A golden figure with a horn to its mouth rises above the trees of a little two-lane highway in the town of Apex, N.C. The statue, a gilded angel, draws the eye to a marble construction that sits in dazzling white splendor just off the road. It is the Triangle's new temple for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints-constructed in a quick 10 months; 60 days ahead of schedule.

The Raleigh-area temple, scheduled to be dedicated Dec. 18 and 19, is the 68th Mormon temple worldwide-there are currently about 30 in the United States. Temples are an integral part of the Mormons' worship. Although members use local meeting houses for weekly services and meetings, Mormons consider the temple "the most sacred place on Earth."

Temples are reserved for sacred ordinances and can only be entered by "worthy" members. Bishops decide each year which members are worthy of temple attendance by interviewing people to see if they are upholding the Church's principles.

Starr Eckholdt, a member of the Raleigh temple's public affairs team, explained that the building is made up of several rooms and there is no large space for congregational meetings as one would find in a cathedral. "The purpose [of a temple] isn't for large gatherings," he said. "After [members] have finished making covenants and promises, they can go in there and meditate. They can ponder and pray."

Eckholdt explained that about a year ago, the prophet Gordon Hinckley, president of the Latter-Day Saints, announced an extensive worldwide temple construction project. Eckholdt added that when planning temples, the Church chooses areas with a large membership.

Church member Dan Nietschmann explained that before this temple was built, members had to travel to the nearest temple-outside Washington, D.C.-to conduct ordinances. "Some members would go monthly, others would go when there was a special occasion, like a wedding," he said.

The temple began hosting an open house last Friday, and the public can come inside through Saturday. Traditionally, only certain members of the Church are allowed in the temple, but Eckholdt said the open house is "a rare opportunity for the public to come and see the temple."

He added that the Church uses the open days of the temple to help the public understand its uses. "A lot of times there are misconceptions about what we do in a temple," he said. "People think that it's secret and weird, so we say, 'Hey, come in and see what we do.'"

The Church expects 30,000 visitors to wander through the temple during its eight open days.

Many of the visitors are Church members eager to see the new temple. "We're members and we're excited about it. We were anxious to see it," said Maurine Wheatley, a Fayetteville resident. "Our Bishop encouraged everyone to go see it."

Others were Church members who wanted to show their children the inside of a temple, because children are not allowed in temples until they are 12 years old.

Meanwhile, other visitors were tourists who had Mormon friends and were interested in experiencing an aspect of their friends' lives. "I had friends that were Latter-Day Saints and a friend who is here and she sent me an invitation, so I was interested," explained Cary resident Cathryn Suggs.

Nietschmann, who was working as an usher at the open house, said about half the visitors have been non-members. Although many of the temple's visitors are not Mormons, Eckholdt said the Church was not attempting to do any converting.

"Notice that we're not doing any proselytizing," he said. "That is not the purpose of this open house."

Nevertheless, at the end of the tour, some missionaries were standing behind a table to answer any questions tourists might have.

Trinity junior Keely Heuer said she is extremely excited about the new temple because she has never really lived near a temple-except for the year she resided in Phoenix. "I really enjoyed [the Phoenix temple]," she said. "Even going to the grounds and just walking around because of the atmosphere."

She added that she was also excited about the Raleigh temple because it physically demonstrates the exponential growth of the Mormon faith. "For a temple to be built, there needs to be 100,000 members within a certain radius," she said. There are about 25 Duke students who are Mormons.

Part of Church membership involves tithing-giving 10 percent of one's income to the Church. With an 11 million-person membership worldwide, these funds can be used for such ambitious projects as temple constructions; the Raleigh temple was a $5 million, 10,700 square foot undertaking.

One of the most important rooms is the baptismal room. In the Raleigh temple, this softly lit, quiet room contains a hot tub-sized pool of water, supported by 12 oxen symbolizing the Biblical 12 tribes of Israel. "One of the main purposes for the temple is to conduct Baptisms for those who have already passed on," Eckholdt explained.

He said that members believe that in order to achieve salvation, baptism is necessary. Therefore, Church members research family genealogies and then conduct baptisms in honor of those people who were unable to be baptized. "What about the millions of people on Earth who have never heard the name of Christ? Are they damned?" Eckholdt said. "We believe everyone has a chance... In effect, we [Baptize] vicariously and go through this ordinance for [those who have already died]. Then it's their choice whether to accept it or not." Eckholdt said through these baptisms, the Church hopes to reach everyone.

"It is not unusual for a group of youth to come on a Saturday morning and have 15 to 20 baptisms conducted in succession," he said.

Heuer said she was looking forward to being able to visit the temple to do work for the dead. "Now that [the temple] is so close, there is a lot more motivation for me to get my own family histories together," she said.

Another ordinance performed in the temple is a wedding. Couples go to a sealing room where they undergo a ceremony to seal them together for eternity. "When you are married, it's 'until death do you part'... But we believe that... what's sealed on Earth is sealed in Heaven," Eckholdt said.

He added that although divorces can break sealings, the ceremony tends to decrease the percentage of divorces in the Church.

One of the interesting aspects of the room is that there are two large mirrors facing one another from opposite walls. "Couples look into the mirror...and can see the notion of a lifetime," Eckholdt said. "They say, 'Hey, we can't even see the end of our relationship.'"

Three other rooms in the temple-the endowment rooms-depict the Mormon universe: from life before Earth to life on Earth to the afterlife.

Eckholdt explained that in each of the three endowment rooms, the intensity of light increases, symbolizing progression to the Heavenly Father. Members go to the rooms to contemplate their faith and make covenants with God.

The celestial room-symbolizing afterlife-has the most light and is the largest room. An enormous chandelier shines with incandescent rainbows. The room is absolutely silent. Comfortable chairs and couches welcome visitors to sit and meditate or pray.

President Hinckley will preside over the formal dedication services, after which the temple will be used exclusively by worthy Latter-Day Saints. The temple expects to serve 28,000 members in more than 90 congregations from across North Carolina.