PHILADELPHIA — The Mormon temple taking shape here is strikingly unique.
No other temple built by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints combines a rare downtown location next to a major Catholic basilica, strong historic meaning to both the founding of the faith and a nation, fitting architectural majesty and a church-owned high-rise commercial project.
Add the fact that high-ranking church leaders and rank-and-file members recall the days when Pennsylvania and New Jersey had so few Mormons that the idea of a temple here was preposterous, and the joy and pride felt and expressed when the temple's cornice lights went on last week was understandable.
"This is a magnificent structure," Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles told the Deseret News last week after he toured the temple site while he was in Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families.
"It is unique," he said. "It's true to the sense of history and the architecture of Philadelphia. It really reflects that history. I think in time it really will become a landmark in this city, because it is so uniquely suited to what Philadelphia is and has been in the history of the United States over the years."
On one side of the temple is a freeway, and just beyond that is a major Catholic landmark, the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, where Pope Francis celebrated a Mass during his visit last week. The gold-plated Moroni atop one of the temple's two towers will stop inches below the top of the basilica spire.
"We're going to be good friends," said Linley Baker, a Latter-day Saint who moved from Paris to Wilmington, Delaware, three years ago.
Leaders of both faiths say the closeness of the two holy structures mirrors their own feelings.
"It is in a way symbolic," Elder Christofferson said. "It's nice to have these two buildings, those key symbols of our faith, the basilica and the temple, side by side almost. I think they complement each other well."
The archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, spoke at BYU last year, and last week, during Elder Christofferson's presentation at the World Meeting of Families, said Catholics can learn from Mormons about strengthening families.
"Archbishop Chaput has his offices in the building next to the basilica and also overlooks the temple," Elder Christofferson said. "He's said to me a couple of times, 'You know, I'm keeping an eye on it for you. I'm watching the construction, I'm making sure everybody's well-behaved down there. They're not swearing and they're doing the job right.' He's a good friend."
Elder Christofferson also met with the head of Catholic Relief Services during his visit.
"There are many ways and venues in which we're participating together, and these great buildings side by side say, 'Here we are, together.'"
Landmark among landmarks
The LDS Philadelphia project includes the temple — expected to be complete in 2016, according to published reports — a meetinghouse across the street and a neighboring 32-story residential tower that will include retail space.
Work is underway on both the meetinghouse — known to Mormons as a stake center — and the residential tower, which will have 258 apartments and 13 townhouses.
Church officials and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter announced the project together. Nutter also stood beside President Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the church's governing First Presidency, and turned dirt with him at the temple's groundbreaking ceremony.
Several LDS temples are in downtown locations, most notably the Manhattan New York Temple. Others have a nearby church-owned housing/retail project, like Salt Lake's City Creek. But the Philadelphia site is noteworthy.
The look of the temple's two towers provides echoes of Independence Hall, the site two miles away where the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence. The meetinghouse draws even more on that landmark, said Elder Milan F. Kunz, who lives in Downingham, Pennsylvania, and serves as an area seventy.
The French beaux arts style of the temple's outer veneer fits the center city's museum district, including two historic buildings just across the street — the Philadelphia Free Library and the Old Family Courthouse, under renovation to the tune of $85 million into a 199-room luxury hotel.
"It was designed by the architects to bring in multiple dimensions of the Philadelphia architecture," Elder Kunz said. "You can see the temple matches those two buildings. It's all going to fit very naturally and comfortably within the architecture where it's located."
Philly's deputy mayor for economic development told the New York Times that the project fills in two important blocks other developers wouldn't touch without more evidence of revitalization. The LDS complex will provide a needed bridge between the business district and the northern end of the city.
“Most developers are followers,” he told the Times. “Few are pioneers, and the Mormons are pioneers by religion.”
Pennsylvania is both birthplace of the documents of American freedom and Mormon scripture. It is both cradle of American liberty and Mormon priesthood.
From 1827 to 1831, LDS founding father Joseph Smith lived at what is now a three-hour drive from Philadelphia in northern Pennsylvania, where he translated the Book of Mormon, where he received the priesthood from a heavenly visitor and where the first Mormon baptisms took place.
In 1839, Joseph visited Philadelphia to organize a branch of the LDS Church and speak to a gathering of 3,000 people.
But Philadelphia didn't have a stake — a group of congregations like a Catholic diocese — until 1960, when the entire state had 1,100 Mormons. Elder Christofferson went to high school in nearby New Brunswick, New Jersey, in the 1960s, when there was one stake in the entire state.
"In 1980 I showed up in Philadelphia as a teenager to go to the University of Pennsylvania," Baker said. "I had to go to the suburbs to attend church."
A temple requires a large base of members to serve as temple workers, volunteers who help with sacred ordinances meant to bind families together forever.
For Mormons, "no building is more sacred than a dedicated temple of God," President Eyring said at the groundbreaking. "Only in them can the bonds of family in mortality be extended for eternity."
Pennsylvania now has 51,406 Mormons in 111 congregations. The Philadelphia Temple District will include 10 stakes — seven in Pennsylvania, two in Delaware and one in New Jersey. The stake center next to the temple will be home to the Philadelphia Pennsylvania Stake, which has 4,000 members, said stake President Jordan Peterson, a PNC Bank senior vice president who lives in suburban Lansdale.
The stake hasn't had a stake center since it split in two, forming the Valley Forge Pennsylvania Stake in 1999. Stake conferences often are held in two sessions.
"It's going to be wonderful, a place where we can gather together," Peterson said, "where we can feel the spirit of the temple."39 comments on this story
"I've been to the Manhattan Temple many times," Peterson said, "and to the Washington D.C. Temple, but Philadelphia is in a really historical and wonderful place. I really believe it's going to be an icon in the city and draw people to it."
Two weeks ago, Elder Christofferson presided over the formation of a new LDS stake in northern New Jersey. There now are eight stakes in the state.
"Following that to come and see the temple here in Philadelphia next door has given me just a deep sense of satisfaction and happiness about what has transpired here," he said. "It's amazing to see, from that period of time, from my high school years to the present time, it's been tremendous."