ROCHESTER, N.Y. — In western New York, in an area known as the "Cradle of the Restoration," the first converts were the foundation members of a Church that would spread across the earth with nearly 13 million members 177 years later.
Almost a hundred years after Joseph Smith led the Church westward to Ohio in 1831, the next branch was organized in Rochester, N.Y., about 1922, growing to 83 members by 1940. Since then, converts in this area have continued to come into the Church. Today, nearly 10,000 members live in the New York Rochester Mission, which has three stakes and 28 wards and branches.
These converts fuel the growth and are leaders in many Church units. One of these converts is Larry Locke, president of the Rochester 4th Branch, one of 10 units in the Rochester stake. Baptized in 1983, he is an optics scientist. He struggled for a time to accept the gospel, though his wife Mary Ann had joined a year ahead of him.
"Science taught me to find a rational, logical reason for everything," he said. "But after much prayer and study, I learned that science, though important to progress, is no substitute for the influence of the Holy Ghost."
Since his baptism he has served in an elders quorum presidency, as a ward missionary, bishop's counselor, stake financial clerk and Primary teacher.
Sister Locke learned about eternal marriage and wanted that blessing. She read President Boyd K. Packer's counsel urging women to treat their non-member husbands as if they already held the priesthood. She did that and it softened her husband's heart. She later served as her husband's stake missionary companion. She served as stake Young Women president, seminary teacher, Relief Society and Sunday School teacher. She works as a birth doula, assisting mothers during childbirth.
Another area convert is Elder Neil E. Pitts, an Area Seventy now living in Canandaigua, N.Y. He and his wife, the former Beverly Ann Warnick, joined the Church after an intensive search for answers about their relationship to God. While preparing for work one morning, he was overcome by a strong impression that he needed to be baptized. He told his wife about the feeling. She reminded him of his childhood Protestant baptism by sprinkling.
"That doesn't count," he told her.
In the summer of 1976, the Pitts attended several churches in search of a faith. Still not satisfied, he remembered Mormon missionaries had come to his boyhood home. Opening a telephone book, he underlined a number for missionaries and picked up the phone but, for some reason, he could not make the call.
"Three days later Sisters Sandra (Randall) Gray and Francis Miller knocked on their door, the last one they had planned to approach that day. He asked why he should listen to them. "In a word, 'Authority,"' one missionary said.
Struck by the answer, he agreed to listen. As the lesson started, Beverly Pitts began to cry. Neil asked why she was crying.
"Because I know this is true," she said. The Spirit had spoken to her.
Elder Pitts called his older brother in Chicago to tell him they planned to join the Church. Amazed at the call, his brother said he and his wife had recently been receiving the lessons. Within a month, they, too, were baptized.
Some time later Elder Pitts again noticed the underlined phone number in the book.
"Only then did I realize it was a number for missionaries for (what was then) the Reorganized LDS Church's missionaries," he said. "I've often thought how different my life might be if I had made that phone call," he added.
A member of the Sixth Quorum of Seventy, Elder Pitts previously served as Rochester stake president, bishop, Young Men president, high councilor and regional public affairs director. Sister Pitts' favorite calling is nursery leader, though she has been Primary president, ward Young Women counselor, Relief Society president and teacher. The Pitts have three daughters and one son. He retired from Eastman Kodak in 2006.
Another convert couple, living on New York's western edge, in East Aurora, are Kate and Neil Munro, who joined the Church 30 years ago. Brother Munro is a counselor in the New York Rochester Mission presidency. He is a former bishop, stake high councilor, stake Young Men president, elders quorum president, Scoutmaster and adviser to Aaronic Priesthood youth. Sister Munro taught seminary for four years, served in the ward Relief Society as a teacher, counselor and president, and is now the stake Young Women president.
Neil Munro was on his garden tractor in Marilla, N.Y., when a car pulled into his driveway. Two missionaries approached him as his wife, pregnant with their first child, watched from the front porch.
"An unsettling, scary feeling came over me," she remembers. "Somehow I knew my life was going to change and at that moment I did not want it to change." She wanted to send the missionaries away.
But Neil recognized something special about them. "Their countenance and the spirit they carried told me it was right to listen to them," he said. His heart was already softened because a short time before he had held his dying mother in his arms as she passed away. "I needed some answers," he said. He was soon baptized.
His wife would not be ready for three more years. In the summer of 1976, she went back to her congregation after a long absence. To her surprise, the message that day was about how effective the Mormon missionary program was, urging parishioners to preach their faith the same way. "That was sort of an endorsement of what Mormon missionaries had been teaching me," Sister Munro said. She was baptized in 1980.
Brother Munro is a building contractor and paint manufacturer. Sister Munro is a career elementary school teacher. They have four adult sons.
Delvenia Fairbanks, an African-American, was working in a Buffalo, N.Y., retail store when she noticed a co-worker reading what she thought was a Bible.
"Are you saved?" she asked. The co-worker said the answer needed explanation and invited her to a ward open house. She went, but felt strange. This was not like any church she had ever been in. There was no cross on the wall, but she was comforted by a picture of Jesus Christ hanging in the foyer. In a class called "What is the Purpose of Life?" a teacher held a Bible in one hand and a Book of Mormon in the other. He testified that the Book of Mormon was "Another Testament of Christ."
Dubious, she asked for a copy of the Book of Mormon and was referred to missionaries in the back.
"They said they would bring it to my home, but I did not want them in my home. I just wanted the book," she said. Persuaded to let them come, she stopped them at the doorstep but then decided to invite them in.
She had attended college, studying journalism. But her life fell apart. "I was a single mother," she said. "My life was in complete disorder and on a destructive path. I knew I needed help."
Her co-worker taught her to pray. She heard the missionary lessons and wanted to be baptized.
However, she knew she had to stop smoking. "I had tried everything to stop. When I fasted and prayed for help, I think the Lord was telling me, 'Delvenia, you've tried everything else, now try Me," she said. She was able to quit and was baptized in April 1995.
Although she never earned the journalism degree, she has one published book and is writing another. Her first Church calling was counselor in the Buffalo Branch Young Women presidency and later was president. She is now a member of the stake public affairs council.