How does a nice Catholic girl like me end up at the new Mormon Temple in Philadelphia, on my birthday, no less? No, I wasn’t swayed by adorable young men on bikes to convert and I didn’t get lost on the way to our cathedral which is virtually next door. The temple has been offering public tours in the weeks leading up to its consecration (Mormons call it “dedication”) and since one of my bridge friends is a church member and has been leading tours, a group of us thought we’d take an ecumenical field trip.
I was struck by the very “American-ness” of the temple; it’s only fitting, I suppose, since Mormonism is a uniquely American religion. The soaring exterior suggests a grandiose take on a traditional colonial meeting house with definite elements of Independence Hall, little more than a mile away. This blending is intentional, the building manager told us, as the Temple was designed with architectural cues from sacred and historical buildings around Philadelphia. Inside, the baptistry walls are covered with a mural depicting Joseph Smith being baptized in the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, and many other rooms have American landscapes hanging alongside religious art.
(By the way, did you know that after dedication, admittance to the sacred space is granted only to those who hold a “recommend” card, indicating a commitment to Mormon teaching and a life that upholds those teachings? Can you imagine the chaos if we had to have a Catholic qualification card? The outdoor wedding faction would be having it out with the host-on-the-tongue-only folks. While the recommend card is obviously foreign to me, you have to give the LDS Church props for running a tight ship. Sorry, I digress.)
The most conspicuous American statement however, was the large painting of the signing of the Constitution in the foyer. My friend pointed out the carvings of crossed quills over a painting of Jesus behind the desk, a motif that we would see repeated in moldings around the building. She told us that they represent the translation of the Book of Mormon with a quill and the writing of the Constitution with a quill. The guides emphasized the importance of the Constitution to the LDS Church, for they see (as do I) the touch of divine providence on our country’s founding, and the beautiful, radical gift of religious freedom the Constitution provides. This church born on American soil has certainly seen its share of religious persecution and bigotry on its journey to mainstream American life—can you imagine any other faith that would be fair game for a mocking Broadway musical?—a history of persecution we Catholics share.
This blessing of American religious freedom was evident to us as we ended our tour. As we left the temple, we ran into, almost literally, a group of eight or ten seminarians headed to the Cathedral Basilica for the ordination Mass of our new bishop. I took one look at them and leaned over to my Mormon friend and said, “Think my team can take your team?” (Come on, if the Holy Spirit is going to send me such a sign, I think He expects me to crack a joke.) We ended up chatting with the young men about our new bishop and her new Temple, standing in the shadow of each of our holy spaces. In a lot of countries, especially in Europe, religion is simply a lovely relic of a bygone era or worse, actually or de facto banned as in China and North Korea; in others, if an interaction like ours occurred, it could very well end up in “my team” and “her team” shedding blood. How blessed are we here in America, where we can openly talk with each other about what is eternal and true, despite our differences, and appreciate the beauty of those things fleeting, of this world. The new Mormon Temple in Philadelphia is one of those beautiful things of this earth that reminds us of the eternal. Welcome to town!