France’s First Mormon Temple

The Mormon Church has been a recognized “religious association” in France since 2009, but remains a little-known institution subject to its fair share of prejudice. This distrust is largely down to the religion’s rites, ethical and culinary restrictions, and the proselytism of young missionaries. Despite these struggles, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints inaugurated its first temple in France on May 21, 2017. The project took almost 20 years to come to fruition, and is a clear sign of the Church’s evolution.

“I have five daughters, and four of them had religious weddings. We had to go to Frankfurt for each one, which meant two days of traveling for a 30-minute ceremony.” According to Dominique Calmels, spokesperson for the Mormon mission in France, the opening of the new temple in Paris was a “relief” for the 38,000 followers in France, and “proof that the place of the Church has changed.”

Charles Carter, a researcher at Bordeaux Montaigne University, sees it as “vital to filling the void,” as well as observing a clear objective: Improving the poor image of this religion in France. “The perception of Mormons has changed a lot in France. The 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, the presidential campaigns led by Mitt Romney, and a number of communication efforts have all contributed to bringing them out of the shadows. But despite everything, major prejudices continue to exist,” he says.

While Mormonism is not considered a cult, the religion remains little known and misunderstood in France, despite its 16 million followers worldwide. With some 6.5 million members in the United States, it is the only religion to be born on American soil with no precedents in Europe, where its followers moved much later. Founded in Fayette, New York, by Joseph Smith in 1830, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints claims to be Christian, although bases itself on The Book of Mormon — which was discovered and maybe even written by Smith —, two other founding works, and the Bible. According to the religion, it is written that Christ came to deliver the Gospel to the indigenous people of America shortly after his resurrection. As millenarists, the Mormons are awaiting the return of Jesus to Earth, which will bring about the start of a 1000-year kingdom of glory and happiness.

An Intriguing Religion

So who are the Mormons? “Men and women, just like everyone else,” wrote Gordon Hinckley in 1947, when he was president of the Church.1 “They don’t wear distinctive clothing, but they uphold certain beliefs and accomplish certain things that set them apart from others.” These distinctive signs include the traditional dress worn at religious services, a strict diet with no caffeine, theine or stimulating substances, and the 300 or so missionaries who travel accross France. “It is becoming increasingly easy to recognize them,” says Charles Carter.


© Dominic Bracco II/Prime

“However, public opinion still mistakes them for Amish, or believes them to be polygamous!” This practice was in fact abolished in 1890, yet remains a Mormon characteristic in the collective imagination. People become members of the proselytizing Latter-day Saints in two ways: Either by birth — there are some 100,000 Mormon babies born every year — or by baptism, like many other religions. “This act is a way of proving your faith in God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and adhering to the doctrine. Even children born into Mormon families have to be baptized when they reach the age of eight,” says Charles Carter. Missionaries are then responsible for preparing the new members through sermons and teaching. The entire process is quite fast, and can last less than three months.

Some 110 Mormon churches are spread across the French territory. They serve as places of worship, and host celebrations such as the Eucharist, Sunday services, baptisms, and other activities and events within the community. Parishes are grouped into “stakes” (the equivalent of dioceses) and managed by volunteer priests, who are members of local communities. “They are given responsibilities similar to those of pastors and priests from other churches,” writes Gordon Hinckley in his book. “They prepare and lead religious services, bless the sick, ensure help is provided to those in need, and organize funeral proceedings.” These responsibilities represent a “heavy burden” to those who volunteer, as many of them have other jobs alongside their religious duties.

The Temple at the Core of Religious Practice

“The temple is where followers have to be married for the union and the family to be accepted in the Afterlife,” says Charles Carter. Every day, between 50 and 100 people visit the new construction in the French town of Le Chesnay, some 100 meters from the Château de Versailles in the western suburbs of Paris. Apart from the edifice in Tahiti (where one inhabitant in every ten is a member of the Church), this is the first Mormon temple on French soil.

Marriage, or “sealing,” is celebrated in the temple, alongside two other rituals, or “ordinances”: The “endowment,” during which followers recommit to living according to the precepts of Christ, and the intriguing “baptism for the dead.” The latter sacrament enables members to baptize the deceased if they were unable to do it while alive, thereby offering them a place by God’s side. Non-Mormons may also be baptized — a practice which has stirred up major controversy within the Church.

Renald Bertrand has accompanied his two oldest children to the temple for their baptism for the dead, a specific sacrament which brought them from Rouen to Paris. “Having a temple in France means we can save time and money. We used to go to Berne in Switzerland once a year. Now we want to come to Paris every three months,” says the father-of-six. While the eurozone facilitated their trips, the language barrier remained a problem. “Even though the ordinances are the same, communicating sometimes proved to be difficult. But here, everything is in French, and we feel like we can participate far more.”

