Facing his neighbors in the oval-shaped heart of the massive 70,000-square foot temple, Bennett shared his faith. For Bennett, who had endured much criticism from angry townsfolk as the church's local point man for the temple, the moment was sweet.
That feeling may be shared by many local Mormons as their temple is dedicated by LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley on Sunday.
The temple marks a milestone for the church: it is the faith's 100th temple, accomplishing a goal Hinckley set three years ago. It also may signal a coming-of-age for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in New England.
But the Sardinian granite structure, where Mormons participate in sacred rituals of baptism and marriage, has also been a source of contention in the Boston bedroom community of mostly wealthy, urbane professionals and lifelong New Englanders.
Neighbors on Belmont Hill, where the temple looms above million-dollar homes, vociferously opposed the church's plans. During months of debates, each side accused the other of duplicity, of breaking promises, stirring unreasonable antagonism and being insensitive.
Mormons and some neutral observers saw religious bigotry. Opponents charged religious favoritism.
"There are nice people in the church and nice people in the neighborhood, and both sides are saying the other folks aren't nice," said John Gahen, chairman of the zoning board that approved the church's plan. "The fight took on more momentum than I am used to seeing in small communities with nice people."
But it is the kind of fight over religious buildings that is being replayed in communities across the country, in many cases pitting a less established religious group against their neighbors. A small congregation of mostly elderly Orthodox Jews in a Los Angeles neighborhood was denied a permit to gather in a home for services. The Islamic Society of Frederick, Md., was not allowed access to city water and sewer lines for its proposed mosque.
"Small faiths are forced to litigate far more often," Douglas Laycock, professor of law at the University of Texas told The Christian Science Monitor. "The land use authorities are less sympathetic to their needs and react less favorably to their claims."
These sorts of squabbles provided the impetus for the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, introduced in Congress by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and signed into law by President Clinton last week. While not exempting religious groups from all zoning regulations, it does force cities and towns to show a "compelling reason" for restricting the free exercise of religion.
But for some Belmont residents, all this animosity is unseemly. In a town of 20,000 that features about 20 churches, one Jewish synagogue and a Bah'ai community, they take Yankee pride in being open and respectful of other people's religions.
"I grew up in New England and I have a hard time not liking someone because of their religion," said Melissa Pyle, who was reading a novel at Starbucks in the Belmont Center on Friday. "A church is a church. We are tolerant of all churches here."
Julia Welch, munching on Thai food in a restaurant across the street, said, "Belmont is a peaceful community. [The temple's opponents] are embarrassing us." Another resident, Zyg Furmaniuk, summed it up this way: "This is the United States. I don't care what other people believe, even if they worship the god Zorkan. That's their right."
This Is the Right Place:
In the spring of 1995, Belmont seemed the perfect location for the church's first temple in New England. Bennett took then newly ordained LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley on a tour of the Mormon chapel, rebuilt after an arson fire, and the surrounding 9-acre property owned by the church.
Six months later, at the church's October conference in Salt Lake City, Hinckley announced plans for a temple on the property, bringing the faith, in a sense, back to its roots.
After the main body of Mormons moved west, few members remained. It was not until the 1950s that the church began to grow here. In 1956, the first Mormon chapel was built in Cambridge on property purchased from the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's estate. The first stake, a geographic designation that encompasses several congregations, was established in 1962.
At the time, there were more Roman Catholics in the diocese of Massachusetts than Mormons in the world, recalled Elder Loren Dunn, the Belmont temple president recently.