PAPEETE, Tahiti — Near the tropical waters off Tahiti's black sand beaches, locals perform a delicate grafting operation in a pinctada margaritifera or black-lipped oyster that ultimately yields a beautiful black pearl.
The black pearl — extremely rare when occurring naturally — is a symbol of this island paradise, home today to more than 22,000 Church members.
Their nation is the leading exporter of the rare treasure, produced only in the rich Pacific waters. Yet the Latter-day Saints here, who comprise 10 percent of this nation's population, talk of an even greater pearl: the Papeete Tahiti Temple.
First dedicated Oct. 27, 1983, the Tahiti temple has been closed during the past 15 months for renovations. On Nov. 12 — 23 years after it first opened — Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve rededicated the Church's 25th temple.
The rededication was "a wonderful time," said Elder Perry outside the temple after the event.
"We love this great country. It is beautiful....
"The people are just wonderful. There are not a friendlier people in all the earth than the people here in Tahiti. The ones that came (to the rededication) came reverently this morning. I think it was a very spiritual experience for all of them."
A deeply spiritual people, Tahitian Latter-day Saints share a legacy equal to the beauty of their land, filled with lush foliage and bright flowers surrounded by blue waters.
More than 100 years after the first missionaries arrived in Tahiti, which was the Church's first foreign-speaking mission, 64 Latter-day Saints traveled from this island paradise to the Auckland New Zealand Temple. Arriving late on Christmas Eve in 1963, the group spent Christmas day and the next few weeks in the temple performing the first temple ordinances for Tahitian Church members.
Humble members, including fishermen and pearl farmers, spent their life savings on the trip. Today, that level of sacrifice is no longer needed, said temple President Thomas R. Stone, who as a mission president in 1963 accompanied the members to New Zealand.
"That is why the temple is such a blessing to the people. It is here. It is accessible."
An estimated 10,000 Tahitians from six stakes and three districts participated locally in the rededication, held during two sessions in the Papeete temple and broadcast to local stake centers. In addition, the meeting was broadcast via the Church satellite system to Salt Lake City, New Caledonia, and the BYU-Hawaii campus in Laie, Hawaii. The rededication was the final event during a weekend of grand celebration. Members gathered Nov. 11 for a member meeting and cultural event. (Please see reports on pages 6 and 8-9.)
Many Tahitian Church members had hoped President Gordon B. Hinckley, who participated in the rededication from Salt Lake City, would rededicate the temple. However, nothing, they said, can take away from the great joy they feel to have the temple open again.
The updated temple, which will serve all of French Polynesia and the Cook Islands, now includes a larger temple-style baptismal font, larger sealing rooms, an office for the temple engineer, and a youth center for children being sealed to their parents.
The cost of travel for large Polynesian families is one reason the temple is such a blessing to the people here, said Iotua Brothers, Arue Tahiti Stake patriarch.
The members "are happy to have the house of the Lord," he said. Without a temple in French Polynesia it would be "too expensive to have all the children sealed."
He said when Church members learned the temple was coming they cried tears of joy. "They cried and they expressed gratitude to the Lord for the temple."
Although Tahitian Latter-day Saints have always known the great value of their temple, the open house before the rededication was an opportunity to share their pearl with others.
Each has stories of the open house, attended by 36,800 people. Many members shared the temple with family members and neighbors of other faiths. Others had deeply spiritual experiences while inside the temple after more than a year away from it.
Many Church members made time to share their stories, traveling to the chapel adjacent to the temple or the Church office in Papeete. They wore their great feelings for the temple as they came outside.
Tiare Tauaoar, a new member, felt forgiveness in the temple. Maima Tamu of the Papeete stake — through an experience with her 1-year-old son — felt close to her deceased father. Kelly O'Connor, who traveled to the St. George Utah Temple to be married while the Tahiti temple was closed, said she received peace in the temple for the concerns of her heart.
Of being in the temple, "It seemed like the Lord was opening His arms and waiting for me to come in," said Regina Teinanuarii of the Taharaa Ward, Arue Tahiti Stake.
Henri Teaurai, bishop of the Taharaa ward, Arue Tahiti Stake, said the period of renovation made members appreciate the temple even more.
"They are very lucky now," he said. "They are very happy. They feel something very strong to be again in the temple."
Dorina Pangsiang of the Auera Ward, Raromatai Tahiti Stake, attended the first temple dedication in 1983. "I have no way to tell the feeling we had at that time," she said.
Most members of her stake must travel all night by boat to reach Papeete. She remembers local leaders asking members to pray for a temple, promising with faith one could be built. What they said came true, she said. "We have our temple."
On site near Papeete's wharf where local vendors sell food, Zaina Vitali — demonstrating typical Tahitian hospitality — shares crepes with visitors. She then enthusiastically tells the story of her family's first trip to the temple, a story that is woven with dozens of others into the rich Church legacy of French Polynesia. Collectively the stories are like a strand of priceless pearls.
One of 12 children, Sister Vitali traveled with her parents, siblings and grandparents to New Zealand before the Papeete temple was built. Her father sold the family car and the family land to earn money for the trip. The family sustained themselves on a diet of mainly rice and sugar for almost two years to make up the difference. And when they could not afford enough white fabric to make temple clothing for everyone, they supplemented the cloth by bleaching rice and sugar bags.
Sister Vitali remembers the trip well. Hearing the children perform traditional music and dance during the cultural event before the temple rededication — and singing along with them — made her miss her father and the other early Tahitian pioneers who laid the foundation of the Church in French Polynesia.
"It made me thankful," she said, "for what they left behind."