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LDS Panamanians penning history of faith, promise

Newly dedicated temple ushers in new opportunities

PANAMA CITY, PANAMA — The personal stories of the beginnings and growth of the Church in Panama can be found in the family journals and ward histories stretched across the nation. But collectively, the Church's relatively brief history here is perhaps anchored to three pivotal dates, including the recent dedication of the Panama City Panama Temple, that forever changed the Church and, by extension, all of Panama.

May 18, 1941

In 1940, Otto Hunsaker accepted an engineering job at the Panama Canal where the U.S. Army was building barracks, highways and runways. His wife, Cressa, and their five children joined him a short time later.

In a family history, Sister Hunsaker spoke of the promise and beauty that greeted the faithful LDS family as they arrived at their new home.

"I shall never forget how green and beautiful Panama looked to us the morning we woke up off shore. The red tile roofs of the (misty) houses...was like a dream."

Despite the adventure of living in an exotic land, the Hunsakers soon grew hungry for Church fellowship. The family decided they would return to the United States if they could not locate or organize a formal branch. Brother Hunsaker wrote to Church headquarters in Salt Lake City to learn if other members were living in the Canal Zone. They also inquired about the possibility of establishing a branch in Panama.

Months passed before a letter arrived from the First Presidency with the happy news that, yes, other LDS families were living in Panama. The Church leadership soon dispatched Elder Antoine R. Ivins of the Council of the Seventy to Panama to check on conditions and meet with the Hunsakers and the other member families.

On May 18, 1941, Elder Ivins gathered with the small group of recently acquainted members. The Seventy asked those in attendance if they would support the branch and work hard to ensure its success. The small gathering pledged their help and the Canal Zone Branch was organized. Brother Hunsaker was called as branch president.

The Church had officially arrived in Panama. When the Canal Zone Branch marked its first anniversary, some 100 members were numbered among the rolls.

"It was one of the happiest times of our lives," wrote Sister Hunsaker.

June 7, 1978

Despite that initial surge in Church membership in Panama, growth would happen slowly and incrementally over the next few decades. A large portion of members here were U.S. military personnel and other foreigners involved in the operation of the Panama Canal.

Mother and her young daughter wait outside the Panama City Panama Temple to greet President Thomas S
Mother and her young daughter wait outside the Panama City Panama Temple to greet President Thomas S. Monson during his recent visit. | Photo by Jason Swensen

The first missionaries arrived in 1953. A year later, Jose D. Guzman became the first native born Panamanian to be baptized in the country. The Church was formally recognized by the Panamanian government in 1965.

Despite the ongoing presence of missionaries, the work was challenging. Americans Jim Dame and John Morgan were serving in the San Jose Costa Rica Mission in 1975 when they were assigned to Panama City. It was not considered a prime spot for missionary work.

"The work was hard," admitted Brother Dame. He remembered serving in the Panama City Branch and greeting 15 or 20 people at Church services each Sunday. A non-member was teaching the Sunday School class.

Their struggles were compounded by Panama's diversity. A large percentage of Panamanians are of African descent. At the time when Elder Dame and Elder Morgan knocked on doors in the capital city, members of African descent were unable to fully participate in the gospel. Each missionary would leave Panama after baptizing one family, respectively. Still, the fruit of their labors proved few but sweet.

Elder Morgan was able to share the gospel with the Ruiz family. The family patriarch, Juan Ruiz, would become a faithful leader in Panama City and was recently called as a counselor in the Panama City Panama Temple presidency. His son, Johnny Ruiz, was 12 when he was baptized. Now he is the president of the La Chorrera Panama Stake.

Elder Dame enjoyed similar success with the one family he helped bring into the Church. Converts Augusta and Maria Chung also became strong, faithful leaders in Panama.

Attending the dedication of the Panama City Panama Temple on Aug. 10, Brother Dame said, "It's an amazing experience to know that we had a part in establishing the Church here." Brother Dame now lives, coincidentally, in Panama City, Florida.

Both men, along with countless others who served in Panama in the early days of the Church there, experienced deep joy on June 7, 1978, after learning of President Spencer W. Kimball's historic revelation allowing all worthy male members to hold the priesthood.

Beverly Smith, left, and Laura Bustamante work in Panama City family history center.
Beverly Smith, left, and Laura Bustamante work in Panama City family history center. | Photo by Jason Swensen

"We just knew that revelation was going to open up the work in Panama," said Brother Dame.

Brother Morgan of Utah was touring Israel with a BYU performing group when he learned of President Kimball's revelation. He remembers telling fellow students about how the news would forever impact Panama.

The first stake was organized on Nov. 11, 1979, and the Panama Panama City Mission was created about a decade later.

Aug. 10, 2008

By the beginning of the new century, there were some 32,000 members in Panama, serving in units stretching from Changuinola in the Caribbean north to the indigenous island populations of San Blas. President Gordon B. Hinckley would visit Panama City in December of 2000. While speaking to an audience of 5,000, the Church president said a temple would one day be built in Panama if the members proved worthy. Two years later, President Hinckley announced plans to build the Panama City Panama Temple.

In just over six decades, the Church in Panama had grown from a single branch to a nation of eight stakes serving faithfully in a temple built just a short drive from the Panama Canal. Perhaps it's appropriate that Quinten Hunsaker, who was a deacon when he became a member of the Canal Zone Branch in 1941, would return to Panama while presiding over the Central American Mission to purchase the land where the temple was built.

President Thomas S. Monson dedicated the Panama City Panama Temple on Aug. 10, 2008. Again, the Church in Panama marked and relished this pivotal period in its burgeoning history.

Today, some 42,000 members call Panama home. Many say the period that preceded the opening of the breathtaking temple here will serve as a mere preface to a rich history yet to be written. The temple now serves as Panama's most effective missionary, said President Francisco Phillips, first counselor in the San Miguelito Panama Stake. Those dreams first recognized upon Cressa Hunsaker's arrival in Panama are primed for fulfillment.

"People are coming," President Phillips said. "They want to see more. Even from the street, they can feel the spirit of the temple."

Source: 2008 Church Almanac

Tanker passes through the Panama Canal.
Tanker passes through the Panama Canal. | Photo by Jason Swensen
Former Panama missionaries Jim Dame and John Morgan outside temple.
Former Panama missionaries Jim Dame and John Morgan outside temple. | Photo by Jason Swensen
David Chumpitaz, left, and his friend, Francisco Phillips, are part of a growing number of members i
David Chumpitaz, left, and his friend, Francisco Phillips, are part of a growing number of members in Panama who have found new strength in the gospel, thanks to the recent dedication of the Panama City Panama Temple. | Photo by Jason Swensen

E-mail: jswensen@desnews.com

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