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When the Paris France Temple is dedicated on May 21st, it will have marked forty years in the making—the same time as Moses and the Children of Israel wandered in the wilderness—and that is not lost on the French Latter-day Saints who have been hoping for a temple all of this time.
This temple dedication is no small thing, but, instead, a tremendous feat of patience and long work over decades. Those of us lay members who enjoy the bounties and fruits of having temples in our midst have little idea what skill, work, faith and finesse is required to bring a temple about from church leaders on the front lines. We do not see the miracles that quietly unfold to bring a temple to a people.
For anything less important or worthy, it would have been easy for the leaders to be worn down long ago. So the dedication this Sunday of this temple, a short walk from the famous palace of Versailles, is something of a triumph of devotion and steadfastness in the face of long odds.
Yet, of course, since prophets prophesied it, the odds weren’t long at all. But, oh, the work.
It was Aug, 1, 1976 when President Spencer W. Kimball first alluded to the building of a temple in France. Then on June 4, 1998, during a European tour, President Gordon B. Hinckley met with 2,400 members from the area and said, “When I came here after the war, there were so few members of the Church, and now there are 30,000 of you. I don’t want to build up your hopes, but the time has come when you deserve to have a temple among you, and we’ll look for a place to build one. I don’t know how long it will take to find a suitable site.
“I invite every one of you, my brethren and sisters, to plead with the Lord individually in your prayers to lead us to a property in this great city, or its environs, where we can build a house of the Lord so that you won’t have to travel five hours to Frankfurt or six hours to Zollikofen.”
Time passed while people wondered about the Paris Temple. Then, in May 2004, President Hinckley met with members again and, referring to the upcoming dedication of the Manhattan New York Temple, he said, “I wish I could announce that we could have a temple here, but we do not have a suitable place yet, in my judgment, to build it. And so, we will continue to look. I don’t know when it will be built, but I am confident that we will have a temple for the French-speaking people of the Church sometime in the future.”
He went on, “You are worthy of every blessing which this Church has to offer. And there is no blessing greater than the blessing which this Church has to offer.”
Hopes were high again by the April 2006 General Conference when the French media disclosed the Church’s interest in purchasing a huge tract of land outside Versailles—about one-third of the small city of Villepreux—reportedly for a temple.
The owners of this property said there were three interested parties—an Arab emirate, a Russian, and the Mormons. The mayor of Villepreux said he preferred the Mormons. “Never has there been any concern about public order with church members,” he said.
No temple announcement was made, however, and in the end, the Church did not succeed in acquiring the property.
Finally on October 1, 2011 in the opening session of General Conference, President Thomas S. Monson said, “We’re moving forward on our plans for a temple to be built in Paris, France.” What sounded like another wonderful announcement actually had acres of effort behind it.
Elder Matthieu Bennasar, Area Authority Seventy in France, said, “It would be a dire under statement to say people have been excited about the temple. People like our parents have been praying about having a temple in France ever since we were toddlers. I remember sitting at the table as I was growing up talking about the day when a temple would come to our country. [He is 42.]
“We can see why it took so long from many angles—the technicality of finding a suitable piece of land, working our way to having the support of the mayors and leaders in the community.
“But I think this long wait has also prepared the French members of the Church in the same way that the Israelites were tried and prepared by one generation in crossing the wilderness and coming to the promised land. During that time members have been strengthened, faith has been built, spirituality has grown. We have members who are now regularly driving ten hours to go to the temple. This wait has built a strong foundation of temple worshipers who are prepared to serve in the temple.”
Though there are only 38,000 members in France, the Church has mature, solid, multi-generational members as well as exuberant new converts—a people ready for a temple
Elder Doug Todd, who serves with his wife, Pauline, as construction service missionaries, has been on the site since Oct. 1, 2013. He said, “In France, building a temple requires some unique situations. You have to show what you are going to build to get approvals, but you can’t show your plans until you own the property, and then you can get turned down. Getting approvals is a long, complicated process. I think the Church considered and did due diligence on over 90 sites. That has to be some kind of record. Some sites had strings attached. Other sites had difficult issues. Sometimes it takes time for the right site to come along. (Note: the Todds are in the fourth year of their mission, almost rivaling the sons of Mosiah.)
“There were some wonderful sites,” said Elder Todd, but they don’t compare to this one.” The temple is a tree-lined street in Le Chesnay, a short distance from Versailles. Because of the area’s historical significance, its loveliness will always be maintained.
During the process of acquiring the site, two champions emerged, to make it possible. The first was a real estate developer who was instrumental in making the connection between the owner of the real estate and the Church. They agreed verbally on the project and they agreed on the price, but before the paper work was signed, someone came along with a better offer. His bosses said that’s a better deal for us and were going to negate their agreement. Yet, the developer said that he had given his word to the Mormons and he had to stick with that.
The situation became strained enough for him, that he changed jobs rather than abandon his integrity and his word.
A second champion was the mayor of Le Chesnay, Philippe Brillault. It requires a context of the place of religion in France to see just how vital his role was. France is a secular country, whose relationship with religion is, as one described, “shameful.” Religion is held with suspicion, and though many people believe in God, they are wary of churches as institutions, a legacy of their own history. The French Revolution was a battle against the power and corruption of church.
