In Mitt Romney's Neighborhood, A Mormon Temple Casts a Shadow

By Sridhar Pappu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 15, 2007

BELMONT, Mass. -- It is late in the afternoon, just hours after this town's most famous resident and current Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, delivered a speech in Texas to address questions about his Mormon faith. And for all the clamor surrounding him, here at the Boston Massachusetts Temple -- a controversial edifice that Romney helped build -- there is only silence.

In the foyer, men in white suits and women in floor-length white dresses greet those of the Mormon faith who have "temple recommend" cards allowing them entry to the rooms beyond. The immaculate space is devoid of decoration save for a portrait of Jesus tending a flock. Volunteers read Scripture to help pass the time. Could this be what it feels like to sit in the waiting room to heaven?

Even to an outsider, there is a serenity to the grounds. Built of marble imported from Italy, the temple sits on a hill high above this well-heeled suburb, surrounded by tall trees, an immaculate lawn and an even more immaculate parking lot. Though it isn't as luminous as its Washington counterpart, it's said that on clear days you can see the steeple, with its gold-leaf statue of the angel Moroni, five miles away in Harvard Square.

Unlike "meetinghouses," which serve as chapels where Mormons and non-Mormons can gather, sing hymns and listen to sermons, there are no regular Sunday worship services at a temple. (The building is in fact closed on Sundays.) Instead, this is a place for different rituals -- ceremonies for eternal marriages, occasions where you can bind yourself to family members for eternity or retroactively baptize the dead.

Despite its pristine appearance, though, this temple is the product of a messy civic battle that went all the way to the state's highest court.

For many on both sides, the debate is still raw seven years after the temple opened. John Forster, the onetime spokesman for a group of neighbors, says, "I don't care what they believe. Why did they have to put a facility for the whole Northeast in a residential neighborhood? Romney and other Mormons always tried to cast themselves as victims of oppression and religious discrimination and it was never about that. It was about square feet."

Grant Bennett, who represented the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during the temple's construction, called the endeavor a "significant struggle."

Like Romney, Bennett came east from Utah for graduate work at one of the Cambridge schools -- he studied at MIT, while Romney earned business and law degrees from Harvard. Both are part of a ward -- the Mormon equivalent of a congregation -- that was created in Belmont after the one in Cambridge outgrew its quarters on Harvard Square.

Romney held the unpaid position of bishop of the Belmont ward from 1984 to 1986 and supervised construction of the meetinghouse, which sits at the bottom of the hill where the temple now stands. As both the ecclesiastical and administrative head of the congregation, Romney set up Sunday school assignments and speakers, and counseled people about marital troubles or wayward teenage kids.

It was also his job to reinvigorate those who served alongside him. Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen remembers a period during Romney's tenure as bishop when both Christensen and his wife, Christine, were emotionally drained by their religious obligations. One evening the couple sat at their kitchen table feeling depleted when someone knocked on the door. In came Romney, on his way home from work.

"I needed to come here and tell you that God loves you. He's been trying to tell you directly and it doesn't seem like you're hearing him," Christensen recalls Romney saying. "The Lord must have given me the message so that you could hear it for yourselves." The Christensens both broke down crying.

After serving as president of the Boston stake (the equivalent of a diocese) from 1986 to 1994, Romney stepped down for his unsuccessful U.S. Senate run against Ted Kennedy. Afterward, Bennett, now the bishop of the Belmont ward, appointed the future governor to teach Sunday school.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company