Present-day pioneers: Many are still blazing gospel trails

"The days of pioneering in the Church are still with us; they did not end with covered wagons and handcarts," President Gordon B. Hinckley told the Church News as many members prepared to observe Pioneer Day in commemoration of the Mormon Pioneers' arrival in the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847.

As they have traveled and supervised the work of the Church in many parts of the world, President Hinckley, first counselor in the First Presidency, and President Thomas S. Monson, second counselor in the First Presidency, have seen firsthand the devotion, commitment, faith, courage and humility of present-day pioneers."The Church has been moving out across the world in a remarkable way, and each time that the gospel is introduced into a country, there are pioneers who participate in the opening of this work," President Hinckley said.

"Pioneers are found among the missionaries who teach the gospel and they are found among the converts who come into the Church. It usually is difficult for each of them. It invariably involves sacrifice. It may involve persecution. But these are costs which are willingly borne and the price that is paid is as real as was the price of those who crossed the plains in the great pioneering effort more than a century ago.

"Mine was the opportunity to supervise the work of the Church in Asia more than 30 years ago," President Hinckley continued. "I was the first General Authority so assigned and worked among the people of Asia for almost 11 years. When we first went there we had small branches in some of the countries and nothing in others. I watched the planting of the seeds of the gospel in some of these areas where lived so many of the world's people. I have seen with my own eyes the wonderful growth of the work in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines and other places.

"In some of these areas there were no members of the Church in those early days, back in the 1960s. Now there are strong stakes of Zion, directed by able local leaders. The seminary and institute program functions with vitality. We have beautiful temples, and congregations of faithful and devoted Latter-day Saints.

"When I was first assigned over there I would weep for what seemed insurmountable barriers. I have seen these barriers fall as the work has grown in a most remarkable way."

President Monson said: "Wherever the gospel has been taught and membership in the Church flourished, there has first been a pioneer period. Silent and vocal pioneers are raised up by the Lord to prepare the base strength for the Church organization which follows. Frequently, such strength begins with one family. Such was the case in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Dallas, and likewise in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other parts of the world. Members of these families, youth and parents, have held multiple positions of responsibility in the Church. They have been leaders and teachers, but above all, examples. They fit the definition from Webster of a pioneer: `One who goes before, showing others the way to follow.'

"For more than 20 years I had responsibilities pertaining to the membership of the Church behind the Iron Curtain. There I observed oppression, suffering and sacrifice, but I also recognized among our members brotherhood, sisterhood and love for the Lord and one another. Their faith never wavered, and their devotion to their Church assignments was ever constant. I feel our Heavenly Father answered their prayers and brought forth the blessings they desired. Such did not come in a gigantic swoop, but rather, step by step. Patriarchal blessings were made available, stakes of Zion were created. One by one, chapels dotted the land and, ultimately, a holy temple of God crowned the landscape of the country and blessed the lives of Church members from many nations. In a miraculous way, cooperation from government officials was forthcoming, missionaries were once again allowed behind the `Wall,' and local missionaries were allowed to serve in other nations.

"Eventually the infamous wall came tumbling down, and freedom was restored. All who participated in this drama of our time understand to a greater extent the Lord's revelation: `Be not weary in well-doing, for ye are laying the foundation of a great work. And out of small things proceedeth that which is great.' (D&C 64:33.)"

Following are examples illustrating that Latter-day Saints are still blazing gospel trails, that pioneer stories include present-day accounts and are not relegated just to chapters in the past.


Octavian Vasilescu is becoming accustomed to the word "first" appearing with his name. He is reported to be the first native-born Romanian baptized in that country after humanitarian service missionaries entered in 1990. He also is said to be the first elder ordained in Romania and the first Romanian to serve as branch president in his country.

Until 1990, when he helped an LDS family from California find where members - mostly Americans living in Romania - were meeting in Bucharest, he had never heard of Mormon pioneers. Now he talks in terms of being one.

"In Romania people think, `What's this church?' People were educated in a different way, against churches generally," said Pres. Vasilescu, 39. "I had never read the Bible, although I had a desire to read it. Our parents were afraid to teach us about Jesus Christ and His gospel because Communism in the 1950s and 1960s was very bad in Bucharest.

"I am a pioneer in a way because I am one of the first members of the Church in my country. I have to be an example for the others, teach others about the Church and the gospel."

Pres. Vasilescu reflects the essence of the pioneer spirit of learning by doing. "I didn't know anything about the Church in the beginning," he said. "When I was called as branch president [three months after he was baptizedT, I said, I don't know anything about this.' The humanitarian service missionaries said,In the Church, everybody learns.' I studied every day."

Pres. Vasilescu, a mechanical engineer, was baptized March 24, 1991. His wife, Simona, a chemical engineer, and their two children were baptized June 6, 1992. During a visit to Utah this month, the family had sealing ordinances performed in the Salt Lake Temple.


