DENVER Traditionally viewed as a suburban institution, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is increasingly turning to inner-city America as a growth area.
In Denver, the church just spent $2.5 million to renovate a former Art Institute of Colorado building near downtown, topping it with a soaring white steeple and creating the first real inner-city presence for the faith in 25 years.
Even more ambitious LDS building projects are in the works in New York City, part of a recent East Coast building spree.
The Salt Lake City-based LDS Church, with about 12 million members worldwide, appears to be finding a more receptive audience in America's cities.
For one, longtime members are moving back to close-in city neighborhoods, one of the demographic trends driving the Denver project. Second, experts say, the church is reaping the benefits of its reversal 26 years ago of a ban prohibiting black men of African lineage from the Mormon priesthood.
"They are trying to become more of an urban presence, and it's happening," said Jan Shipps, professor emeritus of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and a scholar of the faith. "Partly it's because they're working on it, reaching out to blacks and Latinos. The question I always get is, 'Where are the Mormons?' The answer is they're everywhere."
The religion, founded in upstate New York in 1830, is growing practically everywhere, to the point that the majority of Mormons now live outside the United States.
In Colorado, membership has climbed from 69,000 in 1980 to more than 121,000 at the end of 2002, making Mormons second only to Catholics statewide in membership among religious denominations or bodies.
Make no mistake: The church's 60,000 metro-Denver members largely reside in the suburbs, with large numbers in Douglas County and near the church's Centennial Temple, the hub of Mormon spiritual life, said Dennis Brimhall, president of the church's Denver stake, which is similar to a diocese.
"What we're seeing right now is a little reversal of that," said Brimhall, who also is president of University of Colorado Hospital.
That shift is being driven by church members such as Peter Krumholz, a 33-year-old lawyer who serves as bishop, or leader, of the church's Capitol Hill Ward.
Krumholz and his wife bought a home in Denver's Congress Park neighborhood in 1997, joining other young professionals who don't mind sacrificing square footage in exchange for proximity to city life.
The ward, or church unit, now boasts around 500 members, triple the size of a few years ago.
At the same time, the church has found new converts in minority communities. Some congregations are melting pots. Others are organized around ethnicity. There are two large predominantly Hispanic wards in suburban Lakewood and Aurora.
Shipps said the lifting of the black priesthood ban in 1978 was critical to LDS efforts in the inner city.
The position carries the authority to bless, baptize and teach. The LDS lifted the ban under increased public scrutiny and as church leaders turned an eye toward Africa.
The new 16,500-square-foot meetinghouse on Grant Street near downtown, which opened last month, houses the Capitol Hill Ward and a smaller 280-member branch that is 40 percent Hispanic. There's room for another ward as well.
Mormons are expected to attend services in the wards or branches where they live, so meeting space is important. The two congregations previously met in leased spaces, with the branch spending time in a storefront next to a bar.
The church spent more than $1 million five years ago to buy the Grant Street property, leasing one building back to the Art Institute. Another $2.5 million was invested in an 18-month renovation that entailed gutting the interior, creating a chapel and replacing the faade to appear more churchlike.
Inner-city Denver Mormons never could have afforded such a luxury alone. But in the LDS Church, individual churches aren't responsible for raising money for building projects. The church finances all construction by pooling tithes of members everywhere, with Salt Lake signing off on each project.
Such projects mark a departure for the LDS Church, which traditionally buys three to four acres and plunks down sprawling new centers.
Over the past four years, 14 inner-city LDS chapels either have been built or are planned, said Kim Farah, an LDS spokeswoman.
That's not an eye-popping number, considering the church builds 120 chapels domestically a year.
It's the locations of the projects that are garnering attention.
In Manhattan, the church is renovating a six-story building across from the Lincoln Center into a temple.
In Harlem, a stake center for several congregations and a family history center is in the works.
In Miami, a banana-yellow warehouse in Little Haiti was transformed for $3 million into a house of worship where the faithful now read from a Creole translation of the Book of Mormon.Comment on this story
The church's march to Eastern metro areas hasn't come without challenges. Projects in the New York suburbs and outside Boston have faced stiff opposition.
Although church officials say they see potential for growth in central Denver, they play down the new building as a tool for proselytizing.
"The Mormon Church follows its members," said Kathleen Flake, a Vanderbilt University professor who wrote a book about Mormonism and 20th-century change. "It isn't, 'build it, and then they'll come.' If they're going into the city, they have a very stable presence in the downtown area."