There is a blend of cultures in the visitors’ room and the gardens, which are both open to tourists and local residents. Darren Anderson came all the way from Utah with his children. As a member of the Church since he was born, he took the opportunity to visit the temple in Paris during his first trip to Europe. “Wherever we go in the world, the temples offer a chance to meet people who share our beliefs, and with whom we create an immediate connection. These places are magnificent, peaceful and soothing.” However, since the temple itself was consecrated, only members of the Church with a recommendation may enter.

“We are not looking to oppose Mormons and non-Mormons, but rather those who practice the religion and those who don’t,” says Dominique Calmels. “Our temple is a sacred place, and we want to protect it.” Practicing Mormons have to prove their devotion by accepting a one-to-one interview with the priest of their parish in order to obtain a pass to the temple which remains valid for two years.

An “American-Style, Five-Star Hotel”

When the Mormon Church appealed to the Le Chesnay town hall for permission to build this “American-style, five-star hotel,” featuring synthetic flowers and a strong penchant for grandiose kitsch, the request made a few people smile. The finished building boasts limestone cladding, an Art Nouveau style, and detailed columns. The stained-glass windows adorned with flowers are inspired by Claude Monet, while the pristine gardens and their circular fountains offer a colorful backdrop for those wandering through them. “Now the construction work is over, local residents are rather pleased with the result,” says Philippe Brillault, mayor of Le Chesnay. While he may have preferred to have the headquarters of a major company established in its place, he continues to hope that local businesses will enjoy certain economic benefits from the presence of the temple.


© Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

The temple’s proximity to the Château de Versailles implied specific constraints. For example, authorization was not granted for the customary statue of the Angel Moroni standing on top of a column. Instead, an immense statue of Jesus features in the gardens. Charles Carter has not observed any “architectural specificities in the temples, other than the constant search for beauty, symbolism, light and elevation conducive to meditation.” The celestial room — the holiest of spaces — can be visited in silence during open-house days.

The construction project was originally launched on June 4, 1998, in the presence of the American president of the Church, Gordon Hinckley. After a succession of failures in the towns of Saint-Cloud and Villepreux, the religion’s leaders turned to Le Chesnay. “The mayor was hardly enthusiastic when we presented the project, but it was a private transaction the town hall was unable to oppose unless it purchased the site,” says Dominique Calmels.

However, the Church’s ambition was hampered by the difficulty of becoming the owner of the site and the reluctance of local residents. “There’s always uproar when the Mormon Church plans to acquire a property. Not from the government or its representatives, but rather from certain French people who try to prevent any construction,” says Charles Carter. “Yet today, everyone in Le Chesnay admits to the temple’s beauty, and the initial fears from neighbors about the devaluation of their homes have been dispelled.”

“The Mormons managed their project very effectively,” says the town hall’s communications director. “During the construction, they pierced holes in the fence to allow local residents to follow the progress of the work. They also created a free telephone number to call in case of difficulty or problems. This assistance ensured the construction went smoothly.” Legal opposition on the part of local authorities and residents was rejected without exception by the Versailles courts.

According to estimations by the town, the temple cost almost 80 million euros to build, and was fully funded by Salt Lake City. The financially self-sufficient Mormon Church centralizes international donations and a tithe — a religious tax amounting to 10% of accepting members’ incomes. This revenue ensures the Church can create new, monumental religious spaces and maintain those already in existence. The next project is an immense temple in Rome set to open in two years. Europe is a mission territory for Mormons.

1 What of the Mormons?, Gordon B. Hinckley, 1947.

Article published in the September 2017 of France-Amérique.

  • Bizarre… L’eglise mormone en tant qu’association culturelle? Comment a-t-elle reussie a s’evader du regard intensif et aggressif de la soi-disante republique laique? Question de bevue administrative? Non-fiscalisation de l’etat?? Auto-suffisance financiere donc pas besoin de demander des fonds a l’etat? En tous cas, La France va pouvoir profiter de l’implantation du Troisieme Evangile, celui-la de pure souche et imagination americaine: “The Book of Mormon”. BTW, GREAT musical.

  • Pour répondre à Jeff Kaplan: l’église mormone n’a pas le statut de “association culturelle” mais “cultuelle”. Pour le coup, on ne peut rien reprocher au traducteur qui a bien rendu par “religious association”. L’Etat français n’a jamais eu à reprocher quoi que ce soit à l’Eglise mormone. Elle a satisfait aux égigences légales, c’est donc en droit que le statut lui a été accordé.

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