In France if you have a mayor who does not want you to build in his community, it will never happen. A mayor can find some reason to block the project. He or she can find something against you. Your project will bring too much noise to the community or too much traffic. Excuses and roadblocks can completely halt a project you’ve been doing due diligence on for months.
When we asked the Paris Temple Project Manager Ramon Lopez about any miracles he saw building the temple, he answered, “I have to say that finding the right place to build the temple is just a miracle because it is so difficult to have the support from the city hall and the mayor. The church has tried other options, but the support from city hall was not there, and the mayor would withdraw his support before the process was complete.”
Mayor Philippe Brillault was key. Talking to the crowd of 100 government, church and business leaders who came to a VIP gathering and tour of the temple at the open house, he thanked “all the people who changed their mind on the project, starting first with myself.”
Elder Bennasar noted, “The encounter with the mayor of Le Chesnay was instrumental. He has a strong personality. I’ve been in meetings with him where he faced criticism about the possibility of having a temple built here from his own people, including those who wanted his political office. He stood true to the things he said he would.
“He said, ‘I am going to deal with the Mormon Church in the same way I deal with other people.’”
“He took a lot of risk for us,” added Lopez. “Some people published leaflets against him saying ‘He is welcoming the Mormons. We should put him out.’ He didn’t succumb. He is a smart man, a top strategist. He is exceptional.”
What makes this all the more noteworthy is that the temple has been built at the fortress of Catholicism in France. If there is any place left in France where religion has some importance, it is in this area. Mayor Brillault took the time to look at the Church and once he understood what Latter-day Saints were about, he stood strong when others aggressively opposed him, including legal with appeals.
“He is a righteous man,” said Elder Bennasar, “someone who treated the Church in an unbiased, unprejudiced way.” And, by the way, he was re-elected to office.
Lopez said, “We were patient. We had faith, and we found the right place. It is a nice community, close to a very symbolic building in France. Patience has been a good virtue to get to this point.”
An Expectation of Excellence
Temple construction itself poses new challenges even for the most accomplished of builders. Bouygues, perhaps the second largest contractor in France, was selected as the builder, but no matter what edifice a group has built before, the temple is on a different level of excellence.
“The Church is very clear,” said Lopez. “We took them to see eight temple projects, so they could understand and bid what the Church wanted.” Because a temple is built as a house to the Lord, no other buildings in the world are constructed to the same level of perfection and quality.
It means many things have to be done and then redone to attain that level. The bar is pushed higher and higher. The stonemasons, for example, had never worked with stone so precisely. It was designed on a plan, the size of each stone was identified and then the stones were quarried in Portugal. Each stone was numbered and then they were assembled like a puzzle, so that the color would match perfectly.
Elder Todd said that, “many things come along that seem insurmountable.” He kept a white board tracking the construction, and there were enough obstacles or challenges that he would sometimes say, ‘What else can go wrong?’ He finally marked a column on the right side of the white board and labeled it “Surprise of the Day.”
This became a source of spiritual strength for him as the project progressed. He said, “How many times did that surprise that seemed to be a negative turn out to be a necessary thing for the right thing to happen. In our own lives you wonder, what is Heavenly Father doing as a favor for us that appears to be a disaster, but when you have perspective you see that it had to happen for the right thing to be done.”
Sister Pauline Todd said, “What I’ve learned over and over again is that the miracles happen in the details.”
Since the temple site is only three acres, a cramped space for a 44,000 square foot building with gardens, there was no room for storage of building materials. They had to be stored elsewhere, brought in by a crane, and perfectly coordinated to be available for the workers the next day.
They had to work with the city’s height restrictions, so the temple has no spires or Angel Moroni on top. Instead, Bertel Thorvaldsen’s powerful Christus statue graces the back garden, a reminder of the purpose of the temple. The Christus statue stands as a beacon there reminding the neighbors that Mormons are Christians.
The walls of the temple go from property line to property line.
Yet, every obstacle has been met, and truly the building is excellent. After forty years a temple stands in Paris. Those who have yearned for the temple and been on a wilderness journey to accomplish it have created a House of the Lord.
After President Dieter F. Uchtdorf visited the Paris temple he said, “Temple building takes time and it takes planning. It takes thoughtful construction and it takes only the best in materials and knowhow. What can we do to prepare ourselves to be worthy of these blessings?…It takes the same things.”
Elder Neil L. Andersen wrote on his Facebook page after he visited, “The temple—which will be dedicated in May—is magnificent. Its beauty is breathtaking. But what has impressed me most in my week here goes beyond the beauty of this stunning building.
“As I have visited with others and walked the halls of the temple, I have had the distinct impression that the Lord is preparing something very important in this part of the world. It is easy to see the temple’s role in the Lord’s plans. The temple will be dedicated and consecrated to be a home for the ordinances of eternity. It is literally His house. The effect of this spiritual endowment on this city and country is very real.
“The temple is only a few hundred yards from the remarkable Chateau of Versailles, which was transformed by King Louis XIV and his family into an extravagant complex, complete with beautiful French and English gardens. While the chateau is impressive, its influence dissipated with the death of the “Sun King” and those who followed him.
Under the direction of God the Father, Jesus Christ is the Creator of the sun, the moon, and the stars. He is the King of kings, the Savior of the world. The power of His house will never end. It will continue through the eternities.”