Precious gift returns to Samoa

Destroyed by fire during renovation, Samoa temple dedicated 'a sacred house'

APIA, Samoa — It's a happy thing to receive a gift of great value. It's something entirely different to possess such a gift, lose it, go without for a time, then have it returned shiny and new.

Latter-day Saints in the Samoan islands understand.

For decades, faithful members from the Samoan Islands sacrificed much to visit temples in perhaps New Zealand, Hawaii or the mainland of the United States. Then historic news arrived in 1977 that a temple would be built in the village of Pesega near the Western Samoan capital of Apia. Six years later, the Apia Samoa Temple was dedicated by President Gordon B. Hinckley, then a counselor in the First Presidency.

For the first time, the blessings of the temple could be had for a few Samoan "talas" in cab or ferry fare for the faithful living on the Samoan islands of Upolu or Savai'i. Even members in neighboring American Samoa could visit regularly. That changed July 9, 2003, when the Apia Samoa Temple became the first such edifice since the Nauvoo Temple to be destroyed by fire.

Stunned LDS Samoans wept for their loss. Many worried for the future of the Pacific Island nation. "There was a concern that there might not be another temple," admitted Pago Pago Samoa Mapusaga Stake President Edward M. Stevenson.

Their fears were eased days later when President Hinckley announced the temple would be rebuilt. He would return Sept. 4 to dedicate Apia's new temple in two sessions. He was joined at the dedication by President Thomas S. Monson, first counselor in the First Presidency, and Elder Spencer J. Condie of the Seventy and president of the New Zealand/Pacific Islands Area.

The services were also broadcast to meetinghouses in Samoa, American Samoa and to Samoan congregations throughout the world.

Once again, Samoans can drive through Pesega Village and see the temple anchoring the LDS campus that includes the Apia Samoa Mission Complex, the country's LDS service and distribution centers, temple patron housing and a Church-operated school. A meetinghouse operates across the street.

Many who participated in the dedication have experienced bookends of emotions over the past two years. Alema Fitisemanu was among the many LDS Samoans who answered their phones on the evening of July 9th two years ago and heard the alarming news that the temple was fully involved in flames.

"In tears, we rushed to the temple grounds and there was the fire," said Brother Fitisemanu. "We felt like we had lost everything."

As temple engineer, Faamoana Utai earned his living and worshipped at the original Apia Samoa Temple. As he watched the temple burn he went to a secluded spot to cry. His wife, Eneleta Utai, asked how this tragedy could happen.

"I felt so sad," Sister Utai said.

Yet many also speak of a peace that delivered comfort even before President Hinckley's direction to clear the charred remains of the fallen temple and build again. Brother Fitisemanu remembers telling folks on the night of the fire "Watch what the Lord is going to do for Samoa. There will be a beautiful temple, and now we have it."

Now a member of the newly called temple presidency, Brother Fitisemanu said the opening of the two temples in Samoa during his lifetime is evidence that miracles do happen. Dreams do come true.

Bishop Iamafana Lameta is an apt representation of faithful LDS Samoans. He has large, strong hands and a warm smile. He's most comfortable wearing the traditional Polynesian lava-lava. He loves the temple.

As translator for the Church, Bishop Lameta also witnessed the first temple burn. And like many others, he did what he could to save it. Photos can be found of Bishop Lameta and other volunteers on the temple of the roof struggling to douse the blaze. His love for the temple was strong and helped him ignore the risk of battling the blaze.

"We tried so hard, but the fire was out of control," Bishop Lameta said.

The shock of watching the temple fall was enhanced when Bishop Lameta considered the possibility that his own children might have to endure the same hardships once exacted on his forbearers to make temple trips abroad. His worries were forgotten Sept. 3-4 as he served as President Hinckley's translator during his Samoa visit.

"This temple," said Bishop Lameta, his eyes moving up the white-stoned edifice, "is a gift from our Father in Heaven."

Apia Samoa Temple President Suauupa'ia K. Pe'a's ties to the temple are deeply rooted. A native of Samoa, President Pe'a once presided over the country's lone mission. His many elders and sisters serving in the mission had found spiritual refreshment in the temple. "We were simply heartbroken when we learned of the fire," he said.

Still, he was confident that faithful LDS Samoans would continue to be the beneficiary of rich blessings.

"(God) would not let them go without . . . we prepared for a temple, and look what He has given us."

Despite not having a temple to visit, Samoan priesthood leaders admonished their congregations to remain temple worthy. Some have been unable to wait and have traveled to New Zealand and other lands to claim dormant temple blessings, often relying on "aiga" or family living abroad for help. "A majority have (remained) worthy," said President Stevenson, who presides over a American Samoa stake.

The past two temple-less years in Samoa have caused some to re-evaluate their own priorities.

"It made people sit back and realize what is important," said Albert Niuelua, the Church's service center manager on the island.

Such recommitment blesses the lives of all Samoans. "The members will step up — that example will permeate to their neighbors."

Miracles seem synonymous with Samoa and temples. In a land of oral traditions, access to birth records and other vital statistics can be limited. Still, after much prayer and revelation, members are able to locate and provide family information needed to perform temple work, Brother Niuelua said.

"I just marvel at the faith of the people, not just in Samoa but in the South Pacific in particular," added Brother Niuelua, a native Samoan who spent much of his life in New Zealand.

Now the work begins again. Much is to be done, but LDS Samoans seem eager to see it accomplished. A line of temple-goers could be found outside the building the day after the dedication, symbolic of the excitement being felt throughout the islands.

Now stay strong, said President Hinckley, and labor "where the blessings of eternal life will be available to you and your forbearers whom you will serve there."

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