Sesquicentennial: 'Spiritual feast': celebration spans four island chains, makes LDS history in French Polynesia

Members feasted spiritually, physically, and culturally in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Church in French Polynesia.

During a busy 12 days from April 30 to May 11, conferences, cultural events, dinners and firesides were held on the four major island groups of French Polynesia: Tahiti, Tubuai, Takaroa and Raiatea. Events included the excitement of members expressing deep feelings about the gospel while taking part in the historic activities.Events during the celebration included dedication of French Polynesia and visits by Church leaders to the head of government. (See stories on pages 3-5.)

Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Council of the Twelve presided during the commemorative events. He was accompanied by Elder Rulon G. Craven of the Seventy and president of the Pacific Area.

Elder Nelson and Elder Craven spoke at many events during their visits to the islands. They were accompanied by local leaders, Elder Jean-Michel Carlson, regional representative; Pres. Victor D. Cave of the Tahiti Papeete Mission; and Pres. C. Jay Larson of the Papeete Tahiti Temple. Each of these leaders spoke at several events, as did Elder Craven's wife, Donna; Pres. Larson's wife, Natalie; and Pres. Cave's wife, Autonina, who accompanied their husbands.

Honored at each of the celebrations on the islands were the three missionaries who brought the gospel in 1844. Two of the three, Addison Pratt and Benjamin Grouard, have a missionary legacy that grows each year and has reached its seventh generation, while the third, Noah Rogers, returned to the United States after a few months in the islands. (See Church News, April 30, and May 7, 1994.)

Today, French Polynesia has nearly 14,000 members in four stakes and three districts, a temple, area offices, and a rich blending of cultures that includes Polynesians, French, Chinese, and other nationalities.

The largest conference during the 12 days was held in the Papeete stake center on Sunday morning, May 8. At that session, conducted in French, some 2,140 people attended. A similar conference was conducted in Tahitian in the afternoon, at which some 2,100 - most returning from the morning session - attended.

At the Sunday morning session, Elder Nelson spoke for nearly an hour, challenging those attending to increase in number and righteousness.

"While we congratulate ourselves on the growth of the Church, we need to measure our progress against what the Lord asks of us," he said. "This is what the Lord expects: `For Zion must increase in beauty, and in holiness; her borders must be enlarged; her stakes must be strengthened; yea, verily I say unto you, Zion must arise and put on her beautiful garments.' (D&C 82:14.)

"The Lord uses the word must four times," he emphasized. "This is not a suggestion. For the next 150 years, we must strengthen these stakes and enlarge our borders."

He said that despite the rich history of the islands, "the most important pages of history are being written right now. I have a marvelous vision that no longer do the stakes of Polynesia need imported help from other stakes. You have the power to lead yourselves."

He noted that other French-speaking countries are pleading for missionaries, but the Church isn't able to provide enough missionaries to satisfy all the needs. He encouraged the members to provide not only enough missionaries for French Polynesia, but also for other countries.

Because French Polynesia is a destination for tourists from throughout the world, "Each of you should be ready at a moment's notice to give expression of the faith that is in you." Elder Nelson concluded his address in precise French, much to the surprise of the congregation and his translator, Yves Valen.

Elder Craven discussed the array of gospel blessings that has been brought by the missionaries, from the first to the present.

"I'm grateful for all who have assisted, for the returned missionaries who labored so valiantly. We have talked of Addison Pratt, but each of you

formerT mission presidents and returned missionaries could have the same accolades as you have come to these islands."

He called for more local missionaries to serve.

Sister Craven paid tribute to Addison Pratt's wife, Louisa Barnes Pratt, who came to the islands to live during her husband's second mission to the islands. She left a legacy of teaching the sisters to sew that has become a long-standing tradition among the Tahitians.

"The faith that built the Church is evident today," she said. "You have a wonderful heritage, but if you don't keep teaching your children, we are only one generation from the Church being forgotten."

Another highlight of the celebration was Elder Nelson's visit to the island of Takaroa in the Tuamotu archipelago. He was the first apostle to ever visit the island. He and a group of about a dozen Church leaders and their wives flew to the island May 9. On the way, their chartered aircraft crossed reefs a few hundred feet wide and up to miles long that sprouted small groves of coconut trees and supported small populations. As the craft landed on the narrow island of Takaroa, vivid with its clean air and ocean breezes, they were welcomed by the mayor and a string band. At the village, a congregation of two branches was waiting in the historic, 100-plus year-old Takaroa chapel.

In the meeting, Elder Nelson spoke tenderly to them and explained: "Many of you have never seen an apostle before. I stand before you as an ordinary man with an extraordinary calling." He related to them the highlights of the messages given by members of the First Presidency and Council of the Twelve in the past April conference.

He thanked them for their faithfulness and observed that the funds they paid in tithing contributed to the Church being able to enter additional countries.

After the meeting, the group was entertained by a band and young dancers, and was provided a luncheon. Gifts of shell handicrafts were given to the visitors, who then took time out to visit a black pearl farm owned by Church member Fernand Faura.

During a similar visit to the island of Raiatea in the Leeward Islands, the leaders were given a warm welcome. They were presented with gifts and entertained by island members who demonstrated how they make their crafts of shells and palm fronds.

Elder Nelson and Elder and Sister Craven completed their visit to French Polynesia May 11. At Tahiti's Faa'a Airport, a youth choir of about 30 sang farewell songs, their harmony echoing from the spacious walls of the airport and drawing curious travelers.

After singing, the young men and women, as well as older members, filed past to shake hands with the leaders. They placed a shell necklace on each, and then in the French Polynesian tradition, kissed them on both cheeks. As their necks were wreathed and heaping with shells, the visitors became emotional and exchanged greetings of love with the island members. The sesquicentennial celebration will not soon be forgotten by either the visitors or the visited.

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