Mesa’s historical connection with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is impossible to overlook, from the covered wagons filled with settlers, to the streets named after pioneers, to the temple that has been a part of downtown since 1927.
The Church’s newly opened Mesa Arizona Temple Visitors Center seeks to chronicle that heritage and build on it for future generations. It also serves as a vital step toward the reopening of the historic temple in December, with the two facilities expected to work in tandem for years to come.
“We are living in a difficult time when people are losing their connection with God,’’ Elder Ulisses Soares, one of the high-ranking Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said during a press conference after the center’s dedication.
“This building will help people understand what we believe and to introduce people to the temple,’’ he said.
The new visitors center combines several different functions in one building, chronicling the history of Mesa and how it intersects with the church while also serving a missionary function by introducing non-members to the church’s beliefs and practices.
The church’s focus on genealogy also provides members and non-members alike with a unique free service, where volunteers will help them trace their family roots back for many generations.
The center also has spaces specifically designed for young adults with the intention of helping them develop their identity and to foster a spirit of belonging.
For practical reasons, the visitors center serves an important function for the church because of its own rules.
While the church is anticipating that hundreds of thousands of members and non-members will tour the renovated temple in October and November, such access is very rare and will not be allowed after the dedication.
Only church members in good standing are allowed to enter temples, where “sacred ordinances’’ are practiced, including weddings and baptisms. Even members are required to have a recommendation from church officials to gain entry to the temple.
For this and other reasons, the visitors center features a realistic model of the temple and explains its functions. Temples differ from the church facilities of other denominations because they do not have an assembly area where members would attend services.
Church members attend services at stake centers instead, with the temples devoted to sacred ordinances.
“Our hope is that church members will invite friends and family members to see the temple,’’ said Denny Barney, a church spokesman, former Maricopa County supervisor and president of the PHX East Valley Partnership.
“Our objective is not conversion,’’ Barney said. “It’s to give people a sense of who we are and what we believe.’’
He said the church has about 435,000 members in Arizona. An estimated 400,000 to 500,000 guests are expected to tour the temple between Oct. 16 and Nov. 20, except on Sundays.
Barney said the visitors center is “really focused on young adults, 18-25, who are feeling disconnected from their families and their faith.’’
“It’s really more of a unifying resource than a social service resource,’’ he said, with other departments providing counseling services.
The visitor’s center is open to the public
daily. Anyone wishing a tour of the temple should make a reservation at mesatemple.org.
The ancestry research center, located on the second floor, includes a series of computers and large computer displays where volunteers will help visitors develop their family tree.
Visitors can also look up whether
they are related to one of Mesa’s pioneer families.
Mark Freeman, a Mesa City Council member and a retired Mesa firefighter, proudly displayed his family tree on his cell phone at the press conference.
Freeman’s roots date back to the family of Charles Crismon, who is considered one of Mesa’s four founding fathers. Crismon is memorialized on a statue at Pioneer Park, across the street from the Visitors center, along with fellow pioneers Frances Pomeroy, Charles Robson and George W. Sirrine.
“I would like to invite anyone to come to the center to find your ancestry. I think it’s invaluable for people to know their ancestry,’’ Freeman said. “It brings you prospective, to know what people have done for us.’’
Beyond developing a sense of identity, the genealogical research is a vital tool in which church members practice their faith through the sometimes-controversial ritual of baptizing the dead.
Tanner Kay, project manager and experience creator, is a Mesa native who helped to design the center. He said his work was deeply personal for him because his family dates back seven generations in the city.
“When I was a young man, I read my great, great, great grandfather’s journals,’’ Kay said, stating the experience has strongly influenced his life.
A video on the second floor of the visitor’s center explains the church’s baptismal practices, which start with full immersion. The religious purpose of the ancestral search is to find relatives who died decades ago and to baptize their “spirits.’’
After locating the records, church members enter a baptismal font and “represent’’ their ancestors during baptismal ceremonies. It is up to the spirits to accept baptism or not, he said.
The church has been criticized in the past, however, for baptizing Holocaust victims, celebrities and politicians with no obvious relation to their church. In response, the church initiated a series of safeguards, requiring church members to obtain permission from a living relative before baptizing anyone.
“All Church members are instructed to submit names for proxy baptism only for their own deceased relatives as an offering of familial love,’’ according to the church’s web site.