In the back office of his Weston, Mass., headquarters a quarter-­century ago, Mitt Romney, the chief Mormon authority in the Boston area, told the leader of his Spanish-speaking congregation that he would not directly pay for lawyers to help the growing number of illegal immigrants in his church. Then he carefully instructed his subordinate on how to circumvent the Mormon Church’s new hard line against such assistance and subsidize their legal aide.

“In those issues I cannot help you financially to pay for lawyers,” Romney said, according to Jose Francisco Anleu, a Guatemalan immigrant. “But what I can do is allow you to give them food assistance from the bishop’s warehouse,” a church welfare pantry. The money saved could be used to “pay lawyers.” He reminded Anleu that he could use church funds to cover rent, utilities and health care for his needy members. The money came from Anleu’s budget, but, as Anleu noted decades later, it was a budget sustained by Romney’s office.

A close look at Romney’s leadership in his church shows how his actions sometimes clashed with his political positions, which include advocating on the campaign trail for a policy of “self-deportation.” Romney’s decades as a lay church leader — first as bishop and later as stake president, which gave him dominion over all the churches in and around Boston — shaped a man as orthodox and committed to his faith as any presidential nominee in history. It is an experience that demonstrates Romney’s mastery of the institution and confidence in his authority.

“Mitt’s responsibilities in the church had either been teaching or supportive,” said Gordon Williams, who as a Boston stake president acted as Romney’s mentor and patron. “When you are a bishop, you are the lone person in the wilderness, all the responsibility is yours now.” Spiritually, Williams added, “this then requires the expansion of a different element of your understanding about how to interact with people — particularly in an ecclesiastical sense, rather than being a CEO of a company.”

This article is based on conversations with dozens of church officials and members who served and worshiped with Romney. Romney declined to comment, and his campaign declined to contribute to this account.

On the presidential campaign trail, Romney has sealed off his experience as a Mormon prelate, only rarely and vaguely mentioning his church leadership. On Sunday, Romney, who often goes to Mormon services when on the road, read scriptures from an iPad, received the sacrament of white bread and water and sang hymns with his family as he attended church near his lake house in New Hampshire. And for the first time since becoming a presidential candidate, he invited the media to watch, indicating that he was willing to put aside reservations about the political consequences of his faith and start allowing some access to that private space.

But for decades, Romney has made a point not to draw attention to his role in the church. In that mostly invisible universe, Romney consistently acted as a community organizer with a genius for milking hours out of the workweek and talent from his aides. He wept with spiritual fervor and believed in a traditional brand of Mormonism that sought daily divine intervention, according to many of his fellow churchgoers. But he also favored tangible action over introspection and told Patrick Graham, a confidant at Bain & Co., that he planned to give half his money to the church. He faced difficult cultural issues in his congregation, such as a push for more of a church role by devout Mormon feminists, first with a tin ear and then with an open mind.

Throughout, he assuredly handled special keys that Mormons believe granted him authority.

Since the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the passage of the Keys of the Priesthood has conferred authority upon the leaders who safeguard the flock. Mormons believe the resurrected apostles Peter, James and John gave the religion’s founder, Joseph Smith, the long-lost keys to God’s kingdom in 1829. A century later, the church president, Joseph Fielding Smith, declared that “those who hold the keys” have the “power and authority to govern and direct all of the Lord’s affairs on earth.” And on New Year’s Day 1982, church leaders laid their hands on Romney’s head and unlocked for him the requisite spiritual powers to fulfill his new office of bishop.

A few minutes later, Romney’s predecessor, Kent Bowen, approached him in the foyer of the Longfellow Park Chapel, on Cambridge’s stately Brattle Street. He patted Romney on the back and unceremoniously handed his successor a ring full of keys.

“Is that it?” Romney asked.

An ‘iron-rodder’

Romney arrived in Boston in 1971 as a first-year student enrolled in Harvard University’s business and law schools. Over the next decade, as he studied and graduated and worked for top consulting firms, he also immersed himself in the church.

Blessed with one of the most renowned names in Mormonism and eager to fulfill his ecclesiastical and spiritual destiny, Romney beat a decade-long path through the intellectually dynamic Longfellow Park Chapel, where antiwar liberals, brilliant academics, John Birch Society members and fellow business students all worshiped together under a rose window.