Zdzislawa Chudyba ventured beyond the borders of her native Poland, first to discover the gospel, second, to share it with others, and third, to gain more knowledge.

She visited London, England, where she was baptized July 29, 1985. Within 10 days, she returned to Warsaw, where she found just four members of the Church who met regularly in an apartment. Using the little knowledge she acquired about the Church during her brief visit in London, she helped the Church unit in Warsaw grow. In 1991, she went to Russia as a full-time missionary.

"It's all amazing, when I look back. I didn't know how to do things," Sister Chudyba said. "I think, `Was this me?' I'm not strong. I didn't know how to do many things, but I just did the best I could. I don't think of myself as a pioneer.

"There was fear and happiness in the beginning. I knew I had a lot of things to do, both in Poland and in Russia. When you are where there are few members of the Church, you learn so much in a time."

Sister Chudyba is teaching Russian at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, while pursuing a degree at BYU. She looks forward to returning to Poland when she completes her studies.


Francisco D. and Francisca Orkya Pena, residents of Las Palmas, Canary Islands, which are off the coast of Africa, heard of the gospel in 1976 from Jesus Raureir Gomez y Vega, a Canary Islander who had been baptized in Madrid three years earlier.

The Pena family accepted the gospel but, because there was no mission on the islands at the time, was not able to be baptized. Brother Gomez y Vega was an elder, but he did not have permission to baptize them.

Then in 1979, Pres. Hugo A. Catron of the Spain Seville Mission sent a telegram stating he was coming to the Canary Islands and would baptize them. The family was baptized on June 13. Because of his baptism, Brother Pena was threatened with the termination of his job at the Las Palmas Airport. Instead, however, he kept his job and through that position later had the opportunity to fly his family to the Swiss Temple where they were sealed.


In 1979, Fritzner Joseph was baptized into the Church in Haiti, one of the first converts in a nation that soon burgeoned with new Latter-day Saints. He became the country's first missionary in 1981 and served in Puerto Rico, where he later obtained a bachelor's degree.

After receiving the degree, he was offered several positions in the United States and Puerto Rico. But he returned to Haiti as the Church Educational System coordinator and helped start the early morning seminary and institute programs. He believes the gospel will bring new hope to the youth of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and they will strengthen their country.

In 1992, during a period of severe economic trial and political unrest, he was called as the first Haitian mission president, to serve over the Haiti Port-Au-Prince Mission. "We have some problems because of the political situation," said Pres. Fritzner in a telephone interview.

He explained that missionaries are former students he worked with as CES coordinator. "I spent a lot of time with the young people in Haiti, and now all my missionaries were my institute students.

"The CES has a very special place in this situation. We think we will have 280 in institute and 150 in seminary next year.

"We are working for the goal to have the first stake, but this is very difficult to reach because of the political problems. But we have faith that this has been a blessing. We have had the opportunity to work together. In the past we had leaders from the United States and it was very easy for the members. This past year has been a very good experience for them. I have also learned a lot.

"It has also been a very spiritual period because we have members preparing to go to the temple. We had six couples married in the temple in Guatemala.

"The Haitians know that they are the Church in Haiti. And I am really having a good experience as mission president. My wife and I are grateful for this opportunity and we are trying to do our best," he said.


In the true pioneer spirit, members of the Leest Branch built their own meetinghouse under difficult circumstances. The Church was organized in 1923 in this tiny village a few kilometers west of Potsdam, Germany. When Ernst Richter, baptized shortly after World War II, was called as branch president in 1956, the members still had no meetinghouse.

The Church could not purchase property in the German Democratic Republic. However, in the late 1970s, Pres. Richter was visited by a representative of the ministry of religion. In 1980, the government gave the Leest Branch permission to build a meetinghouse. However, the government said the branch would not receive any supplies from the state building material providers.

Gradually, members in Leest collected materials - a few building blocks at a time, according to Matthew Heiss of the Church Historical Department, who recently visited Germany. It took them three years to collect the needed 55,000 cinder-like blocks and other materials before they could begin building. Often, a member purchased a single sack of cement at a time, with much gratitude, and added it to the collections of materials to build the meetinghouse.

"When they had collected enough, they were ready to begin building," Brother Heiss said. "In March 1983, they broke ground for the meetinghouse, designed by one of the sisters in the branch. Henry Burkhardt dedicated the ground."

To provide water for the meetinghouse's facilities, a well needed to be dug. The water table is at 18 meters, but good water is found at 42. The members decided to dig a shaft 13 meters deep that would prepare the way for a professional well digger to dig to 42 meters. Thomas Heller, because of his slight build, was selected to dig the shaft. He filled buckets with dirt and passed them to Pres. Richeter and his son, Berndt.

The Leest Branch meetinghouse was dedicated in 1990, 10 years after members began building it with their own hands.


