Photographer Explores 'Houses Of Worship' Around Tempe

July 18, 2014

(Dick George)
Old St. Mary's at All Saints Catholic Newman Center
(Dick George)
Chapel at the LDS Meetinghouse on West Howe Street
(Dick George)
Mosque at Islamic Community Center

If you had to make a guess, how many churches would you say there are in Tempe? Now what about mosques, synagogues and other places of worship?

Photographer Dick George guessed there are maybe about 30, but he found dozens more than he expected and photographed as many as he could. Those photos are on display at the Tempe History Museum in an exhibit titled “Houses of Worship.”

As you look closely at Dick George’s photos— all 69 of them— you see something a little bit surprising. Many look strikingly similar.

Of all these different houses of worship from a handful of different faiths, the setup is essentially the same. George said he noticed it too.

"One of the major organizing principles of the houses of worship in Tempe is balance and symmetry," George said. "And there are other examples in the show where you can see even the lines in the ceiling point toward the altar – the center of the action."

Most of the photographs feature something dramatic at the front: An altar, an ark, a pipe organ or a crucifix. Many of the buildings have angular beams up high in a vaulted ceiling. If the space has pews, usually there are two sections, sitting side by side. Stepping back, it’s as though each space is simultaneously unique and commonplace.

George feels connected to those spaces, though he himself does not belong to any organized religion. 

"I used a digital kitchen timer to make the very long exposures, which left me the freedom to enjoy the solitude and meditative quiet," he said. "I thoroughly enjoyed that and I found that I was able to at least feel a connection with the members of that particular congregation."

We decided to go visit three different houses of worship that stood out to George, starting with Old St. Mary’s at the Catholic Newman Center at Arizona State University.

Sister Mary Eileen Jewell brought us into the 110-year-old church. Inside it’s cozy, but if you’ve ever seen Old St. Mary’s from the outside, it looks grand. There are stained-glass windows and a tall bell tower extending above the roof with a steeple on top. On the outside there are two types of brick, traditional red and a foundation of more uneven, handmade stone bricks.

"The local people worked 24/7 round the clock doing those stones, like grinding them and whatever," George said. "They worked like round the clock. Just simple, you know, people. Not people with a lot of money or anything."

That group became the first congregation to worship at this church. But George found something else distinct about Old St. Mary’s. 

"When I came here the first time to photograph, it was about 8:30 in the morning so there was still some shadow on this side of the building," he said. "But as the day wore on, more and more sunlight hit the wall over here and materials expand and contract according to temperature. And there are creaks and groans and pops."

Nearby, tucked into a residential neighborhood just west of ASU is a meetinghouse for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or LDS.

"This particular building has special meaning to me because this is on a corner of the property that my grandfather and grandmother used to live on, starting in the 30s," said Fred Mortensen, a counselor in the Tempe Stake of the LDS church.

The chapel at the meetinghouse felt very different than the Catholic church we had just come from. The meetinghouse is simpler. The walls are brown brick and there are no images or decorations inside, just a large organ at the front of the room.

"In the LDS church we believe that the symbol of our religion is the testimonies that each of us have of the savior Jesus Christ, and it’s reflected in our daily lives," Mortensen said. "But we don’t use the cross as a symbol of our Christianity like many other Christian churches do."

And different from both Old St. Mary’s and the LDS meetinghouse, is the Islamic Community Center, or ICC. The outside is painted crisp blue and white with a golden dome on top. It’s designed to be like a small version of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

The ICC holds prayers five times a day, which is traditional in the Muslim religion. Inside the mosque, the room is open with lots of light. It has thick blue-striped carpeting, with a high ceiling and a crystal chandelier overhead. The room is divided with the large, front portion reserved for men and a smaller section for women.

Right now it’s the holy month of Ramadan, which means the crowds in attendance are a little bigger than usual. It also means that until call to evening prayer, observant Muslims cannot eat or drink during daylight hours.

Ahmad Ewais is the property manager for the ICC. He said that while the fast may seem difficult, it’s a time for renewal, and re-energizing spiritually.

"We are human being made of two parts,"Ewais said. "The first part is come from the earth which God created us. And then the second part is the soul, come from the Creator. We give our body what is needed from the earth, but also the second part need also. The spiritual part comes from Heaven. And this is what we charge our spiritual soul, and the food for the soul comes from God."

Mohammed Talbi said that one of the most special things about Ramadan is the sense of community.

"You have a lot of people who come only in Ramadan," Talbi said. "You don’t see them the whole year. But they come in Ramadan. They love Ramadan. There are people who don’t probably even pray but they insist to fast in Ramadan. They love fasting. Probably the happiest person who’s gonna feel Ramadan is that person who just started fasting."

This sense of community togetherness, as well as pride for each person’s house of worship was clear at each place we visited. And even Dick George, who doesn’t regularly go to a house of worship to pray himself, found the stillness comforting.

"And that was probably the highlight for me, in each case, was to sit there and wait for my little kitchen timer to go off," George said laughing.


Photographer Dick George's photographs are on display at Tempe History Museum. The slideshow here shows some of his work.