Romney’s church service in the 1970s — when he served as a bishop’s assistant, a religion teacher to teenagers and a networking member of a council of church elders — put him in a position, at the relatively young age of 34, to answer the calling of bishop and take hold of the physical and figurative keys.

As bishop, Romney held his flock to a high standard. He expected congregants to fill out the Tithing and Other Offerings slips available outside his office, next to the envelopes addressed to “Bishop Mitt Romney.” He determined who could and could not carry a “recommend,” a physical card that serves as proof of a person’s doctrinal standing and suitability to enter the sacred temples.

Romney’s reputation as an effective but literal-minded businessman led some in the church to consider him more interested in practical answers than in the big questions.

“He was a real iron-rodder,” said Barbara Taylor, a member of the Boston church.

The term is a reference to a passage in the Book of Mormon in which Lehi, a prophet who leads his Israelite tribe out of Jerusalem and to the Americas, dreams of an iron rod along a “straight and narrow” path. In Mormon parlance, iron-rodders are certain that prophetic revelation and scriptural instruction such as the Word of Wisdom, which proscribes the use of wine, tobacco and hot drinks, will lead them toward a righteous life and, eventually, godhood.

Romney’s first weeks as bishop shook that certitude. After a spate of counseling sessions with members suffering financial problems, he came into one meeting of his senior advisers shaking his head.

“I had no idea that people lived like that,” Romney said, according to Phil Barlow, one of his counselors.

Barlow, a graduate student at Harvard studying religion, considered his own appointment an acknowledgment by Romney of his lack of intellectual curiosity. Others saw a signal of openness toward members of the flock who had once fallen away in his appointment of John Udall, a recently “reactivated” Mormon of a prominent Arizona family, as his other counselor.

Romney told Grant Bennett, another counselor, that he wanted everyone in the congregation to “feel something in common with someone in the bishopric.”

Romney wanted to make the most of his 20 hours of church service a week. He proposed holding meetings at 6 a.m. at his brown-shingled house in Belmont on Saturday mornings. In deference to the late sleepers, he held Sunday meetings at 6:30 a.m.

“How early is it polite for me to call you?” he asked Bennett.

Nolan Don Archibal, a former member of the Cambridge congregation who went on to become executive chairman of the board at Stanley Black & Decker, said Romney picked up the phone to help the unemployed members of his congregation find work. He acted as a marriage counselor and a mentor to troubled teens and provided a willing ear to lonely widows. He called on those in his flock struggling with a crisis in faith to publicly meditate on their problems at sacrament meetings.

He believed in avoiding problems before they started. Bennett recalled Romney, who set aside Tuesday nights for annual one-on-one meetings with young members, poring over lists of birthdays to make sure he saw everyone.

In a building that prominently featured a depiction of Jesus instructing a rich young man to give his treasure to the poor, Romney reached out to the network of business leaders in the congregation to help put people on solid financial footing. He arranged for one member with money problems to sit down with Steven Wheelwright, a Harvard Business School professor who went on to run Brigham Young University at Hawaii, to develop a personal budget and a path to a better job, according to Bennett.

On one occasion, he dropped Barlow off at his home and the two discussed the array of challenges their congregation faced.

“The one that bothers me the most that I’ve thought a lot about over the years,” Romney told Barlow, “is how genuinely to help the poor.”

Romney was also honing his political and financial skills as bishop. When the growing congregation’s new $1.6 million chapel in Belmont burned down in a case of suspected arson — “We weren’t wanted,” he later told the church publication Ensign — Romney capitalized on the outpouring of sympathy to build ties to the larger religious community.

According to Barlow, when the church hierarchy in Salt Lake City, which sometimes called on the Mormons at Bain for informal consultation, floated a policy of getting more out of their missionaries by reducing their length of service but increasing their hours in the field, Romney worked out the numbers and, with his advisers arrayed around him, shook his head and said, “That’s wrong.”

Spiritual leader

In the Fall of 1986, a high-ranking member of the Salt Lake hierarchy visited Weston for 10 hours of interviews with potential successors to Williams, the outgoing stake president and a Harvard Medical School faculty member. To the surprise of many, the church realized Williams’s hope and chose Romney.

As Romney took on the role of spiritual leader, as much as 30 hours of church business a week piled onto his plate. In order to fulfill his church obligations, he generally avoided overnight travel for Bain, though he would sometimes swoop into high-council meetings at the last minute, taking his seat at the head of the table with his back to the chalkboard.