When Avelino Juan Rodriguez and his wife, Maria Esther, attended services in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1947, only four others were in attendance: two missionaries and Uruguayan Mission Pres. and Sister Frederick S. Williams. The Rodriguez' were baptized Nov. 4, 1947. Pres. Williams described the event:

"The ordinance was performed in the Arroyo Seco at a point not far from the mouth of the stream. It was a beautiful summer day, ideal for the baptisms."

"It was very hard to be the first one baptized," said Brother Rodriguez, who is now venerated by his fellow Uruguayan LDS members, numbering nearly 60,000. "It was not hard, though, to be spiritual because I lived the gospel."

Shortly after he and his wife were baptized, others also joined the fledgling Church.

The first meetings, including Primary and Relief Society, were held in the back room of the mission home. Brother Rodriguez was soon called as Sunday School president and his wife was called as counselor in the Primary presidency. Brother Rodriguez often accompanied Pres. Williams on visits to sacrament meetings in the mission.


Among the early converts in the northern South American nation of Guyana is Indra Sukhedeo, baptized Oct. 23, 1988.

She was introduced to the Church by Elder Benjamin and Sister Ruth Hudson, who had arrived in August of that year. The Hudsons asked if they could hold the first Church service in her home. She agreed.

"I was glad to have them but was thinking about the place being a bit inconvenient for church meetings. I was very excited. . . For many years I had prayed to go to a good Christian church, but couldn't find one. I was not a Christian.

"The following Sunday, I prepared a table and my best table cloths and a few benches for the meeting. I didn't know what to expect. We had a service for about one hour. . . . The message was inspiring and I knew immediately that the Church was right for me. At the close of the meeting, the missionaries gave us a copy of the Book of Mormon. . . .

"Within three weeks we were given the lessons and were very excited and looking forward to being baptized."

After her baptism, she was soon called as Relief Society instructor and later served as Primary president and teacher. She saw the Church move from her living room to a meetinghouse, and the congregation grow from a handful to more than 130.

"Since I've joined the Church, I've noticed significant changes in my life and the lives of my family, too," she said. "The gospel has really made a difference in my home and in Guyana. I hope one day we'll have many branches, wards and stakes. I hope everyone will be able to have a delicious taste of the gospel. In a world as ours, we need to know and live the gospel. We need to live in harmony."

Sister Sukhedeo is currently living in New York.


Another modern pioneer is H. Clark Fails, 79, of Orem, Utah, who paved the way for the Church to gain legal status and send missionaries to Costa Rica in 1946.

"I feel I have been greatly blessed to be in the right spot at the right time," said the retired languages professor.

Brother Fails was in Costa Rica from 1943 to 1946 as a warrant officer in the Army. He served as administrative assistant to the military attache at the U.S. Embassy. "During this time, I had the opportunity of becoming acquainted with a number of government officials, including the president of the republic, Teodoro Picado. I conducted the Church meeting in our home for other Americans. Several of our Costa Rican friends attended also.

"My wife and I felt lonely, but then, little by little, other members were assigned there. My wife and I were renting a big house, so they lived with us."

During this time, he and Pres. Arwell Pierce of the Mexican Mission presented a letter to the government requesting recognition for the Church, received Sept. 13, 1946.

After Brother Fails left the Army, he accepted a job in Boise, Idaho, where he was appointed vice consul for Costa Rica. A short time later, he was called to return to Costa Rica as a missionary.

On his way back, he learned that visas for the first two missionaries called to Costa Rica had not been approved. He flew to Costa Rica, met with an acquaintance in the diplomatic corps, Col. Granados, who approved the visas and paved the way for many other missionaries to enter. He also met with Col. Calixto Madrigal and arranged to meet with Costa Rica's President Picado.

"We spent over half an hour [with President PicadoT, explaining our mission and talking of the Church and the Book of Mormon. The president said he would like to have a copy and said that we could deliver it to him the following morning. Pres. Pierce inscribed one for him, and the next morning we were again with him for about half an hour."

Brother Fails said he has returned to Costa Rica in recent years and was thrilled to see all the meetinghouses and to know how many members and how many stakes, wards and branches have been established in a land that now has more than 13,000 members.

"We didn't have any idea how fast the Church would grow," he said. "We just hoped it would."


One of the faithful members in Tonga is Maile Mataele, son of pioneer member Siosaia Mataele. Maile Mataele, 93, now in frail health, was baptized Aug. 9, 1911, four years after missionary work resumed in Tonga after a 10-year hiatus from 1897-1907.

He recalled that early missionary efforts centered around schools, the first of which was held in his father's home. He attended this school but when World War I started, the missionaries left and the school was closed.

Another obstacle that he remembered, which had to be overcome, was a passport act of 1922, banning foreign missionaries. Two years later parliament repealed the ban. "Everyone was fasting," Brother Mataele said. "All the Saints waited outside the parliament building for the outcome of the decision." After the ban was removed, "they were very, very happy."

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