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On a clear fall Sunday this week, thousands of worshippers converged on a hilltop in Belmont, Mass. to dedicate the 100th temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).
At the dedication, church president Gordon B. Hinckley led the group in hymns and prayer. But the solemn tone masked the deep excitement of Mormons in New England and at Harvard at having a temple of their own.
"We consider it the most sacred place on earth," says Margaret Woolley, a second-year student at Harvard Business School. "I can practice my religion more fully."
The dedication of the Boston Temple, where Mormon believers can conduct the holiest rites of their faith, marks a homecoming for a church whose founder was born in New England but which has long had its strongest ties to the American West.
And for Harvard's rapidly growing Mormon population, the temple dedication Sunday provided a renewed sense of connectedness and community.
"The specialness of the temple being built is not so much in the dedication of the temple, but rather in there finally being a temple here," says Jason P. Brinton '00-'02.
Most of the more than 100 Mormon students at Harvard attended the temple dedication, as well as faculty members and staff.
"It has a historical significance," says Dr. Keith G. Allred, a Pforzheimer House tutor and assistant professor at the Kennedy School of Government who serves as bishop of the Cambridge Second Ward of LDS. "At the time of the church's founding all the believers packed up and moved west. This represents a return of the church to the Northeast and a growing presence of the church in this area that necessitated a new temple."
For Allred, who is a direct descendent of the grandfather of LDS founder Joseph Smith, the event was especially meaningful.
"Those of us that are the progeny of those first founders grew up in the west," he says. "This has particular significance because we're finally coming back east."
Smith was born in Vermont, and the church was founded in New England. But since the mass exodus to Utah in 1846, the church has had few adherents in the east until recently.
Mormonism has grown quickly in the Northeast. According to The Boston Globe, there are currently 16,000 Mormons in Massachusetts--a number that has tripled in the last 25 years.
At Harvard, Brinton says, the number of Mormon undergraduates has more than doubled since his first year, to almost 60.
"A lot of Mormons only consider church schools or schools in Utah...A lot of Mormons would be scared to send their kids to Harvard," says Matthew W. Baker '00-'02. "But that's changing as more people graduate with good experiences. The liberal atmosphere may be a bit jarring at times, but in general we think it's a good thing to know what's out there."
With such growth, some students say it has become more difficult to sustain a close sense of community at Harvard.
"We meet once a week, but not everyone comes," Baker says. "Because our numbers are growing, it's becoming harder to have the family atmosphere we strive for. I wouldn't say we're tight-knit because it is something very specific we have in common."
But the power of their shared faith and lifestyle is very important, Mormon students say. They say they hope the new temple will help tie their community together more closely.
"The thing that characterizes Mormons in communities is that they're such a cohesive group," Woolley says.
"Business school is such a crazy, indulgent experience," she adds. "It's great to hear how other people of my religion are living out their faith. Partying is a big part of the culture. Sure, we go to parties, but there are lots of things that we don't approve of. For example, we don't drink. It would be hard to be the only Mormon at a school. There would be lots of pressure to engage in activities like these. The strength of having a community is powerful."
At home, that community is rooted in the family.
"I have three brothers and three sisters," Brinton says. "On Monday nights we had Family Home Evening. About eight o'clock my dad would give a lesson out of the New Testament, then we'd get together and play games."
But at college, Mormon students make a concerted effort to create a tight community, including religious education, classes and social events.
"We all go to the same congregation, and that helps," Brinton says.
One indication of Mormon students' enthusiasm for the new temple was the number who turned out to volunteer for open houses at the gigantic granite building.
Brinton, who directed the volunteer efforts of the student congregation during tour hours last month, says that Harvard students were particularly dedicated.
"Some Saturdays and Sundays two thirds of the people volunteering at the temple were Harvard students," he says.
Before the dedication, the temple was open for three weeks for public tours. Now that the temple has been dedicated, it will only be open to those Mormons recommended as "worthy" by the church.
A number of Harvard students, both Mormons and non-Mormons, visited in September.
"It was immaculately designed...though it wasn't as ritualistic as I expected," says Richard T. Halvorson '03, a non-Mormon student who was one of the thousands of visitors over the course of the open house. "In Catholic and Protestant churches you expect a large space for congregational worship, but it was comprised of lots of smaller rooms for ceremonies and reflection. It was not what you'd expect seeing a building that big."
Halvorson says he admired the intricate design and rich symbolism. The building is decorated with lighter colors near the top floors, symbolizing a growing closeness to God.
"The carpet, the paint, even the wood gets lighter," Halvorson says.
The temple is primarily intended as the site of three key covenants: endowments, baptisms for the dead and sealings.
Endowment is "a gift of blessings from God; things that He has promised for us and knowledge He wants to impart to us," Baker says. "It's basically a personal commitment to God."
In the rite of baptism for the dead, ancestors are posthumously given a physical baptism by water.
"We believe that God is just and fair and loves all His children, so it's important that all His children have an opportunity to accept or reject the Gospel," Baker says.
The third ceremony, sealing, formally binds family members together for all time.
"These sealing ties are efficacious beyond this life," Brinton says. "I love my family and it is a beautiful thing that we will be together for eternity."
These three covenants can only be performed in a temple. Before Sunday's dedication, believers had to travel to Washington, D.C., to take part.
Before, "I could only participate in this higher worship every few months," Woolley says.
Two years ago, Hinckley announced that the church would increase the number of temples worldwide from 55 to 100 by the year 2000, a goal achieved in Belmont on Sunday.
In addition to its practical significance, the temple is an anchor of the Mormon community in the region and at the community, Baker says.
"The temple is a physical place where heaven and earth meet," he wrote in an e-mail message. "It can be a place of refuge for the Harvard student because inside the walls the things that cause us so much stress while we're at school no longer seem so important. It is a reminder that there is a vital spiritual side to our lives that the Harvard beast cannot touch."
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