The building is located just off Logan Circle — directly across the street from the Mormon meeting house, which will be used exclusively for Sunday activities.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is coming to Philadelphia next month, and no, they probably won’t be knocking on doors seeking to convert you.
But they will be opening a spectacular new temple that will spare Mormons scattered throughout Pennsylvania, Delaware and South Jersey from having to trek to Washington, D.C., or New York City to practice their faith.
The 208-foot-high building encompasses nearly 62,000 square feet and is located just off Logan Circle — directly across the street from the Mormon meeting house, which will be used exclusively for Sunday activities.
It’s been in the planning stages for eight years.
Now that it’s completed, the church is hosting a series of open house events in part to show it off and also as a recruiting tool.
Once the tours are completed by Sept. 9, they’ll prepare the temple for its Sept. 18 dedication, after which only members in good standing with the church can enter the premises. Among those planning a tour is the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.
“We’re a welcoming city of all faiths,” said Rabbi Albert Gabbai of Congregation Mikveh Israel, the oldest continuing synagogue in the country, dating to 1740. “When there was certification of the ratification of the Constitution in 1788, the leader of our congregation, Jacob Raphael Cohen, and the minister of Christ Church [founded in 1695], walked hand in hand in the procession.
“At the end of the procession, there was a table of kosher food for the Jewish delegation. Therefore, having different religions in Philadelphia is nothing surprising.”
In reality, the church has been around these parts for years.
But never before have members had a temple of their own, where not only baptisms, but weddings and other rituals can be performed.
According to former Phila-delphia Eagle and now NBC10 broadcaster Vai Sikahema, having a temple for locals to call their own is special.
“We’ve been here a quarter of a century and in all that time my wife and I have had to go to Washington — a two-and-a-half-hour drive from our home in South Jersey, or since 2004, New York, an hour-and-a-half,” explained Sikahema, who was born on the island of Tonga in the South Pacific. “When I was five years old in 1967 there may have been 25 temples in the entire planet, two of those in Polynesia — Hawaii and New Zealand.
“My parents in Tonga sold everything they had — fruits and vegetables from our garden for six years — to save enough money to get to New Zealand. Then there was a day-and-a-half boat ride to Fiji, where we spent the night, then flew to Auckland. And a two-hour bus ride.
“It was an arduous, long, expensive trip.”
So he’s thrilled people in this community won’t have to encounter such hardships.
“The sacrifices my parents made were no more significant or important than the families on Broad and Wyoming or other parts of the city who don’t have a car and can’t get to Washington or New York,” Sikahema continued. “For them to be able to ride a bus or subways to get here, it’s a huge blessing.
“For us, temple is not just a matter of convenience. It’s a symbol of our faith. It’s symbolic of the crowning blessing of being a Latter-day Saint.”
A few years ago that “blessing” resulted in controversy when the Mormons, who believe in baptizing the dead since they consider the soul and the family eternal — regardless of your beliefs — posthumously baptized a number of Jewish Holocaust victims.
“There were a few zealous members of our church with good intentions, who went and identified Holocaust names and said they should be baptized,” said Elder Milan Kunz, who conducted a media tour. “Of course, the Jewish community asked, ‘Why are you doing this?’
“That was brought to the church’s attention and stopped years ago.”
However, the Mormons’ history with local synagogues has been somewhat strained.
“We’ve actually had a bit of a strange relationship with them,” said Rabbi Barry Blum of Congregation Beth El-Ner Tamid in Broomall, where a small Mormon church has existed for years. “In the earlier years, Mormons were going to houses to try to pass on the word about their faith.
“People saw that as proselytizing, and were not too warm to that task. So we didn’t have as much interaction with them, and we do a lot of interfaith things with churches. But we’re in a society where diversity of faith — as long as you’re tolerant and respectful and don’t proselytize — is a very positive thing.”
Growing up in Northern California among a large Mormon population, Rabbi Adam Zeff gained a different perspective.
“I know they’re a group that’s often been maligned by other Christians,” said Zeff, rabbi at the Germantown Jewish Centre since 2010. “Where I grew up, I always had a much more sympathetic view of who Mormons are and some of the struggles they’ve had.
“I don’t know if they have a significant connection to Jews here, other than this is the home of religious liberty and the fact that I think every religious group should be able to have a house of worship and worship as they choose. That’s what’s made Philadelphia famous.”
In fact, the Philadelphia temple, one of just 152 in the world, will have quite a Philadelphia flavor.
There’s a painting of George Washington watching as Benjamin Franklin signs the Constitution and various other Philadelphia and Pennsylvania connections throughout the building.
“The church has deep roots in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia,” Kunz said. “Joseph Smith [who founded the religion in 1830] came to Northeastern Pennsylvania and met his wife, Emma Hale, in Harmony. And many prominent leaders came from Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.”
Now, finally, their disciples have a temple of their own in which to follow them.