself out of the discouragement and darkness I had felt and came to the realization that the only way I could respond and understand this family’s emotions and serve them in the way they needed was to have experienced the situation myself. I found I could not have the depth of empathy needed to console and offer counsel in sorrowing times without having had the experience. Over the years I have developed a deep gratitude and appreciation for those experiences.
The Smell of Sawdust
“With the passing of my son, I could no longer enjoy woodworking, because my memories were strong of him and me in the shop working together. I tried selling insurance for a few years. I threw myself in the training process and became somewhat successful. At the same time, I was not wise in caring for myself and because hospitalized twice during a six month period. I was not able to work during this time and exhausted my disability insurance and meager savings. I found myself broke. I felt that maybe I could sell annuities which are investments in insurance companies that could give me a quick commission. I felt impressed to call my brother who was living in Bolivia and was working for the Church building department managing chapel construction. I felt there could be people he knew who might like to invest in these annuity plans. He agreed and paid for my ticket as I had very little funds. The night before I left for La Paz, Bolivia, we had a family council and I explained the situation in detail to the children. Our bank account held $51.69 and I withdrew 50 of those dollars so that I could make the trip. My wife and I felt that she could make do with garage sales and what food and fuel we had on hand for the three weeks I would be gone. We always made sure our tithe and offerings were paid in full.
“In the three weeks I was in Bolivia, I met with many people but never sold an annuity. I traveled with my brother for a couple of days in the Amazon basin to check on the mahogany windows, doors, and trim that was being made for the chapels in a large woodworking business in the city of Santa Cruz. When I walked in the factory, I instantly smelled the sawdust and walked over to a door on display to rub my hand over it. The construction method was similar to the historic doors I had made in the past.
“As I felt and inspected the door, something in me changed in an instant and I knew I had to get back to window and door making. When I arrived back home, I was concerned about what my wife would say and found that she had been praying for my success and was directed by the Spirit to encourage me to get back to working with wood when I returned home.
“During the years, I have marveled that we were reduced to near nothing financially, took a trip paid for by a loving brother, found myself in the Bolivian interior when I smelled sawdust and felt a door, all so that I could get turned back to working with wood. It is a marvelous thing when we consider the path the Lord leads us on to accomplish what he has in store for us through our foreordination, if we do what we can to stay the course spiritually. He asks not for perfection, only valiancy which includes the blessing of the miracle of repentance.”
A Staggering Weight
It was a Chuck Allen honed in suffering, turned back to woodworking in a desperate hour, and awakened to the Spirit, then, who took on the difficult job of crafting the Nauvoo temple windows. It has been from the beginning a meticulous process, involving finding solutions to problems unfolding before him each day. A man less attuned to the Spirit might have faltered.
On the wall of his wood shop hang the many patterns he has created for the windows. For the one interior and 126 exterior windows, 16,000 pieces of wood will be required with each piece requiring an average of 25 steps. These steps must be accomplished in a tight, unyielding time frame. Sometimes it is staggering.
One day last fall, Chuck went to his wood shop, unlocked the door and looked around and the weight of it all just hit him. “Can I pull this thing off?” he asked, shutting the door again. The Spirit whispered, “You’re not pulling anything off. You’re just a tool in this process. This is the Lord’s program.”
Then in November, he took the weight of his worries to the temple where he spent a great deal of time. Finally, a peace settled upon him-and it has not left since.
“Shortly before his passing Elder Hugh Pinnock, visited our shop and was greatly intrigued with the fact that the temple window sash and front doors are fastened at the joints with square pegs. The following evening, he addressed our stake and held up the square pegs I had given him. He said that we are all like this square peg in this Church. We are not very visible but, oh, so important to the Lord and his Church as he needs each one of us to perform to our best ability in our callings.
“I took the difficult opportunity to speak to my family at my sweet daughter’s funeral. As I wanted them to know that when they are confronted with a choice, that they not consider taking the path of least resistance for there are no character-building opportunities and celestial rewards down that road. I told them that we wouldn’t have been at their sweet sister’s funeral that day if their mother and I had not made a tough decision a long time ago to continue with our family. We would not have been able to listen to her brother play his arrangement during the service of “I Know that My Redeemer Lives” in her honor on the piano, or an older sister deliver her personal history, or her younger and older sisters so lovingly prepare her body with cosmetics and a favorite dress for her funeral. None of the last four children would have been in our family if we had not sought for the greater blessings from the Lord early in our marriage, the blessings that bring about our eternal family.
“Some have asked me what I plan to do in the future after my work on the temple is completed . My answer is I will do whatever the Lord has in store for me; that the present experience I am having is preparing me for the next one.”
“Wherefore, be of good cheer, and do not fear, for I the Lord am with you” (D&C 82:10)
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.