Landmark to most, temple is sanctuary for area's Mormons

Journal staff writers

For the past 25 years, a golden angel, perched high on the white towers of the Washington, D.C., Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has hailed Capital Beltway drivers rounding the curves between Connecticut and Georgia avenues.

And in that quarter-century, the majestic, castle-like building - the first Mormon temple east of the Mississippi River and the third largest in the world - has become a landmark, not only for Montgomery County but for the entire metropolitan area.

``I really believe it has," said David Salisbury, director of the temple visitors' center. ``I think it's gained a permanence."

He recalled how a prominent local architectural critic panned the temple in print when it opened in 1974 - then publicly ate his words 20 years later, hailing the building as an institution.

``If you listen to the traffic news, it's kind of like a major intersection," said Salisbury.

It was also, of course, an inspiration for the graffitist who years ago scrawled ``Surrender, Dorothy" on a Beltway bridge within sight of the soaring temple.

Last month, about 600 church members, commonly called Mormons, celebrated the Kensington temple's 25th anniversary with a ceremony that featured the Mormon Choir of Washington, D.C., and a historical review of the temple.

About 600 members attended, according to Sterling D. Colton, who began official duties as temple president last week. Some 6,000 Mormons live in Montgomery County.

The temple is something of an anomaly: visible to millions every day, but an inaccessible mystery to most.

Last December, 250,000 visitors attended the temple's popular annual Festival of Lights at the visitors' center, and before the temple was dedicated 25 years ago, more than 750,000 people toured the facility, wearing out the rug in the main annex.

But like other Mormon temples, the local temple has been off-limits to non-Mormons - and even some Mormons - since the dedication.

``We believe this is God's house and no unclean person or thing should enter the house once it has been dedicated," said Colton.

Church members, said Salisbury, must be deemed ``worthy" before they can enter the temple.

But even at the distance most local residents must see it from, the temple is an impressive sight.

Dedicated Nov. 19, 1974, after six years of construction, the temple has 294 rooms. It is covered with 173,000 square feet of Alabama white marble, and its spires are layered in gold.

An 18-foot, gold-layered statue of an angel holding the Book of Mormon and a trumpet to its lips symbolizes the Gospel's return to Earth in the 19th century shortly before the denomination was organized in 1830, according to a temple fact sheet.

The Washington temple served a 300,000-member district from the eastern United States and Canada, Columbia, Ecuador and Venezuela - including 21,000 from the D.C. metropolitan area - after it was built. The district area shrank as additional temples were built, but the D.C. temple still serves 237,396 people from North Carolina to Maine, including more than 50,000 in the metropolitan area.

For Mormons the temple is integral to their faith, as it connects them and their ancestors to God for eternity.

``The temple symbolizes our eternal life," said Charlotte Ferguson, a Burtonsville Mormon who said she usually visits the temple at least once a month. ``Our life isn't just the end; we have a chance to live after this life to be with our families."

Temples are critical to the Mormon faith since they are the only places where marriages can be sealed for eternity and members can be baptized on behalf of their ancestors in rituals called ordinances, said Colton.

``Without the temple, and the ordinances that are performed here, we will not be able to return and live in the presence of our father who lives in heaven," he said.

Since the temple opened, 38,520 marriages and sealing ceremonies - rituals to confirm marriages that occurred outside the temple - have been held, said Megan Jones, public affairs specialist for the Washington LDS district.

In its 25 years, the temple has received three landscaping awards, including a Keep Montgomery County Beautiful award in 1989, said Jane Dumont, public information director of the visitors center.

Internationally, Mormon temples have increased with the number of followers. Since the first Mormon temple was built in 1836 in Kirtland, Ohio, 68 temples have been built worldwide to serve the denomination's 10 million members, said Dumont.

At least 40 additional smaller temples are to be dedicated in the next year, including one in Raleigh, N.C, she said.

The local temple has undergone two renovations. In 1990, carpeting and wall furnishings were replaced. In 1994, 20 years after it was built, $2 million in exterior renovations were needed, including replacing loose and cracked marble slabs.

The temple has gone through a few other changes over the years as well, including a name alternation. Previously called the Washington Temple, D.C. was added so it wouldn't be confused with temples elsewhere, said Jones.

Round the clock hours Thursday through Saturday were also added last year to the temple's normal Tuesday through Saturday day and evening hours for those traveling long distances, said Jones.