Move over Mesa Arizona Temple of the Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints.  You’ve been upstaged by a magnificent edifice 15 miles southeast in Gilbert. The Gilbert Arizona Temple is a stunning  jewel on the Southeast Valley landscape.  It’s an eye-catching landmark along Loop 101 that is well worth a visit before it is shut off to the general public so the church can begin the work it was built for.

The temple, 3301 S. Greenfield Road, is a veritable showpiece of architecture and design.   Some 30 of us took a two-hour press tour of the new temple on Wednesday, before hundreds of thousands of curious members of the public were to begin a marathon come-see Saturday and in the weeks ahead through Feb. 15. After the temple is formally dedicated March 2 by LDS Prophet/President Thomas Monson, it will be off-limits to the public.  Only card-carrying Mormons with “recommends” from their ward bishops will be allowed inside the building, used primarily for temple marriages, baptisms of the dead and other rites of the church. With 400,000 Mormons in Arizona and the biggest concentration in the East Valley, the time had come to add another temple.

It becomes the fourth LDS temple in Arizona, after the Mesa temple, dedicated in 1927; a temple dedicated in March 2002 in Snowflake; and the Gila Valley temple at Central, just north of  Thatcher, dedicated in May 2010.  A fifth temple is now under construction on West Pinnacle Peak Road near 53rd Avenue in northwest Phoenix, while yet a sixth is on the drawing board for Tucson. Leaders say they are accommodating a growing church that claims about 15 million members worldwide.

Thursday’s grand tour was led by Elder William Walker,  who has been executive director of the Temple Department at the church’s headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, since 2007.   The church has been a temple-building binge, especially since 1993.  Theretofore, the church had 45 temples worldwide.  The Mesa temple was the seventh one built.   Since 1993, 97 temples have been dedicated, including 34 in the year 2000.  Walker skirted questions about construction costs, saying it was paid out of general church funds (no special fund-raising campaign) and that faithful Mormons, paying their 10 percent tithes, made it possible.  Asked if individual Mormons wanted to know how much was really spent on the project, he said a determined person could check City of Gilbert building office records, but that it was rare for a member to raise the question.  To a suggestion that the church could have better spent the same money on serving the poor and needy, Walker said the church already carries out a robust worldwide outreach to the poor and disaster relief.  He said temples become immediate icons for members, and teens typically display photos of their temples on their bedroom walls.

The Gilbert Arizona Temple is a magnificent building of straight lines, stunning and endless sets of stained glass windows, shining marble hallways, elegant carpets and craftsmanship in woodwork, seating, chandeliers and tasteful, classy furnishings. Walker deliberately promised nothing would be left out of the tour.  The jar-dropping stop was the  Celestial Room with a 1,500-pound 8-foot tall Swarovski chandelier, towering mirrors, striking pillars and rich furnishings.  It is regarded as the most sacred room in the temple and all are to remain silent within the walls of the brightly lit room with white carpeting.

The agave of the Southwest was repeated again and again and again in designs in the walls, windows and cornices. The temple, like most others (Mesa excluded), is topped by a golden figure of the angel Moroni — 195 feet atop the dramatic center spire that suggests a rocket ready to take off from a square launching pad.

Mystery has traditionally surrounded a Mormon temple for non-members. What REALLY goes on when they perform the baptisms for the dead?   And what are these “sealing rooms” for LDS weddings all about?  Our group wend it way through the labyrinth of  rooms and corridors, visiting a locker room where temple workers are able to step into their own private areas, change into white temple clothing and perform their ordinance work.  There are seven “sealing rooms” so that as many as seven marriage ceremonies can take place simultaneously.  Elaborately furnished side rooms large and small will handle the crowds of families as they gather, wait and eventually move to the sealing ceremonies.   One room with a  rug crafted with embroidery in Asia is where brides do their last primping after dressing in nearby rooms. Oddly, there is no locker or dressing rooms for males in wedding parties.

Massive mirrors, original large Arizona landscape painting complement a large number of scenes of Christ’s ministry or scenes from the Mormon Church’s earlier years.  On the first day of taking reservations for weddings, there were 100 inquires and 30 sealings booked. One caller insisted that she be penciled in the calendar for the first wedding, Walker said.  He said he expected the temple would be holding 30 to 40 weddings on some days.  Only temple-worthy church members may be present for the 20-minute sacred ceremonies.

Baptisms for the dead will take place in the lower floor of the temple.  The round baptistry is similar to those in all temple — a large round, walk-in pool erected on the backs of 12 oxen that symbolically represent the 12 tribes of Israel, which biblically is referenced in I Kings Chapter 7:24.  The temple, which has 85,236 square feet of space,  sits on 15.4 acres that are already assiduously manicured.

Plans call for about 100,000 members to be served from the Mesa temple and 100,000 from the new Gilbert site, which has its own new, stunning chapel to serve a stake.  About 200 wards, or separate congregation, can be found in the area.

As of Wednesday, there had been about 347,000 people scheduled for the open houses to tour the new temple  through Feb. 15, excluding Sundays.  Architekton in Tempe was the architect, while Okland Construction Company of Tempe was the main contractor.

Those taking tours will be asked to wear shoe coverings to protect the extensive carpeting in the temple.  Reservations for open houses can be made at ABC15 will air a 30-minute special about the new temple at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 17.