CAMDEN, N.J. — A piece of Camden's criminal past is making way for a more righteous future.
The former home of Milton Milan, a mayor who went from City Hall to federal prison in December 2000, will be razed to provide parking for a planned Mormon church in East Camden.
The meeting house is set to rise on an adjacent lot off Federal Street, between 33rd and 34th streets.
When FBI agents raided the site in August 1999, authorities said the two-story Victorian reflected Milan's illicit behavior. They alleged business operators provided windows, a deck and other amenities for the 33rd Street home in exchange for city contracts.
Now, the building's pending demolition reflects growth in South Jersey, and notably in Camden, for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The Courier-Post of Cherry Hill reports that the planned facility will serve two urban congregations with almost 200 members, most of them converts.
"In the past years, the church in the city has grown a lot," said Angel Ramos of Camden, president of a Pennsauken-based branch of about 80 English-speaking Mormons. Camden also is home to a larger group, called a ward, of about 110 Spanish-speaking Mormons.
Indeed, the number of Mormons in South Jersey has soared by almost 50 percent over the past two decades.
The Cherry Hill stake, which stretches from Florence to Cape May and is the Mormon equivalent of a Catholic diocese, currently has more than 4,500 members. That compares with 3,000 in 1995, according to spokesman Steven Poaletti.
The Camden church will offer a range of services — and much more room — to the urban Mormons, who currently share a storefront near 27th and Federal.
"We don't have a lot of space now," Ramos said. "This will be a lot bigger. We have a nice youth group, and this would offer a gym and recreational activities."
The planned church shows the appeal of Mormonism to inner-city residents, including newly arrived immigrants, according to church officials and a sociologist who studies the religion.
"What's happening in Camden is not that unusual," said Vai Sikahema, a TV sportscaster and former Philadelphia Eagle who heads the Cherry Hill stake.
"I think it says the folks in inner-city areas are tired and frustrated with their conditions. For those who want to make a break from that, our lifestyle will help people be better."
The religion's spread shows the zeal of Mormons in seeking converts, noted Ryan Cragun, an associate professor of sociology and an expert on the faith at the University of Tampa. He said Mormons recognize "a doctrinal command ... to go spread the word."
The missionaries' message has a strong appeal for people in the midst of social change, such as immigrants and residents of developing nations, he added.
"People who are in transition or feel like they're lost, they need something. They feel like they are without an anchor. LDS (Latter-day Saints) offers a sense of importance and meaning. They're giving you a broad theological system that helps you fit in.
"I think there's certainly an appeal to people of lower socio-economic status," Cragun theorized.
Ramos became a Mormon in 1995, spurred by the arrival of his first child.
"When my son was going to be born, I didn't want him to grow up and go in the wrong direction," said the 40-year-old, who was approached by Mormon missionaries at his Camden home. "I thought, 'I need God in my life.'
"Now, my son's in college and my two teenage daughters are doing great in school. It changes you."
"People are interested in having good marriages," Sikahema pointed out. "Family structure is a big part of our faith."
Cragun, the sociologist, said the Mormon lifestyle also can attract people seeking an alternative to the drug culture.
"They don't allow drugs, alcohol, smoking," he noted. "If you convert, you can now develop a new circle of friends that will help you stay away from those things."
Sikahema, who oversees 15 congregations as the Cherry Hill stake's president, pointed out laymen hold rotating leadership roles in the church. He said that approach "lifts" church members, in part because volunteer leaders gain skills that make them more attractive to employers.
Ramos, a ward president, has a blue-collar job at an asphalt firm. Benigno Coyotl, a 34-year-old Mexican immigrant and convert who serves as bishop for the Spanish-speaking Mormons, works at a meat-processing plant.
But each man wore a conservative suit and tie during an interview at the future construction site — an image promoted by their church, which also favors modest attire for women.
Cragun, however, said that same approach can lead people to leave the faith if they do not feel they're advancing.
"The people most likely to convert are poor; those most likely to stay are middle class," the professor added.
And he said the certainty offered by Mormonism and other proselytizing religions can be less attractive to people who already have stable lives. In time, he suggested, that could limit the faith's expansion.
Still, the religion, organized in 1830, is gaining adherents in New Jersey. The state has about 33,000 Mormons now, up from about 29,700 a decade ago.
Regional growth shows in the ongoing construction of a 53,000-square-foot Mormon temple in downtown Philadelphia. That building is expected to open near Logan Square in early 2016.
A construction schedule has not been set for the Camden church, Sikahema said. Church officials once hoped to complete the project by the summer of 2013, but plans were delayed by a lack of adequate parking.
Officials decided to buy and raze Milan's former residence to solve that problem, "but it took us forever to track down the owner," Sikahema said.
The Utah-based church in September paid $177,500 for the boarded house, according to tax records. A demolition crew conducted preparatory work at the site Friday.
The home was no longer owned by Milan, who served more than six years in prison. The one-time council president was convicted of multiple crimes, including taking bribes from mobsters, laundering drug money and committing insurance fraud. He was the third Camden mayor in 20 years to be found guilty of corruption.
Ramos said once built, the meeting house will boost the Mormon profile in Camden.
"It will look like a church, and not a storefront," he stated.
"We pride ourselves on being good neighbors," added Sikahema. "We'll be reaching out to people."
Information from: Courier-Post (Cherry Hill, N.J.), http://www.courierpostonline.com/