SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — Steve Roberts remembers stepping off a plane at the Santo Domingo airport with a group of fellow missionaries in 1978 and being greeted at the tiny terminal gate by every Church member in the Dominican Republic.
"They were all there at the airport waving at us. . . all 12 or 14 of them," he laughed.
Today there are few football stadiums that could hold the entire Dominican membership. The Church arrived in this Caribbean land of baseball and merengue music long after many of the other Latin American countries. The members and missionaries have spent the past two decades playing catch-up. They play well. In a country where a few still remember the first branch and sacrament services in missionaries' sparse living rooms, there are now 11 stakes and an estimated 80,000 members.
Many who recall once praying for a chapel are now rejoicing the opening of a temple of their own. Thousands of Dominicans and their neighbors from Haiti and Puerto Rico gathered to witness the Sept. 17 dedication of the Santo Domingo Dominican Republic Temple — the Church's 99th temple and the first such holy edifice in the West Indies. President Gordon B. Hinckley presided over the four sessions, offering his counsel, spirit and presence to faithful members, many who were seeing the Lord's prophet for the first time. All felt part of a remarkable moment.
"This is the most special day in the history of our country," said Georgina Rosario, a young woman who joined the Church a decade ago after a member friend shared the gospel's happy message. "The Church is growing in Santo Domingo because of the importance of the family in this country. Our country and our families will grow because of the influence of the temple."
For years, members living on the island of Hispaniola that is divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic have had to travel to temples in Guatemala, Orlando, Fla., or Washington D.C. to claim their temple blessings. Economic limitations have prevented many from ever visiting the temple. The president of the new temple, Arthur F. Coombs Jr., knows one Dominican couple that traveled to a foreign temple over a decade ago to be sealed but did not have the money to pay for all their children to make the trip.
Now that entire family will be sealed in this temple, President Coombs said.
Domingo Aybar is a reflection of the Church here. He is young, talented, teachable and faithful. He was baptized with his family in Santo Domingo when he was 15, served a mission in the Dominican city of Santiago, worked hard and matured in faith. Brother Aybar is only 30 but has already presided over the Santo Domingo Villa Mella Stake for five years.
"The Church is growing here because of the quality of the people — Dominicans are believers," President Aybar said. "The faith of the members in our stake has increased abundantly in the past two years. Their lives are changing. I have witnessed people working day and night for this temple."
The excitement of the new temple extends beyond Dominican borders. For the first time, Haitian members will now be able drive to a temple.
"I have been a Church member for 13 years and I will be getting my endowment for the first time," said Roland Ciochy, a member of the Jacmel Branch on Haiti's southern coast. "Many other Haitians would like to have been here but could not, but I know they are happy watching the dedication (via) satellite."
Marie Berpetue Robert, a Haitian woman who joined the Church three years ago after being befriended by LDS co-workers, believes the spirit of the temple will pervade Hispaniola.
"There has been a history of trouble between our two countries, but when we are in the celestial room of this temple there will be no Dominicans, no Haitians — only daughters and sons of our Heavenly Father," Sister Robert said.
Many of the land's "pioneers" are still fairly young men and women. Rodolfo Bodden was baptized in a swimming pool in 1978, becoming the first person to join the Church in the Dominican Republic. The ordinance was performed by John Rappleye, an American friend and co-worker who was doing business in the Dominican Republic and served as the country's first branch president. The rest of the Bodden family also joined the Church and became part of the tiny branch that included Brother Rappleye and his wife, Nancy, and the Eddie and Mercedes Amparo family, a Dominican-born family who joined the Church while living in the United States.
"I remember President Spencer W. Kimball visiting this country and saying that one day there would be a temple here," said Brother Bodden, who has served many years as a patriarch. President Kimball's promise has been realized. A temple replete with beautiful interior stonework, ornate chandeliers and tile floors typical of Latin American homes now stands as a Caribbean sentinel of faith. The temple is built on a hill offering a striking vista of blue sea, beckoning member and non-member alike.
"Christopher Columbus came here over 500 years ago and they built lighthouses in those days for protection," said Kevin Mortensen, one of the 10 original missionaries in the Dominican Republic. "Now the real lighthouse has come."