By Cecily Markland
Some people came in wheelchairs, others carried babies in their arms. They came from neighborhoods across the street and from as far away as Canada and other countries around the world. They came by the tens of thousands, all interested in touring the Gilbert Arizona Temple during the weeks it was open to the public.
The temple was open for tours from January 18 through February 15, excluding Sundays, Within days from when the reservation website was activated, 400,000 reservations had been made.
“The response from the community has been wonderful,” said Cindy Packard, Public Affairs representative for the Greater Phoenix Area and a member of the Gilbert 6th Ward, Gilbert Highland West Stake. “The temple open house was a great success, and we had large numbers of people come through each day.”
The open house was the culmination of years of anticipation that began in April 2008 when President Thomas S. Monson announced that a temple was to be built in Gilbert. Two years later, in November 2010, an estimated 7,500 people attended the official groundbreaking ceremony.
At the groundbreaking event, Elder William R. Walker, of the Seventy and executive director of the Church’s Temple Department, said, “It is because of the love for the temple” and “the faith and dedication of Latter-day Saints in Arizona that this temple is being built.”
He added, “We are very pleased with the site for the Gilbert Temple. It’s a site that will have high visibility and the center-spire temple design means that it will be beautiful and prominent from every direction.”
The site’s prominence heightened the anticipation as passersby were able to see the construction from all directions—even from miles away—as they watched the completion of the now-tallest building in Gilbert, at 82½ feet tall with a spire that rises to 195 feet. The 85,000-square-foot temple is the largest the Church has constructed in 17 years.
“We’ve seen the field change from an alfalfa field to a great temple,” says Curtis Keller, bishop of the Fairview Ward, Williams Field Stake, located “just across the street from the temple. We all drive by it every day—and we have for five years.”
He has already witnessed the effects on members of his ward. “Number one, it’s given them courage to share the gospel with their friends. … with the temple being built, members have been able to easily strike up a conversation and more easily discuss the gospel.”
Nearly all of the nonmembers in their neighborhood accepted invitations to the open house. “They wanted to see this house of God,” Bishop Keller says. “Afterwards, one of them said to me, ‘I can tell this is a holy place.’”
He continues, “For people in the ward, having the temple right down the street really fires them up, makes then excited about making covenants and growing closer to Christ.” He says they already “feel the peace that will come as they get to attend the temple.”
One sister and two couples in his ward who have never been to the temple have made the necessary preparations and will participate in temple ordinances shortly after the dedication. The ward’s 90 Young Men and Young Women are also excited about the “prospect of being able to go to the temple one time a week and do work there,” Bishop Keller says.
In addition to those living near the Gilbert Temple, the open house attracted a wide range of others. “We did a tour for all the construction workers to bring their families and show them the work that they completed,” says Sister Packard. “Then, the first three days we had special guests; state and community leaders, including Governor Jan Brewer; and interfaith leaders from all over the Valley.”
A large number of “winter visitors” attended as well, Sister Packard says, “It was common for small buses from retirement communities to pull up each day to tour the temple … a large portion of them were friends of other faith.”
Sister Packard says, many Latter-day Saints brought friends and coworkers. “A soccer coach from the local high school reported that ‘This temple must be a big deal because I have been invited at least 10 different times to tour it,’” she says.
At the same time, many attended on their own volition, having heard about the temple through the media. One day, Sister Packard stopped at a light near the temple and a woman in the back seat of the car next to her was waving frantically. “I rolled down my window (thinking I had a flat tire or something wrong) when she said, ‘Do you know where that new Mormon Temple is? Then the man in the front said, ‘We aren’t Mormon but we really want to go see it!’”
Sister Packard said, inside, people were impressed with the beautiful art glass, and the original paintings throughout the temple, as well as the stunning staircase, and, especially, the 18’ tall, 1,500-pound chandelier in the celestial room.
“The general impression people had of the temple is that it is marvelous, beautiful, magnificent, exquisite, inspiring and breathtaking … They were amazed at the quality of workmanship. But, even beyond that, many felt something there that they couldn’t quite explain. They could feel the holiness of the temple, and it touched them in ways that are beyond just its beauty.
One young single adult reported that she brought friend of another faith who was so touched by the feeling in the temple that “she was shaking all over and now wants to come to church sometime.
Yet, just as members of other faiths were touched, Latter-day Saints were equally uplifted as they shared in the experience. Tami Wardrop, of the Constellation Ward, Gilbert Highland West Stake, who, with her husband Dan, worked with the volunteer ushers, said, “As I watched the miracles happen each day from experiences with guests to people that showed up all of the sudden when we were short volunteers, it reaffirmed my testimony that this is His house and He is interested in all that happens in His house. We felt his presence daily and appreciated knowing we had a hand in helping welcome His children to his house each day.
Sister Packard agrees, noting that on a tour that included leaders from other faiths. There was a moment when I watched a kindly Catholic Bishop and a thoughtful Jewish Rabbi with his wife and baby daughter and others leaders respectfully walking into the celestial room, and I had such a strong feeling of love for them as my brothers and sisters. I felt a oneness with them, a strong bond because we were all children of our Father in Heaven who knows and loves us individually.”
She continues, “Anything that increases understanding strengthens a community. And I think people, regardless of their beliefs, felt renewed or strengthened by the experience. I think they felt a pause of peace and serenity.”
When the Gilbert Temple is formally dedicated on Sunday, March 2, it will be the 142nd operating temple in the Church worldwide and the fourth in Arizona, with others in Mesa, Snowflake and the Gila Valley. A fifth temple in Phoenix is under construction and a sixth, in Tucson, has been announced.
For more about temples, visit www.lds.org/church/temples.