In an area where national and Church history roots run deep, President Henry B. Eyring broke ground for the Philadelphia Pennsylvania Temple on Saturday morning, Sept. 17.
President Eyring, first counselor in the First Presidency, presided at the groundbreaking ceremony held in a historic section of downtown Philadelphia just a short distance from the National Constitution Center.
Also participating in the program were Elder William R. Walker, of the Seventh and executive director of the Temple Department; Elder Jay E. Jensen, of the Presidency of the Seventy; and Elder Robert B. Smith, an Area Seventy.
President Eyring, who was baptized in Philadelphia as an 8-year-old and grew up in Princeton, N.J., explained the purpose of temples to members and invited guests seated outdoors on the temple site, noting that there are 135 operating temples and more than 20 announced or under construction in 27 countries and on every continent except Antarctica.
"No building is more sacred than a dedicated temple of God," he said. "Only in them can the bonds of family in mortality be extended for eternity."
Giving a Church history context to the groundbreaking ceremony, President Eyring said, "The temple we will erect on this ground will bring special joy to one of God's greatest prophets. Joseph Smith met, courted and married his wife, Emma, and by 1827, they lived in Harmony, Pennsylvania
"He worked in Harmony translating the Book of Mormon. The priesthood that is exercised in our temples was restored by heavenly ministers to Joseph Smith in Pennsylvania," President Eyring said.
"After the Lord organized His Church, missionaries were sent to Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Branch was officially organized on Joseph Smith's 34th birthday, Dec. 23, 1839. Joseph Smith presided at that meeting. I am sure he is rejoicing today to see us break ground and dedicate it for a temple of God where he began the work of preparation."
President Eyring promised that "harmony and peace will spread across this community and this area as the Spirit of the Lord is invited into our hearts, our lives and our homes."
The temple's downtown location at 1739 Vine Street — a mile from historic Independence Hall and adjacent to the Vine Street Expressway — will mean easier access for more than 32,000 members it will serve from eight stakes in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey. (Those members now are in the Washington D.C. Temple district, a two- to five-hour drive each way.)
Elder Walker explained that the new temple's granite exterior and architectural elements will blend with stately neighboring buildings and other classic architecture in the city where the United States was founded in 1776. The spire, which will be topped with a statue of Angel Moroni, is reminiscent of the clock tower on Independence Hall.
The furnishings of the rooms within the temple "will hearken back to historic Philadelphia," he noted, and soaring stained glass windows will grace the building. Underground parking will be covered by a landscaped plaza with reflecting pool and gardens that will be open to the public. A slender temple services building will have a low profile on the site.
"We are building a temple to God," he told the audience, "with the accompanying motivation for each of us to be followers of Jesus Christ."
Elder Jensen remarked on the temple's beautiful exterior and then relating the parable of a beautiful box with an even more beautiful pearl inside, reminded listeners to focus on the pearl even as they admire the box. He taught about sealing ordinances in the temple that are the "true pearls in the beautiful box."
The 53,000-square-foot structure near the entrance to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway will be "a beautiful statement within the city of Philadelphia," said Elder Smith.
An Area Seventy since 2008, Elder Smith has been instrumental in procuring the site and working with city leaders to develop the temple project.
The "significant milestone" for members in the surrounding region will "impact the nation," he said, noting that the groundbreaking was being held on the 224th anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution. He also mentioned William Penn's 1701 Charter of Privileges that granted citizens freedom to worship and practice their own beliefs. The first LDS chapel was built in Philadelphia in 1938.
It has special personal meaning to Elder Smith to see the first temple be built in Pennsylvania. He shared an experience he had when he was at Washington D.C. Temple with his wife in 1998, the year before he was called as president of the Valley Forge Pennsylvania Stake.
"A strong impression came to me to prepare these people for a temple," Elder Smith said. "I went away from the temple knowing what I needed to do." As stake president, he worked toward that goal. The groundbreaking for the temple has been brought about in large part through the faith of the members, he said.
Vai Sikahema, a counselor in the Cherry Hill New Jersey Stake presidency, spoke of the sacrifices his family in Tonga made when he was 5 years old to make a trip to the New Zealand Temple to be sealed. He outlined continuing blessings that have come to his family from covenants made there. The Philadelphia Temple will likewise influence generations.
"The Founding Fathers of the United States and the Constitution a few blocks away are smiling on us, and so will ancient and future prophets," he said.
Young and old alike were smiling on the cool and overcast morning a week after heavy rains and flooding soaked the East Coast. Claudia Kamor, 91, took a turn at scooping a shovelful of earth following the official groundbreaking. A convert living in the Valley Forge stake, she has been waiting for a temple nearby since her baptism in 1951.
Sisters Kailee and Ava Parkinson, ages 6 and 4, didn't have tickets for the ceremony but brought their own lawn chairs so they could witness the event with their mom while their dad volunteered at the medical services tent. Mom Heidi Parkinson, from Danville, Pa., thought it important for her children to be there. Said Kailee, "I will write about this place in my journal, and I'm going to get married in the temple."
President William Schaefermeyer, president of the Pennsylvania Philadelphia Mission, said his missionaries are excited about the temple. "They're able to invite people in a way they've never been able to before," he said, adding that the temple's location near city center, with access to public transportation, will greatly aid in retention of new converts.
The Philadelphia temple was among five new temples announced by President Thomas S. Monson in October 2008. Acknowledging the delay in beginning the project, Mayor Michael A. Nutter said in a press conference at City Hall a year ago, "The leaders of this great church and faith kept their faith" and worked with city leaders to bring the idea to fruition.
He said the proposed edifice will be "another magnificent addition to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway" and contribute to the spiritual as well as economic vitality of the city center.
Cherry Hill New Jersey Stake President Ahmad Corbitt gave the invocation, and Sister Joan Young of the Valley Forge Pennsylvania Stake offered the benediction. A choir comprised of members of the eight stakes sang "High on the mountain Top," "How Firm a Foundation," and "I Know that My Redeemer Lives."
Although Church membership in Philadelphia fell to 150 after Joseph Smith was killed and Saints migrated west, many Latter-day Saint emigrants from Europe passed through Philadelphia between 1855 and 1857. The first stake in Philadelphia was created in 1960 with 1,100 members in congregations throughout southeastern Pennsylvania and in New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. The temple district will serve more than 32,000 members in eight stakes.