Romney’ s office in Weston featured portraits of the Mormon Church’s president and his two counselors, and a note board, hid behind folding wood panels, where stake presidents today still scribble the criteria for “perfect saints” and reminders to “seek out poor.”

Romney opened his high-council meetings by kneeling in prayer, often showing a special fondness from a passage in his gospel that reminded men that the savior sees all of their travails and will not forget them.

“Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee, O house of Israel,” Romney would say. “Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me.”

Romney’s authority as stake president over the thousands of Mormons in the Boston area was near absolute.

“It’s basically a theocracy,” said Brent Lambert, a counselor to the Boston area’s mission president when Romney served as stake president. Mormons, he said, believe Jesus Christ indirectly picks their leaders. “If you want to question a church leader, you are really questioning the judgment of the savior, and that doesn’t work.”

As a result, there was hardly any dissent. When Romney called Robert Bennett to become bishop of the Weston ward, Bennett said to him, “But President, don’t you remember I’ve already been a bishop once? I’ve been there, done that. Did I just not do it right, so I need another chance at it?”

Romney responded, “No, you just didn’t do it long enough,” Bennett recalled.

In the crowded Belmont chapel, Romney approached Richard B. Anderson, whose mother, Leola, had decades earlier been sitting in the front seat of a car between Romney, then a young missionary behind the wheel, and her husband, Duane Anderson, president of the French mission, when an oncoming car crossed into their lane. The impact killed Leola and nearly killed Romney, who, in the absence of the mourning mission president, healed and emerged as the mission’s leader.

Now as stake president, Romney called Anderson to act as a “stake missionary” by leaving his comfortable suburb to lead an upstart congregation of Cambodian refugees in the neighboring city of Lynn. Anderson grumbled, but he said Romney reminded him that “these things don’t come from me. You go home and discuss it with the source.”

Romney used the Keys of the Priesthood to “set apart” men for special service. “He laid his hands on my head,” said Kenneth Hutchins, a counselor to Romney. He added that Romney also conferred blessings and laid hands on people “who were in dire straits, on people who were physically, mentally and emotionally suffering.”

Romney himself sought such healing powers when he suffered from a serious leg infection and told Bennett he could see the redness climbing up his calf’s veins. In a religion in which God is believed to speak through prophets, and prayers are often asked for matters grave and mundane, Romney also sought divine guidance for business success and had a strong sense of God’s literal presence.

Romney often began speeches by explicitly channeling the Holy Spirit in the hopes of imbuing his remarks to the congregation with an aura of truth.

Tony Kimball, Romney’s executive secretary in the stake presidency, recalled one occasion in which Romney asked speakers attending a conference about the Book of Mormon to come especially prepared to engage with the Holy Spirit. Several of the speakers, including Romney, were so overcome with emotion during their sermons that they became choked up.

Romney’s most emotional addresses came when he bore his testimony, a practice in the church in which speakers share a first-person declaration of what they know to be true. Often beginning, “I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet and that the church is true,” Romney sometimes became teary-eyed as he said the words, according to Kimball.

Romney became known in the church for being emotionally invested. When the daughter of Bob Gay, a Bain colleague who once sat with Romney on the church’s high council, vanished, Romney shut down his Bain offices and arranged for a search party. After she was found shaken but safe in New Jersey, Romney boarded a bus to the airport with John Hoffmire, another Bain colleague who belonged to the church. Tears welled up in Romney’s eyes as he talked about his journey through New York’s rave clubs showing teenagers a picture of Gay’s daughter.

“I looked at this young man, and he had a bolt through his lip,” Hoffmire recalled Romney telling him. “But the strongest feeling came over me, and I just thought, ‘The heavenly father loved that young man just as much as he loved anybody.’ ”

He also gradually shed his reputation as an enforcer of the doctrine of the faith. He compromised with the Mormon feminists who wanted more speaking roles and recognition of accomplishments in the church and, after initial inattentiveness, commanded his bishops to root out domestic abuse in their wards, according to several women who witnessed Romney’s progression.

