It amounted to a glorious Christmas and birthday gift: The 68th operating temple of the Church -- the Raleigh North Carolina Temple -- was dedicated here by President Gordon B. Hinckley in seven sessions Dec. 18-19.

Red and white potted poinsettia plants graced the walkway from the temple gate to the entrance, as 9,096 faithful Church members from eight stakes in the northern portion of the state filled the various rooms and the Durham stake center chapel to hear the dedicatory prayer given by President Hinckley and to hear remarks by Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve; Elder Loren C. Dunn of the Seventy and president of the North America East Area; and others.In the dedicatory prayer, the temple is called an "offering" to the Savior, and indeed it is a fitting gift at this time when the world observes His birth nearly 2,000 years ago. Moreover, the edifice was dedicated five days before the 194th birthday anniversary of Joseph Smith, the prophet of the Restoration, through whom the keys of temple ordinance work were given in the latter-day dispensation.

And it was a welcome gift to the North Carolina Latter-day Saints, whose legacy extends back to the days when Jedediah M. Grant first preached the gospel in Stokes, Surry, Patrick and Rockingham counties in 1838.

For example, viewing the ceremonial sealing of the cornerstone by President Hinckley and the other Brethren was Blanche Keith, 83, Garner Ward, a granddaughter of Durham Hall Smith, who on Sept. 15, 1895, became the first convert to the Church in Wake County, which includes Raleigh, the North Carolina capital.

And one of the speakers in the second session was Cecil Reese, the first stake president in North Carolina. Brother Reese, 78, began serving in 1961 when the North Carolina Stake, headquartered in Kinston, was created from a mission district. Shortly thereafter, the Raleigh and Greensboro stakes were created. In a conversation on the temple grounds after the session, Brother Reese, a retired Du Pont chemist originally from Logan, Utah, whose employment brought him to North Carolina, marveled at what a blessing it is to have a temple in relatively close proximity.

"I've sent people to the temple in either Arizona or Salt Lake who had sold everything they had except their cars to get the money to go," he recalled. "They'd come back, and they wouldn't have a dime left. They'll never tell you it wasn't the smartest investment they ever made."

The temple is no less a blessing for relatively recent converts. Seated in the Celestial Room for the first dedicatory session was Carrie Feaster of the Sanford Ward, Fayetteville North Carolina Stake, who joined the Church about 20 years ago. She saw the Church discussed on a television program, she said.

"I thought I wanted to be a member of a group of people like that, but thought it wouldn't be possible for a poor woman in this part of the country," she recalled. But she did join the Church and now, on this historic day, she had the opportunity to watch from a few feet away as a prophet dedicated a House of the Lord within driving distance of her home. "The Lord has miraculously strengthened me," she testified.

Pamela Beavers and Deborah Byler of the Fayetteville 3rd Ward, emotionally embraced each other after the first session.

"I will always remember this day and the feelings that I had," said Sister Beavers. "The spirit is just enormous in this little temple."

Sister Byler said that in 1989, she was one of the first sister missionaries to serve at the Arizona Temple Visitors Center. "We had people come to the temple grounds so they could escape the outside world and feel the Spirit. And that same Spirit is here today."

Even local residents outside the LDS faith have welcomed the temple as an asset to the community.

It is located in Apex, an orderly community of some 20,000 residents about 10 miles southwest of metropolitan Raleigh and part of the "triangle" area of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.

Writing in The Raleigh Temple Times, an in-house newsletter for the temple committee, Sarah Dixon of the Apex Ward found significance in the fact that the temple is now at the "apex" of Church history in North Carolina.

The Apex Herald, a local newspaper, featured a special eight-page supplement on Dec. 2 with photos and articles covering different aspects of the then-upcoming open house and dedication.

And a public television station in Raleigh, WUNC Channel 4, taped an interview with Elder Dunn for a special program on the temple to be shown statewide Dec. 28.

Major newspapers across the state have published significant coverage of the temple open house and dedication.

Outside the temple before the first dedicatory session, Elder Ballard fielded questions from news reporters and briefly explained the purpose of temples and the necessity of being worthy to enter therein. Responding to a question about commonalities between the Church and other Christian organizations, he mentioned two things: one, a commitment to humanitarian service and two, a dedication to safeguarding "values, family, fidelity, and the responsibility of parents for their children, teaching them correct principles, guiding, loving and showing the way, not letting them get gobbled up by the ravages of the world."

He added that the the family is the basic unit of society, "and when that starts to unravel, then our society starts to unravel."

The temple is situated on a 12.5 acre site in a setting interspersed with long-leafed pines and other greenery, as is typical in the Carolinas. Project manager Bruce Catanzaro said a meetinghouse will be built adjacent to the temple.