My Primary teacher, 'Mi Maestra' is pioneer member in Cali, Colombia


There are two things that are all but certain if you visit the Cristobal Colon Ward in Cali, Colombia.

First, you are sure to meet Maria Ines Henao.

Sister Maria Ines Henao teaches a pair of children from the Cristobal Colon Ward, Cali Colombia San
Sister Maria Ines Henao teaches a pair of children from the Cristobal Colon Ward, Cali Colombia San Fernando Stake. | Photo by Jason Swensen

The members here call Sister Henao, 77, a pioneer, and for good reason. She’s been active in the Church in Cali for almost a half century and can still remember the days, in decades past, when the roster of her local branch could be counted on two hands.

And second, you are just as certain to find this silver-haired septuagenarian in front of a Primary class, surrounded by a group of youngsters. A few children call her “Hermana Henao,” but most simply know her as “Mi Maestra” — my teacher.

Over the years Sister Henao has become synonymous with Primary. She has taught countless lessons to scores of children — but she remembers the name and face of every boy and girl.

Sister Maria Ines Henao stands outside her home in Cali, Colombia. She has spent nearly five decades
Sister Maria Ines Henao stands outside her home in Cali, Colombia. She has spent nearly five decades teaching scores of Primary children. | Photo by Jason Swensen

She is assigned a new group of students on the first Sunday of each year. No two classes are the same. Each includes boys and girls with their own unique personalities and backgrounds. But every child, she’s quick to add, needs to learn the lessons of the gospel to prepare for whatever life offers.

In the spring of 1968, Maria Henao was visiting a pair of nieces who were converts to a religion she had never heard of — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. During their visit a pair of missionaries dropped by and said hello. Maria was impressed by the elders’ earnest spirit and their efforts to share their message of Christ with all they met. She invited the elders to visit her family.

They soon knocked on her door. She began reading the Book of Mormon and readily accepted an invitation for baptism.

Today Cali is a city of multiple stakes and meetinghouses. “But when I joined the Church there were only three families in the branch,” Sister Henao said. “We met in a small house that the Church was renting.”

Other things were different then, she noted. The small branch would gather in the morning for sacrament meeting and reconvene later that afternoon for Sunday School. Mutual and Relief Society were held during the week.

Those tiny congregations would become large congregations. The missionaries and members worked together and the membership in Cali steadily increased.

“We had to change rented houses quite often because our branch kept growing and growing,” she said. “Then, 32 years ago, the Church built us our own beautiful meetinghouse that we still use today. It’s been remodeled several times to deal with the constant growth.”

Counted among the many new members were always plenty of children. Sister Henao accepted a call to teach Primary. The years passed and she kept teaching and teaching and teaching.

Sister Henao has had callings outside of Primary since she joined the Church more than 45 years ago. She has served as a Relief Society president, a Young Women president and in a few stake callings. But, inevitably, she has always returned to Primary. It’s where she feels most at home and believes she can do the most good.

She said her reward for teaching comes whenever one of her former Primary students accepts a mission call or marries in the temple.

“Being a Primary teacher allows me to contribute to the well-being of a child — and that is a precious blessing,” she said.

Sister Henao doesn’t have a favorite class in Primary. She has taught them all and enjoys the unique challenges each age group offers. She shared brief insights on the various classes:

The Sunbeams?

“I love teaching the Sunbeams. You have that first opportunity to help a child learn to love the gospel.”

The CTRs?

“I think maybe I work best with this age. I find I still learn something new about the gospel whenever I prepare a CTR lesson.”

And the Valiants?

“I do have to be a bit more strict with that age,” she said, smiling. “But if you teach a Valiant class with patience, they will learn.”

Sister Henao hopes she can continue teaching Primary for years to come. She remains a busy woman, a busy mother and a busy grandmother. But she knows that there are many more children in the Cristobal Colon Ward who are eager to learn from “Mi Maestra.”

“We never stop growing,” she said, “when we are helping a child to grow.”

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