RALEIGH -- The Mormon church's plans to build its first North Carolina temple reflects the denomination's nearly tripled membership over the past 20 years.
The temple, to be built in Raleigh or Durham, will serve the state's Mormons and church members in South Carolina and Virginia. It will be the only temple between Atlanta and Washington, D.C.
Gordon B. Hinckley, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, recently announced plans to build small temples in 30 sites, including the Raleigh-Durham area and Nashville, Tenn., by the year 2000.
In 1977, there were 19,000 members in North Carolina. Today, there are 53,000 members. Of the Southern states, only Florida and Virginia have more Mormons than North Carolina.
Worldwide, the church has 53 temples, considered the only places where members may perform marriages, as well as the vicarious baptisms Mormons commonly make on behalf of dead relatives.
"We view the temples as the house of the Lord," said Don LeFevre, spokesman for the Salt Lake City-based church. "It's the most sacred building in the church."
Many North Carolina Mormons now drive to the Washington temple each month. They say a regional temple would their lives simpler.
"It's like a dream come true," said Chloe Hodge of Raleigh, who at 82 can no longer travel far. "It's something we've looked forward to and hoped for all our church life."
John Taggart, president of the Raleigh stake, a geographic region limited to 4,000 members, said a site has been selected. But he said the church headquarters in Salt Lake City won't disclose the location until engineering tests are done.
"This will move right along fairly quickly," Taggart said. "From groundbreaking to dedication, it will take less than a year."
Once built, the public will be allowed to tour the facility, but after it has been dedicated its doors will be closed to all but church members in good standing.