Amid Mayan ruins, fireside focuses on history

More than 350 people, including newspaper reporters, attended a fireside that focused on the beginning of missionary work among the Mayans on the Yucatan Peninsula.

The fireside was held in conjunction with the Church's 1997 pioneer sesquicentennial, and coverage was included in the local Por Esto! newspaper.Missionary work started here less than 40 years ago, and today LDS membership on the Yucatan Peninsula numbers more than 20,000 and has expanded to 26 towns and cities. Many of the members are of Mayan ancestry.

At the fireside of the Merida stake, held Feb. 9 at the stake center, an account was given of first translation into Spanish of the Book of Mormon, completed in 1885. Historical documents were displayed that related to early missionary work in Mexico. Among the documents was a letter, dated March 19, 1876, by James Z. Stewart, one of the first missionaries to Mexico City. The artifacts and historical information were provided by Fernando R. Gomez Paez, one of the speakers at the fireside and president of the Mormon History Museum in Mexico City.

The Book of Mormon was first taken by missionaries to the Mayan people in 1959. At that time, Pres. Harvey H. Taylor of the Mexican Mission met with local priesthood leaders in Mexico City and outlined his plan for taking the gospel to the Yucatan Peninsula. Called the Mayab, which means "the land where people live in peace, integrity and justice," the peninsula is the ancestral home of the Mayan people and site of significant archeological ruins in Mesoamerica.

Pres. Taylor traveled to the peninsula with Jose Octavio Davila, a member of the mission council and a travel agent familiar with the area. They arrived in Merida by train Feb. 5, 1959, with missionaries: Elders Stanley Gardner, Warren Carter, Leon Sylvester and Ken Flake. Pres. Taylor dedicated the area for the preaching of the gospel two days later on Feb. 7, 1959, and on the following day, a Sunday, held the first Church meeting. Eight investigators attended.

The first baptisms were performed May 9, 1959, and included members of the Humberto Carrillo Carrillo and Herculano Pech families. Both families were represented at the fireside. The following August, a district conference was held with a combined attendance of 240 people in two sessions.

Herculano Pech was ordained an elder on Aug. 24, 1959, and became the first missionary called to preach to the Mayans in their own language. The first two sister missionaries called from Merida were Sisters Raquel Pech and Olga Carrillo.

"The fireside allowed me to remember in my mind and heart the sacred spiritual experiences I lived here," said Pres. Mauro Gil Parro of the Merida Itzimna stake. "For me, the fireside was of great value to remember the history and see the legacy of the Latter-day Saints on this peninsula."

Pres. Walter R. Petersen of the Mexico Merida Mission emphasized the importance of current members following the example of faithfulness of the pioneer members "because there will be many that follow. By demonstrating the pioneer attributes of faith, courage, honesty and sacrifice, converts of the present and future will be able to influence society and the lives of the people of this peninsula."

Among new members who gained a greater appreciation of their heritage at the fireside are Rafael and Yvonne Chacon, who said, "As new members of the Church baptized Jan. 26, 1997, we found answers to questions about the coming of the Church to this area. History is very important because it teaches us who gave of their time or even their lives so that we can have the life we have today."

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