A massive Mormon temple is headed for San Jose. But where?
Nestled in the Oakland Hills and soaring 170 feet high into the heavens, the granite temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints serves as the single most important site for religious rituals for the Bay Area’s estimated 100,000 Mormons.
But the East Bay city’s dominance as the center of the LDS community will soon change. By the end of the decade, San Jose is set to get its own temple, the first of its kind in Silicon Valley and destined to become a major architectural and spiritual landmark, attracting tens of thousands of adherents.
Announced in April by the church’s 98-year-old president, Russell M. Nelson, the project is one of nearly 150 new LDS temples planned across the world in the coming years, a testament to the religion’s vast financial resources and push to have a presence in all corners of the globe, stretching from the technology capital of the world to China to the Congo.
“It’ll mean a lot to us,” said Russell Hancock, a member of the local LDS community, and president and CEO of Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a San Jose-based think tank.
Like the other temple projects announced by the LDS leadership at its bi-annual general conference, specific details weren’t immediately disclosed — and potential locations within San Jose haven’t yet been publicly identified. But if it resembles other LDS temples — known for their grandeur and scale — it’s sure to make a mark in the city.
“It’ll be kind of hard to miss,” Hancock said.
Bay Area LDS members said the San Jose temple may be smaller than Oakland’s — an Art Deco, Asian-inspired house of worship first dedicated in 1964 on 18 acres of land. It is also likely to incorporate a unique architectural style and carry the classic spire topped with a statue of Angel Moroni, an important figure in the religion who is said to have guided and mentored founder Joseph Smith.
But in San Jose’s rough-and-tumble development world, the church’s timetable for a brand new temple project could be an uphill challenge for LDS leadership. This year, a Buddhist temple proposed in the eastern part of the city was forced to make major concessions over its size and faced a host of complaints from neighbors, though councilmembers later approved the project.
LDS leadership, however, may not be so willing to compromise.
“We don’t like to face neighborhood objections,” said Hancock, who was designated by the church as a spokesperson for this article. “The church really prefers to be welcomed into a community. If we’re not welcomed, then we usually look for some other alternative.” The church may also choose to use an existing building, he said.
As opposed to its smaller churches — also called meetinghouses or chapels that are spread throughout the Bay Area — temples are used for important rituals, such as baptisms and marriages, known as ordinances. Like the Catholic Church’s parishes and diocese, the LDS is organized into “congregations” or “wards” which have up to around 800 members. Eight to 10 of those make up a “stake” — of which there are roughly 25 in the Bay Area.
Outside of Oakland, the only other temples in Northern California are in Sacramento and Fresno. Another two also are being planned in Modesto and Bakersfield.
Officially established in New York State in 1830 and now headquartered in Salt Lake City, Mormons consider their faith a restoration of the original Christian belief system. Its college-aged adherents often participate in missions across the world that last up to two years. In general, members tithe at least 10% of their income and steer clear of stimulants like alcohol and caffeine. In addition to the Bible, the 17 million members also use the Book of Mormon as an accompanying religious text.
In California, the first influx of LDS members came in 1846, when a ship, the “Brooklyn,” carrying some 240 passengers left New York and voyaged around Cape Horn to what is now the city of San Francisco. Some stayed in the city while others chased Gold Rush glory.
After substantial renovations that included a seismic retrofit — the temple of titanic proportions is precariously located directly on the Hayward faultline — a viewing was held in 2019 where the public was able to get a look inside. Even members of the LDS community need to be invited to the sacred site when they want to perform special ceremonies. Today, the site is used for wedding and quinceañera photos.
On a recent Monday in April, LDS member Debbie Bramley walked the tulip-filled grounds of the Oakland temple, peering out at the sweeping views of the city beside the hulking building’s exterior made of Sierra White granite shipped from a small Madera County town 175 miles to the east. For Bramley, the site is a rare spot in the city to find solace, something San Jose could use, too.
“There aren’t very many places you can go to sit and contemplate and think about so much craziness happening in the world,” Bramley said. “We’re good neighbors and our neighbors come.”
For others, the San Jose project carries a more practical advantage.
“Our ancestors had to board teams of oxen or pull hand carts across prairies and plains to get to a temple and to practice their faith,” said Hancock, referring to the multiple relocations that the religion’s early followers had to make during bouts of intense persecution. “We have to drive to Oakland and we grumble about it because there’s traffic, but that’s what this means. It means that we won’t have to sit in the traffic on the 880. Now we can just take a shorter hop on 101.”
Gabriel Greschler is a Bay Area News Group reporter who covers San Jose for The Mercury News and East Bay Times. He previously worked as a staff writer for J. The Jewish News of Northern California and as an on-call interactive producer for KQED. He grew up in Boston, moved to Seattle when he was 10 and then attended the University of San Francisco where he earned a BA degree in politics with a minor in journalism. Gabriel is passionate about local news, trying new restaurants and escaping the San Francisco fog.