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New Mormon temple in Tijuana reflects a growing flock in Mexico

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The Mormon temple in Tijuana will be the 13th in Mexico.
(John Gibbins / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The grand structure, white walls and soaring pillars reminiscent of Spanish Colonial times tower over Tijuana, a stark contrast to the gritty surroundings, where merchants sell fruit from worn carts and schoolkids play.

Emblazoned in gold at its entrance are the words “Holiness to the Lord; the house of God.”

Spurred by growth in Baja California, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is opening its first temple in Tijuana next month. At the foot of the city’s Cerro Colorado, it becomes the 13th Mormon temple in Mexico, a country whose ties to the faith date back centuries.

It’s expected to serve about 45,000 Latter-day Saints in the region. Until now, worshippers in Baja have had to travel to San Diego to visit the closest temple, in La Jolla. Some take 12-hour bus rides.

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Mormonism has seen exponential growth in recent years among Latinos, many of whom say they’re drawn to its structure and emphasis on family.

“This embodies the family.… It goes a step further than other religions,” said Emily Ortiz Wichmann, a representative with the church’s San Diego-Imperial County Regional Public Affairs Council. “It’s given us the perspective of eternal values that we can hang on to.”

Catholicism and mainline Protestant denominations have seen declines in membership in recent years. Mormonism has seen uninterrupted growth since its founding in New York in 1830.

Of the 15.3 million Mormons worldwide, an estimated 1.3 million live in Mexico, spread throughout 2,000 congregations, according to the church.

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Temples are constructed only when there’s a clear need for them in the community, according to church officials. The church has 150 temples around the world, with an additional two dozen planned or under construction.

The last temple to be built in Mexico was a decade ago, in the northern industrial city of Monterrey. The only other Mormon temple along the U.S.-Mexico border is in Ciudad Juarez.

“Mexico is a principal center for growth partly because we’ve been here for so long,” said Paul Pieper, first counselor in the presidency of the church in Mexico. “There’s a maturity and a base to grow from.”

Unlike the regular meeting houses or congregations — of which there are 32 in Tijuana — temples are reserved for the highest degree of worship, a solemn moment of spiritual uplifting. Mormons believe that Jesus Christ is present inside the temple walls, and that there’s no place more sacred.

Every inch of the 151-foot-tall Tijuana temple exudes craftsmanship. Marble staircases, towering wooden doors, railings made of bronze, open ceilings with crystal chandeliers and floors made of imported material fill its interior.

Life-size paintings of Christ line the elaborate hallways, each of which lead to a different room.

In the “sealing room,” for example, couples are married — or sealed together — for eternity.

The celestial room, considered the most sacred place in the temple, is symbolic of returning to heaven. An inexplicable serenity lingers in the room, its white walls trimmed in gold.

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tatiana.sanchez@sduniontribune.com

Sanchez writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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