WOLFEBORO, N.H. – Every year, Mitt Romney and his family spend a week at his estate on picturesque Lake Winnipesaukee. They go boating, play games — and attend church, an expression of the faith that's fundamentally shaped the Republican presidential candidate.
Romney, the first Mormon to clinch the presidential nomination of a major party, attended services Sunday with his wife, Ann, five sons, five daughters-in-law and 18 grandchildren. They made up nearly a third of the congregation that gathered inside the small, nondescript building that houses this tiny resort town's branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
The Romney clan has attended the church in Wolfeboro many times before — only now the family patriarch carries the distinction of being President Barack Obama's Republican challenger.
Not that church leaders or worshippers mentioned the new reality as, one by one, they stood at a podium to offer testimony, a custom in Mormon churches on the first Sunday of every month. Among those testifying: one of the many Romney grandchildren.
"My name is Chloe Romney and I'm visiting here from California," the candidate's middle-school-age granddaughter said from the church's lectern, a pink flower in her hair. "I know that my family loves me and I like to go to church."
The family's devotion to the Mormon faith is a part of Romney's life that the electorate rarely sees. Romney almost never mentions it in public. And his campaign typically bars the media from seeing him participate in a religion that many Americans are unfamiliar with. But it's a part of his life that could help him connect with a public that's just now getting to get to know him — one that includes many church-goers.
Romney's campaign doesn't tell reporters when Romney is going to church. But the Wolfeboro branch is open to visitors and an Associated Press reporter attended the same sacrament service the Romney family attended. It featured bread with water instead of wine, a variation on communion that allows for the Mormon prohibition on drinking alcohol.
And it provided a rare glimpse into his practice of a faith that has permeated every aspect of Romney's life: his childhood, his college years and time as a missionary, his marriage, his life in Boston, even his business career.
Mormonism began in the 1830s when, according to believers, an angel presented another book of scripture to Joseph Smith, the church's founder, called the Book of Mormon. With 14.4 million members, the church is among the fastest growing in the world, supported by a full-time missionary force of about 55,000 young people. Romney has been an active Mormon all his life, so involved in the church at one point that he rose to a rank equivalent to a bishop. He eventually presided over a group of congregations.
During his presidential campaign, the demands of Romney's faith can dictate how he spends his time; it requires as many as three hours nearly every Sunday for services. According to people familiar with his private schedule, Romney goes to church nearly every week. His faith also helps drive his fundraising; a significant amount of money comes from wealthy Mormon donors. And Mormon households across the country often housed campaign aides as they moved from state to state during the GOP primary.
When Romney does talk about his faith, he discloses little and usually focuses on his time as a missionary in France. He offered a forceful explanation of the role of faith in his own life during a recent speech at Liberty University that was aimed at bridging differences with evangelicals, many of whom are skeptical of Mormon theology.
"Culture — what you believe, what you value, how you live — matters," Romney said during the May speech that avoided all direct references to Mormonism. "What we have, what we wish we had — ambitions fulfilled, ambitions disappointed, investments won, investments lost, elections won, elections lost — these things may occupy our attention, but they do not define us."
Sunday's service was a cornerstone of a week that will see all 30 members of the Romney clan pack into the family's sprawling lakefront estate.
They'll gather for family dinners, waterski on the lake, paddleboard off the beach and discuss family affairs, all traditions the family has been developing at this home for more than a decade.
This year, questions about whom Romney will choose as his vice presidential running mate hang over his vacation — though there was little sign of politics after church on Sunday, as Romney relaxed barefoot on his back deck with youngest son Craig and eldest Tagg, who held one of his newborn twin sons. On the lawn below, a team of photographers set up lights in preparation for the annual family picture.
At church, Romney sat next to his wife, with grandchildren occupying the rest of the row. He sang along during the service's three hymns, holding his iPad underneath his navy blue hymnal. Some of the kids — who range in age from a few weeks old to 16 years — grew restless during the long service. At different points, several walked over to receive a kind smile and quiet word from their grandfather. At one point, Romney took charge of a Ziploc bag of colored cereal, offering it to a grinning blond toddler.
As the first section of the service concluded, Romney and the congregation sang all the verses of "America the Beautiful," a song he often quotes on the campaign trail. Many attendees departed while others prepared for the second portion of the service, a Sunday school for adults.
While church leaders moved to close partitions to prepare for the school, Romney chatted at length with others who had come to the service, including several who wore "Romney" pins on their lapels. And Ann Romney focused on figuring out who would stay for the second and third hours and who would head home with restless kids to start dinner.
"Ok, so, we're just trying to figure out the cars," Ann Romney said to one of her daughters-in-law as the first section of the service ended, another about to begin. "I want to stay for the second hour." So did her husband.
Romney has been visiting Wolfeboro for decades, first coming here with his father, George Romney, to visit the J.W. Marriott family. The Marriott family played a significant role in building the Mormon church in Wolfeboro several decades ago.
The branch president, Matthew Jensen, said there are now more than 60 Marriott family members who will appear in Wolfeboro — and at church — sometime in the summer. They haven't arrived yet, so the Romneys have the largest contingent.
"We see them every year," Jensen said of the Romneys, noting that their presence swells the size of the congregation. He said that even though Romney is a likely presidential nominee, they fit into the congregation the way any other family would. And the town is still quiet enough that his Secret Service contingent isn't too disruptive as the family drives the few miles to the church from the Romney vacation home on the other side of town.
No matter the outcome of the election, it won't be the same next year.
Follow Kasie Hunt on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/kasie