New Mormon temple offers glimpse into secret shrine

PHILADELPHIA — In 151 cities around the world, a Mormon temple stands as an icon of monumental architecture, of bedrock faith and of inscrutability.

Only Mormons can enter these striking buildings in cities from Salt Lake City to Silver Spring to São Paulo to Sydney. But in Philadelphia, the 152nd city where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is opening a temple, members of the public have the rare opportunity to step inside.

Philadelphia’s new temple, a 208-foot granite edifice a block away from the city’s grand Benjamin Franklin Parkway, will be dedicated on Sept. 18. Before its consecration, the Mormons-only rule does not apply. A massive team of Mormon volunteers are eagerly seizing the opportunity to show off their temple to outsiders, with tours for invited guests since late July and a month of public open houses beginning on Monday.

A tour of the temple reveals not just the lavish art and furnishings inside, but also the religious rituals that the building’s layout shapes.

The temple contains no large worship hall like one a large church’s congregation might gather in. This is not where Mormons hold their Sunday services; those take place in chapels, open to anybody. Instead, the building is filled with small rooms, each decorated like a sumptuous hotel lobby and each meant for a specific purpose.

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On the tour, a visitor passes a dizzying array of 62 chandeliers and 34 couches, not to mention countless upholstered benches, chairs and pews. In contrast, the faithful who come to pray there are given identical plain white outfits to wear inside as they proceed through the rooms.

On the ground floor: a baptismal font. Baptisms of Mormon children and of converts take place in ordinary chapels, but Mormons can come to the temple to be baptized on behalf of their deceased relatives. They believe that the relatives in heaven can choose whether to accept the baptism and posthumously become Mormon.

Then an instruction room with an organ, where Mormons can drop in any time for a short worship service, usually held hourly. Then an all-yellow-and-gold commitment room, where Mormons recite pledges to live by their faith.

From there, visitors who come to pray at the temple proceed to the celestial room, the only room without a ritual attached to it. Seated on one of the five flowered couches, beneath the glow of a two-story stained glass window and a massive crystal chandelier, they spend time in quiet contemplation amid the scent of huge bowls of fresh flowers.

Kaylie Brunsdale, 21, said she had a lot of questions for God while she was considering serving a Mormon mission. Every other week, she would go to a temple near her home town of Tooele, Utah, to think.

“I could feel my heavenly father’s love for me in there,” she said. She decided to go - and was assigned to serve her mission in Philadelphia. Now, Brunsdale and her mission partner, Chelsea Fuelling, 23, stand outside the temple explaining the new building to curious Philadelphians and inviting them to sign up for a tour.

It’s a rare chance to invite outsiders into their holy space. “It’s fun to be able to share that with the community,” said Fuelling, who came to Philadelphia from Sandy, Utah.

While the tours aren’t meant for overt proselytizing, Fuelling said, many guests have used the comment cards at the end of the tour to ask for more information about the Mormon church.

The temple will be staffed almost entirely by a crew of 800 volunteers, most of whom put in five to 10 hours of work per week. The church won’t say how much the building cost, but spokeswoman Kim Woodbury said it was paid for entirely in cash, through members’ donations.

Another primary purpose is weddings and other family binding ceremonies like adoptions, all called “sealings” in the Mormon church. In the sealing chamber, the couple getting married kneels on either side of a wood-and-marble altar, where they can grasp each other’s hands while looking into two facing mirrors - creating the effect of an endless reflection, symbolizing that the spouses are bound to each other for all eternity.

Temples tend to take architectural cues from the cities they’re placed in. In Philadelphia, this is subtle (the state flower worked into designs, stair railings inspired by those at the nearby Franklin Institute science museum) and occasionally overt (a painting of local hero Benjamin Franklin signing the Declaration of Independence in the temple’s entrance hall).

Morgan Miller, 20, another missionary who came from Idaho to serve in Philadelphia, said that the new temple will offer more than the ordinary benefits of having a nearby shrine for any Mormon community. (More than 40,000 church members reside in parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland, according to the church. The closest temples are in New York and the Washington suburb of Kensington.)

It was in Philadelphia where two documents - the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, with its Bill of Rights enshrining freedom of religion - were written, making Mormonism possible, as Miller sees it. Mormonism is a uniquely American religion, founded in upstate New York with a theology that places the Garden of Eden in Missouri and believes Jesus traveled to America after his resurrection.

“The church itself wouldn’t be here without what happened in Philadelphia,” Miller said. “All the blessings of the temple, I want Philadelphians to be able to have.”

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