And he bucked tradition by calling on Kimball, a professor in government who was both single and an adherent of the progressive New Mormon History movement, to be his executive secretary, and then later to be a Sunday-school teacher. When grumbling emerged about Kimball’s unorthodox takes on the scriptures, Romney appointed his Bain colleague, Darrell Rigby, to teach an alternate traditional class. He also refused to let Mick Watson, a counselor in the stake presidency, step down as a result of his wife’s divorcing him. He did not want to send the message that divorced men could not have a church calling.

“He was very supportive,” Watson said. “Very good about it.”

The image of the Boston church, both among members and among the wider public, mattered to Romney.

In 1988, the local Boston talk show “People Are Talking” featured the authors of a book that recounted the church’s purchase of forged letters that purported to show that a magical salamander, and not the angel Moroni, revealed the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith. The forger’s cover-up led to murder and prompted a controversy that shook the church.

Romney called on Dennis Lythgoe, a historian he served with a decade earlier, to go on television to defend the church.

He then appointed Ron Scott, a former Time magazine reporter who worshiped in the Weston ward, as the church’s director of public affairs.

At Romney’s direction, Scott used the Mormon athletes playing for Boston teams at the time — Celtics star Danny Ainge often watched full-court pickup games at the Weston Stake Center — as a media draw.

“That was very successful at making the church seem more normal than it had before,” said Scott, who noted that Romney would play a central part in the events.

But Romney’s main focus was the church’s growth. At the time, the Boston mission president, Kem Gardner, who was later credited with persuading Romney to lead the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, proposed programs to make the church’s proselytizing efforts more effective. He suggested that Mormon missionaries engage in “street contacting” rather than just knocking on doors. Some more prominent members in wealthier neighborhoods expressed unease about the proposal, but according to Lambert, Romney said, “Look, this is why we are here!”

Branching out

Hughes and Rosette Armand came to the United States from Haiti in the early 1980s and established themselves as one of the anchor families of a new Mormon community that met in a rented outpatient medical center on American Legion Highway. During his trips to the church’s Boston branch, Romney would greet Rosette in his rusty French, saying, “Sister Armand, bonjour. Comment ca va?” When he interviewed her to gauge her spiritual preparation for trips to the Washington Temple, he asked about her family life and if she believed in the church’s teaching. In one interview, Rosette complained that she often missed church because her employer never gave her Sundays off.

“Well, okay, Sister Armand,” she recalled Romney as saying. “Okay, for now, you don’t have to leave your job. You need your job. Pray about it. The Lord will help you.”

Soon after, Armand said she did get Sundays off, a development she attributed to divine intervention. More difficult to come by were work authorization papers. “I didn’t have it,” said Armand, who has since acquired her green card. She said she had been working “illegally.”

The church had turned a blind eye to the immigration status of its newest members for years, according to officials at the time, and while there was no church policy to assist those who were “illegal in some sense,” according to Williams, “informally” there was an effort to use the network of professionals in the Mormon community to come to their aid. New conservative leadership in Salt Lake City halted that arrangement, and in Boston, rumors ran wild among the immigrant Mormon community that bishops had banned baptisms for anyone without papers.

First as a counselor to Williams and then as a suburban bishop with a keen sense of the church’s void in the inner city, Romney knew of the church’s activities and plans for expansion in the immigrant neighborhoods of Boston. He told Hoffmire, the fellow Mormon at Bain Capital, that a church presence there was “important.”

On one early visit to the Boston branch, a translator whispered in Romney’s ear as the Armands addressed the congregation in French Creole. When it was his turn to speak, Romney encouraged the congregation to increase its attendance to justify a new Boston building to church headquarters. He gave a specific goal of 80 people over the coming months. Barely half that number sat listening to him.

Romney endorsed the branch’s practice of setting up more chairs than there were people to fill them and encouraged the local leaders to make several trips into the city to physically bring congregants to church.

Romney did his part, sometimes showing up on Sunday with as many as 20 of his relatives to help the congregation fill the seats. On occasion, his father, George, joined the ranks and told the diverse congregations that converts were critical to the church.

Two of his own children, including Mitt, he said, had married outside the faith. He talked about how he had personally helped convert Ann as a young girl and that her relationship with Mitt, and the faith, remained strong, according to Hoffmire.

The Boston branch showed the expanding church’s changing complexion. “The unity between the people was nice,” said Astrid Louis , one of the original Haitians in the congregation who decades later rented Romney some white robes to worship in the holy temple, where she worked the cash register. Under Romney, she said, the Haitian population “grew and grew.”

