On Saturday, Sept. 11, more than 400 non-LDS visitors flocked to the grounds of the Preston England Temple in Chorley, Lancashire.
The Chorley England Stake hosted an open day as part of England's national Heritage Open Days initiative: "Heritage Open Days celebrates England's fantastic architecture and culture by offering free access to properties that are usually closed to the public or normally charge for admission. Every year between Sept. 9-12, buildings of every age, style and function throw open their doors, ranging from castles to factories, town halls to parish churches. It is a once-a-year chance to discover hidden architectural treasures and enjoy a wide range of tours, events and activities which bring life to local history and culture."
Visitors were invited to join tours of the temple grounds during the day between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., or wander unescorted around the many pathways through the peaceful gardens. Three different repeating tours were available with one starting every half-hour: an architectural tour conducted by Peter Trebilcock, one of the architects who worked on the Preston temple; a garden tour conducted by Keith Kirby, one of the temple gardeners; and a general tour by local historian Peter Fagg. Younger visitors enjoyed spotting features of the site with a 'Seek and ye shall find' map and quiz. While waiting for tours to start visitors were invited to view a rolling sequence of Mormon Messages video clips projected on a large screen in the chapel.
The tours took visitors around the landscaped site, starting in the chapel of the stake center, and continuing to the lake and gardens outside the Missionary Training Center, into the Accommodation Centre, the Family History Center, the Distribution Center, and around the exterior of the temple. Specialist tours concentrated on the award-winning gardens, and the architecture of the temple and the development of the site from green fields.
Some were disappointed not to be able to enter the temple, though this was explained in the advance publicity. However, it provided an excellent opportunity to explain the sacred purpose of the temple and why entry was restricted to members in good standing. Several were surprised to learn that the temple was not a large cathedral-like hall, but comprised many different rooms.
"One big message that came out in each of the five tour groups I conducted," said Peter Fagg, "was that many people considered the temple site a closed community. We made it clear that visitors are welcome to the temple grounds, worship services and other events in the stake center, and the Family History Center."
Visitors came from as far as 40 miles away and from many walks of life. One mother brought her daughter with a school assignment to attend one of Heritage Open Days properties and write a report. They came along accompanied by their Catholic priest.
A visitor from Blackburn who went on both the garden and architectural tours commented, "I went to the open house in 1998. I wanted to come back and bring my wife so she could see it. The quality of the workmanship was first class and the grounds are wonderful. I work in the construction industry and know that this level of quality is rare."
Roy Robinson, a non-member retired architect who had worked on the temple project, was one of the day's visitors and was impressed to see the project 12 years on. He later wrote, "A very rewarding day. The landscape is really superb and maturing well with the buildings. In the last few years I have visited a number of the greatest gardens and buildings in Britain. Those gardens are beautiful but just an appendix to the building. Whereas in the case of the Preston Temple the gardens and buildings are a total combined vision. Nice to see a concept reach such a rewarding result."
A visitor of Indian ethnicity remained behind after a tour to seek clarification about tithing. He was impressed with the faith and commitment of those living such a principle. One couple said that they already used the Family History Center, "but we wanted to find out more and join the tour. This is a wonderful place."
Brother Trebilcock reported, "There seemed to be a constant influx all day. All were positive. The most repeated comments were, 'This place is beautiful and well looked after,' and, 'I didn't realize the grounds were open to the public at other times; I shall certainly come back.' At the end of each tour all expressed appreciation and said that they found the visit very enjoyable, informative, and commented on the impressive quality of the facilities. One person commented, 'The quality of care is evident. A tribute not only to those involved in its design and construction but also to all those who look after it today.'"
As they left other visitors spoke of the emphasis on the family that they had picked up from what they saw and heard.
As well as the grounds tours the Family History Center director Catherine Carter gave two different family history presentations, which were very popular with visitors.
Another visitor, Richard Parker, explained that in his family history he found a Parker ancestor who was an LDS Branch president in the area in 1856 and an ancestor of Butch Cassidy. Arrangements were made for him to meet with a member local historian and to be introduced to the Family History Center.
Missionaries assigned to the local area were on hand to answer the many questions visitors had about Church doctrine and practices. Several impromptu missionary lessons took place during the course of the day. Others toured the chapel where several displays taught about core beliefs.
Visitors were also given a flyer advertising future events at the stake center to which they are most welcome, including the satellite broadcast of general conference, stake conference, the annual Festival of Nativities and the Christmas Carol Concert.
The idea to join the Heritage Open Days was first suggested to Chorley England Stake President David Pickup by Brother Fagg, a member of the stake's high council. The stake has the goal to double the active membership of the stake by 2015 and has planned a number of initiatives to bring the Church out of obscurity in Lancashire. A committee of high councilors was quickly formed and members including single adults from the Center For Young Adults volunteered to "meet and greet."
"We thought that this would be an ideal opportunity to welcome non-member visitors to the landscaped grounds of the Preston temple," said President Pickup. "We hoped these visitors would be able to feel something of the special nature of the temple and feel prompted to seek to know more about the gospel. And it worked! They were introduced to Church members and our beliefs in a non-threatening way. They saw couples going to the temple to be sealed, children involved in a Primary activity and families walking to and from the temple on a busy Saturday.
"Although we didn't specifically promote any doctrine other than the purpose of the temple, most visitors were naturally curious about what we believed and asked probing questions, which members and missionaries were on hand to answer. We also made good use of the new passalong cards and other Church literature. As they left many commented that they had noticed an emphasis on the family as they listened to the tour guides or wandered around the various displays in the stake center.