GILBERT, AZ - It's a place so special to its members, they rarely allow anyone else inside, calling it sacred, not secret.
This month, leaders from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hope to remove some of that mystery, allowing hundreds of thousands of people to walk through the new Gilbert Mormon temple, before its dedication.
"It will be an opportunity to explain and share and nothing more," said Elder Todd Hansen, an area authority for the church.
The guided tour includes explanation from members of the church of what happens in each of the rooms, starting with the baptismal font, through the instruction rooms, celestial room and marriage or "sealing" rooms, and why it's important to Mormons.
Only members of the church are allowed inside Mormon temples. Often, family and friends will wait outside as Mormons get married inside.
That's what 88-year-old Betty Tehero did during the marriage of some of her 11 grandchildren.
Tehero's son had joined the church 40 years ago, raising his family in the LDS faith. As a Catholic, Tehero couldn't go inside for the temple weddings of her son's four oldest children.
But that changed when, as an 85-year-old, Betty was baptized, becoming a Mormon.
Her granddaughter Kylie Fast was the only one not married at the time of Betty's baptism. "She came up to me and said, 'I can finally go to one of my grandkids weddings,'" Kylie said.
Mormons believe marriages performed in temples are blessed to last for eternity. They call it a "sealing," uniting couples and families together, not just ‘til death do you part', but in the next life as well.
Couples hold hands across an altar in the center of the room, while an officiator provides council and performs the marriage. The ceremony generally lasts 20 to 30 minutes, with just family and a few close friends in attendance.
Church leaders say the Gilbert temple has the largest sealing room of any temple in the church. There are a total of seven sealing rooms inside.
Exchanging rings is not part of the formal ceremony, but can be done in the sealing room after the marriage or outside in an effort to include other loved ones.
No pictures are allowed inside the temple, so newlyweds do that on the well-manicured grounds of the temple.
With Grandma looking on, Kylie and new husband Taylor Fast emerge from the temple ready to begin their new life together.
Tehero said she enjoyed the experience, "it was wonderful, it's beautiful."
Beauty is a word Gloria Salmon uses to describe her experience in the temple.
The 91-year-old is one of hundreds of volunteers who work in the temple. "I feel closer to my Savior and certainly to the people who come in," said the Tempe grandmother.
The LDS church has an unpaid clergy, relying on its members to provide the work it takes to keep 141 temples world-wide operational.
Salmon helps people worship in temple instruction rooms. Unlike many sacred structures, LDS temples do not have a large sanctuary designed to handle one or two large congregations a day. Instead, they accommodate small groups of people attending throughout the day.
According to the church website, members are "taught the purpose of life, the mission and Atonement of Jesus Christ, and Heavenly Father's plan for His children" in these instruction rooms.
A temple patron generally ends their worship in the celestial room, considered one of the most holy locations to Mormons. It represents the contentment available in the presence of God and Jesus Christ,
according to church teachings.
Gloria said it's a place that offers her peace. "I love it. I love being there."
Temples are not open on Sundays. On that day, Mormons worship in meetinghouse open to the public.
Temples are generally much larger than traditional meetinghouses and have a gold statue on top. That statue is a representation of the Book of Mormon prophet Moroni. The Mesa temple is one of just seven temples world-wide that does not have the angel figure on top.
Mormon officials declined to release details on the cost associated with building the temple, saying only the funds come from tithes donated by church members.
WORK FOR ANCESTORS
One of the key focuses for Mormons in their temple worship is uniting generations of families.
The Mesa Family Search Library in downtown Mesa is run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is ranked as one of the top three genealogical libraries in the world.
Anyone of any faith can use the library resources to research their family lines.
For Mormons, doing research on their own families is about more than just learning where they came from. They use the information they gather to perform proxy work for their dead relatives, including baptisms.
All Mormon temples have a baptismal font, resting on the backs of 12 oxen, symbolizing the 12 tribes of Israel.
Mormons believe baptism by someone with proper authority is essential for salvation. They perform baptisms for those who have died without receiving that opportunity during their lifetime.
Critics accuse Mormons of baptizing people against their will. In
a news release from the church, authorities state that "the spirit of the deceased person... will be given the opportunity to accept or reject it." The Mormon Church does not consider those baptized by proxy as church members.
Those baptisms are often performed by kids ages 12 to 18. The baptismal font is the only portion of the temple open to junior high and high school aged Mormons.
As part of the opening of a new temple, Mormon teenagers are also involved in what LDS members call a cultural celebration.
An estimated 12,000 young people from across the East Valley are rehearsing song and dance that will be performed for church president Thomas S. Monson.
Roseanne Tidwell wrote the show and is heading up the committee of volunteers putting on the show.
She says the goal is to connect young men and women to the temple.
"This show is all about heroes, we go to heroes all the way back to the Old Testament: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego," said Tidwell.
Highland High School junior David Wilson plays Shadrach. "Just singing praises to God and having fun at the same time is a wonderful thing," said Wilson.
The cultural celebration will take place on March 1. It was originally scheduled to take place at Hamilton High School in Chandler, but church leaders have now decided they need more room to accommodate the large number of participants. It will now be held at Discovery Park in Gilbert. The park is located across the street from the temple.
The next morning, the temple will be formally dedicated in three session broadcast to all Arizona LDS meetinghouses. That dedication service is open only to members of the church 8 years of age and older.
After the dedication, only members of the church with a recommend card signed by church leaders will be allowed into the temple.
That recommend is issued after a series of questions to the member regarding their faith in Jesus Christ, their commitment to family responsibilities and the keeping of commandments. Recommends must be renewed every two years.
Mormons site a history of temples that goes back to Old Testament times as a key reason for their temple worship, including the portable tabernacle used by the Israelites in the wilderness and Solomon's temple mentioned in 2 Chronicles. (Exodus 26-27; 40:35) (2 Chronicles 5:1-14, 7:1-2)
The New Testament contains stories of Jesus in the temple both as a boy and as an adult. (Luke 2:40-49, Matthew 21:10-14)
Shortly after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was formed in 1830, the Mormon people started building temples, first in Kirkland, Ohio, then Nauvoo, Illinois. Those temples were abandoned as the Mormons moved west, settling in Salt Lake City where they spent 40 years building what has become one of the most iconic symbols of Mormonism -- the Salt Lake Temple.
After establishing themselves in Salt Lake, smaller groups left to settle surrounding areas, including many places in Arizona. Mormons founded what is now the city of Mesa, as well as many smaller communities in the north and east parts the state, including Snowflake, Heber, and Joseph's City, named after the LDS founding leader Joseph Smith.
The first temple in Arizona was built in Mesa in 1927. It would be 75 years before another temple was built in the state.
Since then, temple have been built in Snowflake (2002), Gila Valley (2010), Gilbert (2014). A temple in Phoenix near 51st Avenue and Pinnacle Peak will be finished later this year, and one in Tucson is in the planning stages.
Representatives from the church tell us the newer temples in Arizona will not host holiday light displays or Easter pageants that have become a tradition at the Mesa temple.