As attendance climbed and Salt Lake City warmed to the notion of a new building, Romney dispatched Hoffmire to a zoning board meeting, telling him, “You are to introduce yourself as the president of the Quorum of the Elders,” Hoffmire recalled. “He was very aware of how the church’s language is just a little bit different.”

On May 22, 1988, Romney, wearing a charcoal suit, addressed a small crowd in an unkempt lot surrounded by a chain-link fence. Amid a stand featuring a “What Do Mormons Believe” poster, Romney dug one of 12 shovels bearing gold bows into the earth for the groundbreaking of the new church. “It was such a joy,” said Celestine Benjamin, a founding member. Her friend Esther Corbin, like Benjamin from Barbados, took her shovel home and kept it for 25 years.

Days after the ceremony, Romney called Keith Knighton, a music teacher, to his house to discuss the Boston branch. “Keith, when I call branch presidents, I usually don’t give them any instructions. But I feel impressed to give you some instructions,” Knighton recalled Romney telling him. “My instruction to you is love them.”

A few days later, with Knighton’s family in attendance at the church headquarters in Weston, Romney laid his hands on Knighton’s head, blessing him with the keys of authority.

Romney then green-lighted and funded Knighton’s programs to increase attendance at the brick building, where Knighton introduced foreign-food Christmas dinners, simultaneously translated sacrament meetings and foreign-language Sunday schools. He also told Knighton to enlist the help of lawyers and social workers in the church’s wealthier congregations.

“Keith, you hire these people and you pay them professional wages,” Knighton recalled Romney telling him. “I don’t want this to be church service. I want this to be professional all the way.”

Knighton said that “everything I did I cleared with Mitt before I did it.” But Knighton insisted immigration advice was not one of the services the church made available. Missionaries in the branch at the time remembered it differently.

“There was a concerted effort to help out Haitians,” said Jim Fish, then a missionary fluent in French Creole, who said that “a very common situation” was one in which a Haitian family would come to the United States on a visa, overstay and have children born in Boston as U.S. citizens. Keeping the families together was paramount for the church, and Fish often urged families who suffered persecution back in Haiti to file for political asylum.

He also recalled that, at Knighton’s direction, he took the subway to seek the professional counsel of Mormon lawyers in tonier Boston suburbs so that they could “help someone with their immigration status.”

The branch’s population boomed, a growth that Knighton, Fish and other missionaries attributed in part to Romney, who then sought to duplicate that success among immigrant communities in other parts of Boston.

Marco Velasquez, an immigrant from Guatemala, said that under Romney the church held workshops to learn English and make gallons of inexpensive liquid soap. He also said that while he had papers, most of the other Latino members did not. Some came on three-month tourist visas and stayed. Many of the Central Americans, he said, simply walked across the border into Texas and made their way up to Boston.

“There is always a way to get papers — you had to pay extra,” said Velasquez, who added that he had a network in East Boston that could get people Social Security cards — “but they were not real.” A counselor in Cambridge before digging his shovel into the ground alongside Romney at the Boston branch’s groundbreaking, he said the church “had to know, but they didn’t say anything.” The same, he said, went for Romney. “He probably suspected that I was doing it.”

Sunday school

On March 20, 1994, Salt Lake City released Romney from his obligation as stake president as he ran for a Senate seat against Edward M. Kennedy.

Even as a candidate, Romney could not keep away from the church service that was so intrinsic to his personal identity and spiritual destiny. After a Sunday sacrament meeting, Romney loitered behind in the Belmont chapel outside his old office, where Grant Bennett, his former counselor and Bain colleague, had become the new bishop.

“Bishop,” Romney said, “I want you to know that I don’t have a calling and am very willing to do whatever you ask me to do.”

Bennett appointed him as a Sunday school teacher. During one of those Sunday lessons, Romney welcomed Leo and Marilyn Lee Brown, congregants of his old Longfellow chapel, who were in town for a visit. Leo Brown said Romney then taught a lesson about the perils of war, pointing the class to the Book of Mormon chapter depicting a battle between the scripture’s great tribes.

“I and my people did cry mightily to the Lord that he would deliver us out of the hands of our enemies,” Romney read from the scripture. “For we were awakened to a remembrance of the deliverance of our fathers.”