The Mormon Temple near 18th and Vine, set to be completed this summer.

The Mormon Temple near 18th and Vine, set to be completed this summer.

Mark Dent/Billy Penn

How Philly’s young Mormons are preparing for their new temple

Peter and Jenny Diehl own front row seats to the construction of a building expected to be a lifechanger for Philadelphia Mormons like them.

They reside in the One Franklin Town apartments, a couple blocks off the Parkway and just north of what will soon be the first Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints temple in Philadelphia. The Diehls, who are both 31, see it outside one of their apartment windows. They pass it daily.  

“Every time I walk by,” Jenny Diehl said, “I want to shout (to construction workers), ‘thank you for building our temple. It’s beautiful.’”

Temples are what Mormons consider the most sacred sites on earth. And from the beginning of the organized religion through today, Philadelphia Mormons have had to travel to New York or Washington D.C. to visit one. As of September, that will no longer be the case. The entire complex, located near 18th and Vine streets and close to the Basilica, features the temple, topped by two steeples rising to 117 feet, a meetinghouse and an apartment project. Its outer design is meant to echo Independence Hall and other buildings from 18th century Philadelphia.  

When the temple is finished this summer and opens in September, Mormons will have their own sacred site, as well as something else: Visible proof that Mormons, too, have their own place among city’s multitude of religions.    

“It creates more visibility for the church,” said 23-year-old Yaroslava Camacho. “Whereas right now, it might not be known there are Mormons in Philly.”

Utah is the capital of the Mormon faith, but Pennsylvania is where major facets of the religion came to be. Joseph Smith, the religion’s founder, lived in Susquehanna County, where he translated the Book of Mormon and became the first LDS priest. He famously visited Philadelphia in 1839 and spoke to an audience of 3,000 people at a church near 4th and Lombard.

But most followers of the religion migrated west and apparently not many ever moved back to Pennsylvania or the Philadelphia region. It would be another 121 years before Philly got its first Mormon “stake” — similar to an archdiocese. Pennsylvania has one of the lowest populations of Mormons per capita of any state, with LDS members making up about .4 percent of Pennsylvania’s population. If that percentage is the same in Philly, about 6,400 Mormons live in the city. 

Camacho, who is originally from Mexico, moved here a few years ago to attend Penn, a school she chose in part because of its smaller Mormon population. In the campus LDS group, Camacho recalls there being six Mormons in her class and eight in the class after her.

Young Mormons like her meet together multiple times a week in groups known as wards or denominations, worshiping on Sundays and doing service projects or casual activities other days. The smaller community builds camaraderie among fellow LDS members, and encourages immersion in the culture of others in Philadelphia. There are plenty of new activities they can get involved in, and plenty they can’t. Mormons abstain from alcohol, smoking and coffee.

Peter Diehl, who works for Wells Fargo, said it hasn’t been a problem for him in the nearly two years he’s lived here. When his co-workers go out for drinks, he opts for a soda.  

Hamaidu Fadika, 24, has been living with extended family in the suburbs while on a break from his studies at BYU-Idaho. One of his favorite things about Philly is going out to jazz bars with his cousin. Of course, he always acts as the designated driver, and his non-Mormon family members and friends routinely need his help.

“I’m so glad I’m not in a situation where I’d have to get someone to drive me home,” he said. “I’m always sober-minded and appreciative of living this way. I get to reflect on those things on Sunday and thank God I’m strong enough to do it.”

Sunday worship takes place at meetinghouses. The temple is a site for sacraments, instruction and meditation and other aspects of the religion that, as area LDS leader Milan Kunz put it, unites families.

The decision for how often to frequent the temple is personal. Many Mormons go weekly or monthly. For those in Philadelphia, such a schedule has been nearly impossible. The Diehls have been going once or twice a year, usually in a large group that travels to New York or Washington together.

In a few months, the temple complete, they’ll just walk down the street.

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