Mormon Church’s 150th temple will open in Provo (with photo gallery)

PROVO, Utah (AP) — The Mormon Church unveiled its 150th temple on Monday — a renovated historical tabernacle in Provo that nearly burned down in 2010.

The temple’s red brick exterior and back story are unique, but the interior features the same staples that make such buildings deeply sacred places for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Walls throughout the latest three-story facility are lined with elaborate religious paintings displayed in golden frames. The marble baptismal font — used to baptize deceased family members — sits atop 12 oxen sculptures.

A spire with a gold sculpture of the angel Moroni sits atop the structure — the signature of all Mormon temples.

The temple marks another milestone for the religion that considers itself a “temple building people,” said Kent Richards, executive director of the Mormon Church’s temple department.

In 1980, there were 19 temples worldwide. By 2005, that total had swelled to 122, church figures show.

“I remember as a little girl memorizing all 13 temples in the church then,” said Rosemary Wixom, a high-ranking Mormon leader. “Either I’m very old or this is happening very fast. I do believe the Lord is hastening his work.”

Temple construction has been steady in recent years, slowing a bit since the historic rates of the late 1990s and early 2000s, said Matt Martinich, a member of the LDS church who analyzes membership numbers with the nonprofit Cumorah Foundation.

Rapid growth in membership during the late 1900s spurred then-Mormon President Gordon B. Hinckley to launch an aggressive temple construction schedule. The church also adopted a smaller, standard design for temples that expedited construction.

There was such a backlog of new temples in the pipeline that church officials held off on announcing new projects for a few years until 2015.

The opening of the Provo temple came on the heels of the December dedication of a temple in Tijuana, Mexico. In addition to Provo, there are 23 other temples in the pipeline. The sites include Philadelphia, Fort Collins, Colorado, Sapparo, Japan, and Paris. The church recently announced plans to build temples in Thailand, Haiti and Ivory Coast.

The opening in Provo comes five years after the church nearly burned down in a fire that began in the attic and that investigators determined was largely caused by human error.

Though the fire is still considered a tragedy, Richards said “we turned it into a blessing.”

Public tours of this new temple begin later this week, with more than 600,000 visitors expected. The temple is scheduled to be dedicated on March 20. Once that happens, only church members in good will be allowed inside.

Built between 1883 and 1898, the Provo Tabernacle had been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1975 until it burned. Only the exterior brick — and a small hand-carved piece of wood that is attached to a podium in a chapel inside — remained from the original tabernacle.

At one point during the reconstruction process, the building was lifted on stilts as crews dug out a giant hole that added 58,000 square feet to the 30,000 square feet in the two upper floors.

Called “houses of the lord,” Mormon temples are places to receive sacred ordinances and get married in ceremonies that the religion believes seals families for eternity. They are not used for Sunday worship services.

Each one has what is called a “celestial room,” designed to emulate a heavenly experience. The rooms serve as a place where members can seek guidance and contemplate quietly.

“We believe what we do here carries on into the next life, that’s why we have these beautiful temples,” Richards said.

As he showed off the features of the temple, Richards remarked about temples in general, “These are not inexpensive.” He and church officials don’t reveal the costs of temples.

“People sometimes have to travel many hours at great sacrifice to come to them,” he said. “So the goal is to provide temples for everyone worldwide.”

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