Offering the general public a rare experience unlikely to be repeated until the next century, the iconic Mesa Arizona Temple will be open for tours this fall as an exhaustive three-year renovation project ends.
Officials from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints last week unveiled a partial schedule for a project that has included construction of the new 18,000-square-foot Visitors Center and Family History Discovery Center.
They said the temple open house from Oct. 16 to mid-December could draw as many as half a million people of all faiths.
Once the temple is rededicated Dec. 12, only church members approved by leadership will be allowed to enter.
That means the open house will be a once-in-a-lifetime chance for anyone to see the interior of an internationally historic landmark. When it was dedicated by church President Heber J. Grant in 1927, the Mesa Arizona Tempe was the first in Arizona and only the seventh in the world.
There are now 168 dedicated temples in the world, and another 48 have been planned but are not under construction. The Mesa temple is one of six in the state, with others in Gila Valley, Gilbert, North Phoenix, Snowflake and Tucson.
“I don’t personally anticipate that we will have another temple built in the Metro Phoenix area,” church spokeswoman Jennifer Wheeler told the Tribune in an exclusive interview.
“This really is an opportunity to see inside a temple and that probably will not occur again in Arizona for decades,” she added.
The temple is not just important to church members, she noted.
“It’s a temple that is very special to a lot of people in the area – not just members of the church. There are many members in the community who have grown up and have had family traditions surrounding this temple whether their family goes to the Easter pageant or their family always goes there for the Christmas lights.”
Thousands of people attend the Mesa Arizona Temple’s annual display of more than a million lights – often accompanied by concerts by area choral groups – and its Easter pageant, when a cast of 500 reenact the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Those two events have not been held since the temple was closed in May 2018 and will not return until next year.
When they do, those events will be held on 1.6 acre of grounds that have been completely renovated with a fold-away stage, new trees and other landscaping enhancements.
Completion of the project also brings a radically new look to a long-underdeveloped part of downtown Mesa.
It included construction of three four-story, two three-story and three two-story buildings designed to accentuate the temple and adding 500 new residents to downtown.
The church’s development arm built 250 apartments, 12 townhouses, a huge underground parking garage with 450 stalls, 7,500 square feet of retail space at Main and Udall streets and 5,000 square feet at Main Street and Mesa Drive.
The visitors center has long attracted hundreds of church and non-church members because it offers a chance “for people throughout the area to learn and celebrate Mesa’s diverse history and spiritual heritage,” Wheeler noted.
It will continue to “house a large family history center with free assistance for those wanting to research their family tree.”
Although all the details have not yet been finalized, Wheeler said the center will be dedicated at 7 p.m. Aug. 12 and the ceremony will be broadcast to church meetinghouses throughout Arizona.
Wheeler was uncertain about prospects for any open house since the center is already designed for general public use.
Access to the temple is a completely different story because the building itself is not used by church members like a cathedral is used by other Christian denominations.
“Temples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints differ from meetinghouses or chapels where members meet for Sunday worship services,” Wheeler explained. “Temples are considered ‘houses of the Lord,’ where Jesus Christ’s teachings are reaffirmed through baptism and other ordinances that unite families for eternity.”
Temple services, called ordinances, are much smaller than the regular meetings held by the church in meetinghouses and chapels.
“You’re never going to have a time when there are just thousands of people inside a temple,” Wheeler added.
Indeed, not all church members can enter a temple until they have received a “church recommend” that follows an interview “with our priesthood authorities, our bishop and our stake president,” Wheeler said.
That’s also why the three dedication ceremonies slated for Dec. 12 will not be open to the public or broadcast outside of special videocasts at meetinghouses where only members with “temple recommends” can watch.
The three dedication services – at 9 a.m., noon and 3 p.m. Dec. 12 – will include the same prayer but different presentations by different church leaders. Church President Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency will preside.
This is the second renovation of the Mesa Arizona Temple since it opened in 1927 following an open house that lasted for two years – and drew 200,000 people from throughout the West.
It was one of the first three to be built outside of Utah and the first where a language different from English – namely Spanish – was used.
The Mesa Arizona Temple was then closed for its first refurbishing in the mid-1970s and rededicated in 1975 by President Spencer W. Kimball, an Arizona native.
The current overhaul involved a massive upgrading of all infrastructure systems such as electrical and plumbing as well as ADA-compliant structural adjustments. There also were other changes made to make the temple more consistent with its original design, Wheeler said. ′