By David Quigley

Edmonton Mormons set to showcase new building

Edmonton Sun - Sunday, November 28, 1999


Edmontonians are getting a rare chance to glimpse what will become the inner sanctum for thousands of area Mormons.

Construction of the Edmonton Alberta Temple is all but finished, and local officials of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are eager about publicly showcasing the granite-clad, marble-festooned, stain-glassed structure at 143 Street and 53 Avenue just off Whitemud Drive.

"Temples are a different type of building,'' explains church elder Blair Bennett. "Temples are referred to as the House of the Lord, the most sacred building we as church members have.''

Latter-day Saints temples are reserved for family-focused religious rites, or ordinances, performed by worthy church members for themselves or on behalf of dead relatives.

Church teachings say each human being lived in a pre-mortal state as a child of heavenly parents. The wordly experience in a physical body is a test. By obeying laws and gospel ordinances, Mormons believe they will return to the presence of God and live eternally in a family organization.

A distinctive Latter-day Saints teaching is that marriage can be for eternity. Such marriages must be performed or later sealed, if the couple is already married, in a temple by the authority of the holy priesthood.

Instead of places for regular Sunday worship, temples are built for these specific rituals.

Church members can stand in for their ancestors in these rituals, which include baptisms and sealings. Latter-day Saints participating in ordinances wear modest, white clothing symbolizing purity and reverence.

There is a heavy emphasis on performing temple ordinances.

Members believe they have a religious obligation to trace their family history and perform ordinances for ancestors who never had the opportunity.

As part of that temple work, the Latter-day Saints operate the largest genealogical library in the world, near Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah.

The library bulges with millions of vital statistics collected by members on births, deaths, and marriages.

Hundreds of millions of microfilmed birth, death and marriage records are available at no cost to the public. The microfilms are available at the library in Salt Lake City, and can be ordered for use at hundreds of the church's Family History Centers around the world.

Inside the 945-sq.-metre Edmonton temple, designed to accommodate about 80 worshippers, rooms have been designed for ordinances and instructional sessions.

Without a temple in the capital region, northern Alberta Mormons resigned themselves to travelling to the Cardston temple, a 5 1/2-hour drive south of Edmonton, for important ceremonies such as weddings and baptisms.

"For the majority, they'll make the sacrifices to come to a temple,'' says Bennett, who expects the new temple to be a "source of growth'' for the church.

Membership in the Edmonton region now stands more than 12,500, but the temple will also serve another 3,500 Latter-day Saints scattered between Red Deer and Grande Prairie.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was officially organized on April 6, 1830, with six members. Today, the church has more than 10 million members in more than 160 nations and territories, making it one of the
fastest-growing religions in the world.

The church's early days in Edmonton were humble. The first members to live in Edmonton were Robert and Fannie Gordon of Utah, and  their four children. The Gordons came to Edmonton in 1914, and several other Mormon families moved in and out of the city over the next two decades.

But it wasn't until 1933 that a small cluster of Mormons held the first organized church meeting in Edmonton at the home of Alfred and Mable Strate. The city's first meeting house was dedicated in 1951.

Financing for the temple's estimated construction cost of $5 million was already in place when the announcement came last year from church president Gordon B. Hinckley, who vowed to double the number of temples worldwide to
more than 100 by 2000.

"All of our buildings are paid for before we start construction,'' says Bennett, an Edmonton dentist.

Members practise the biblical principle of tithing - contributing one-tenth of their income to the church. They also fast for two meals one day a month and donate the money saved.

These offerings fund various church work including construction, education, welfare and missionary programs.

During the course of construction, Leo Udy, a church elder from Idaho, has acted as project manager.

"I'm an engineer by profession, a manager of people by training and experience and a cowboy at heart,'' says Udy, a small-temple construction missionary.

Early next month, the public will be invited to take guided tours of the wheelchair-accessible temple over a four-day period. A shuttle bus will offer free park-and-ride service from Fort Edmonton Park, and handicapped parking is available at the temple site.

The open house will be the only opportunity for the public to see the temple interior. After dedication ceremonies Dec. 11 and 12, the temple becomes faithful members-only territory.

He expects thousands of curious Edmontonians to turn out for a peek inside the temple.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,'' says Bennett. "It can't help but enhance the image of our church.''

That image, largely one of squeaky-clean Donny Osmond-like family values, and virtuous living (no alcohol or tobacco), has sometimes been tarnished by
myths that dog the religion.

While some 19th-century church leaders and members had more than one wife, the practise of polygamy was long ago abandoned by the Latter-day Saints.

Members who enter into plural marriage face excommunication.

Another misconception is that the church is not Christian, despite its very name bearing firm evidence that Jesus Christ and God the Father are central to the religion's theology and worship.

Crosses are not found in church temples. Latter-day Saints focus more on the uplifting message of Christ's resurrection than his crucifixion.

While the church will stay clear of proselytizing during the open house, Bennett said questions about the faith are welcomed.

Robert Bennett, the project architect and no relation to the dentist, said the temple is built to exacting standards established by the church.

Far from the towering, multi-spired design of the sprawling Salt Lake Temple in Utah, the Edmonton temple is a smaller, simpler building more in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright than Christopher Wren.

"We had to work within a compact area,'' says Bennett of the former parking lot beside the church's existing meeting house. "I believe that we've been successful in landscaping it so that it will have the proper atmosphere.''

The exterior walls of the structure are made of laminated veneer lumber to handle the demands of the heavy stone shrouding, and Edmonton's temperature ranges.

"It's a very sturdy technology in terms of structural capacity and also very true in terms of the straightness of the product,'' says Bennett, also a church member.

"That's important when we're using a material such as stone, which tends to be a fairly precise cladding material.''

The two types of granite came from separate Quebec quarries, the marble tiles from Italy.

The sheer weight of all the stone alone would seem to guarantee the temple's stability.

But the church wanted a bigger cushion. "It was requirement of the client that we design this building structurally for two earthquake-zone categories above the category which we normally design in Edmonton.''

"Our client required us to design for category two - Edmonton is category zero.''

The deepest friction pilings of reinforced concrete are set more than 12-metres below ground.

"It's very well-founded and very sound structurally,'' says Bennett of the temple, the first he's ever worked on.

Other challenges for Bennett included complex finishing details, and sophisticated mechanical systems.

"The standard of workmanship that the client expects is very high, relative to what we normally encounter on commercial projects,'' says Bennett, of Bennett Architect Inc.

"It's the first building that our firm has ever done in granite. For an architect it's been an interesting building to work on.''

A two-metre-tall statue of the trumpeting angel Moroni, a symbol of the restoration of the Gospel through divine messengers, adorns the top of the stone-cloaked building.

The distinctive, gold leaf-covered figure heralds the dawn of a new era for Edmonton and area Mormons.