While most religions emphasize families, exploring ancestors is of particular importance to one faith on the verge of a grand opening in downtown Mesa.
“Since 1894, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has dedicated time and resources to collecting and sharing records of genealogical importance,” notes the church’s online newsroom.
“Due to cooperation from government archives, churches and libraries, the Church has created the largest collection of family records in the world, with information on more than 3 billion deceased people.”
The new Mesa Arizona Temple Visitors’ Center and Family History Discovery Center, like the church’s centers around the country, will encourage church members and curious folks who pop in to explore their roots.
Tanner Kay, the product manager and experience creator of the Visitors’ Center, looks forward to the culmination of a three-year project that razed the former center and built a new one on the church’s expansive property on Main Street between LeSueur and Hobson streets.
After a Friday-night dedication, the center will open to the public at 9 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 13. The center will be open daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
A major renovation of the grounds is also nearing completion at the Mesa Arizona Temple, which was dedicated in 1927. A lengthy open house will start in mid-October for the temple before its formal rededication in mid-December.
To facilitate “discovering family history,” Kay said, the center will have genealogy experts offering advice, training and “a lot of computer terminals where people can come in and do research.”
Kay spoke to the Tribune by phone from the church headquarters in Salt Lake City, where he normally works.
The Mesa project, ironically enough, brought him closer to his own roots.
“Mesa is a part of my family history,” Kay said. “My great grandfather was a settler in Mesa about 100 years ago. He’s buried there. My father was born there, my sister lives there. I was able to visit some family members and some of the graves for the first time.
“Working on this project helped me discover more about my own family.”
His family also has a small place in the history of the East Valley.
“My third great grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Johnson, with his sons planted the first stone fruit orchards in the Salt River Valley and imported over 100 colonies of Italian bees from California to produce honey and support other new orchards in the Valley,” Kay said.
Kay, who oversees visitors’ centers around the country, said Mesa will be “a whole new class. We’ve never done a visitors’ center like this before. It’s the first of its kind. There’s a lot of things we’re doing there that we’ve never done before.”
He stressed the church reached out to members and non-members to explore what they wanted to see.
“It’s open. It’s welcoming. It’s comfortable. In the middle of the center is a gathering area with a kitchen … We want people to feel welcome,” he said.
“It’s designed for individuals, family and friends to share time.”
The church particularly envisioned a “hang out” spot for younger generations.
“It was designed with a specific audience, to meet the needs of young adults,” Kay noted.
He added there will be quiet spaces for visitors “to be able to meditate and think – that was one of the things they asked for.”
He estimated three-quarters of the center’s offerings are based on suggestions from youth and young adults of the community.
The 18,000 square feet is spread over two levels. “It should be simultaneously more cozy and more open than the previous visitors’ center,” Kay said.
The center’s construction cost is not being publicized. (“I’m not privy to those numbers,” Kay said.)
The new center is expected to be one of the busiest in the country.
“We don’t release visitor counts, but the prior Mesa Visitors’ Center was among the most visited visitors’ centers in the Church,” Kay said.
“We expect more visitors with this new center as it brings together multiple experiences that were previously offered in separate facilities and also because this center is re-designed to meet the needs of the Mesa community.”
Kay’s next project is the renovation of Temple Square, which covers five city blocks in Salt Lake City.
The launch of the Mesa Visitors’ Center coincides with a downtown Mesa renaissance. “It’s beautiful. I’ve noticed so many new buildings,” Kay said.
Indeed, the Grove on Main is a new apartment building a few steps west of the temple grounds. A half-dozen other major projects are in various states of construction.
For Kay, coming to Mesa is a merging of past, present and future.
“Every time I visit Mesa, I see peaches and oranges and think about my family’s connection and legacy in the Mesa area,” he said.
“My nieces and nephews live there now – that makes seven generations of my family in Mesa. I may not live there today, but when I visit it feels like home.”
Similarly, he and others in the church want outsiders to feel right at home in the new visitors’ center.
“We hope everyone will feel welcome at the center,” Kay said, “and that their lives will be enriched.”