Philadelphia: The Mormon church is offering the general public a rare opportunity to tour its 152nd temple, a first of its kind in Pennsylvania and prominent addition to downtown Philadelphia.
Public tours of the granite temple will run between Wednesday and 9 September near Logan Circle, an open-space park in the city's center, after which it will be dedicated and only church members in good standing will be permitted to walk its halls.
"We do not build temples all of the time. To visit is a once in a generation or two experience," said Larry Wilson, executive director of the Mormon church's temple department.
Some 80,000 have already registered to tour the space, and Wilson expects to see that number double.
Regional membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has grown to more than 40,000 in parts of Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland, which prompted church leadership in 2008 to announce plans for the temple.
The faithful travel to Mormon temples, which are called "houses of the Lord," to participate in and receive sacred ordinances, or rituals, such as marriage ceremonies or baptisms for deceased family members.
Philadelphia's temple will significantly lessen the commute for people like Corinne Dougherty, a church spokeswoman for the Philadelphia region. She and a car full of elderly women from her congregation currently travel nearly seven hours roundtrip to the Washington, DC, temple every other month.
Church officials have not released the cost of temple constructions, but with some of the finest building materials — from Swarovski crystal to Italian marble — the temples are not cheap. Elaborate finishes spread across each of the Philadelphia temple's four levels leave the facility in stark contrast to the much simpler meeting houses church members use for weekly worship.
A massive crystal chandelier hangs in the center of the third floor's "celestial room," inviting visitors to enter and meditate. Each level, more adorned than the previous, is believed to draw you closer to God, Wilson said.
In the temple's highest level, members get married in ceremonies that the religion believes seals families for eternity. There, natural light breaks through large windows and stained-glass in soft white, beige and blue.
"Standing here we are in the world, but we are always striving for greater holiness for ourselves and our families," Wilson said.
The temple's interior and exterior designs are as purposeful as they are ornate. Sweeping Pennsylvania countryside landscapes cover the walls of the lower rooms with depictions of the Susquehanna and Delaware rivers.
Designers also made a "conscious effort" to blend mention of the nation's founding with church history. Two crossed quills embellish moldings and wooden rails as reminders that the church's founder translated its sacred text — the Book of Mormon — in Pennsylvania and the founding fathers' signed the Constitution in Philadelphia.
A painting of the Constitutional Convention mixes with gold framed depictions of Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith, the Mormon church's founder.
"If you look around you will see that there are not many flaws. And if a flaw exists, we fix it," Wilson said.
Out of respect, the church intentionally built the towering 208-foot, 2-inch temple a little shorter than the neighbouring Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. The golden trumpeting Angel Moroni, standing at just more than 21 feet on the temple's eastern spire, marks the temple's highest point.
The signature angel statue will stand atop each of the church's new temples. Plans have most recently been announced in Ecuador, Zimbabwe, Brazil and Peru.
Wilson expects the Philadelphia temple to spark some interest in Mormonism, calling the church's expansion to more than 15 million members worldwide in 2015 "remarkable."
"We've gone from those two members in the Pennsylvania wilderness to tens of thousands in the region and even more globally," he said.