Celebrating 100 years in Tonga

Members in this South Pacific island kingdom celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Church here by sharing their deep feelings through prayer, programs, dances and feasts.

Local leaders said that members of the 10 Tongan stakes "more or less" devoted a year of their lives - and many of their resources - for the two-week celebration, Aug. 13-27.The centennial celebration honored the first missionaries who arrived in the South Pacific islands of Tonga on July 15, 1891, and received permission to teach the gospel. However, the missionaries found slow success, and the Church struggled for 50 years. Then

Please see related story on history of the Church in Tonga on page 10.

during the past three decades, the Church has grown significantly to where now an estimated one-third of the 108,000 population of Tonga is LDS. Leaders say that a majority of the members are active and the Church is an important part of their lives.

By Tongan tradition, that which is most important demands the greatest celebration. So to honor the Church, Tongan members celebrated this centennial with multiple events in Hawaii, northern and Southern California, Utah and New Zealand.

In Tonga, members on the main island of Tongatapu and on the neighboring islands of Vavau and Haapai, however, topped all the celebrations as they expressed their love for the Church by holding:

Three conferences, nine programs, five dances or balls, two dance festivals, five cultural dances, four sporting events, a parade, several marches, a wreath-laying and visit to the royal palace, temple sessions and 11 feasts. Several large choirs, including one from Hawaii, performed. Each event was attended by hundreds or thousands, often including many non-members. Several of the events were covered on national radio.

King Taufa`ahau Tupou IV attended major events on Tongatapu.

Heavy rains during several events failed to dampen the members' enthusiasm. The public saw the spark of that enthusiasm as they passed beneath dozens of arches erected over major streets carrying centennial messages.

The king declared Monday, Aug. 19, a public holiday, and the post office issued two commemorative stamps honoring the centennial.

Presiding at the events was Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Council of the Twelve, here for 11 days with his wife, Dantzel. He spoke at several events and dedicated a new meetinghouse for the Nuku`alofa 7th Ward.

Elder Douglas J. Martin of the Seventy and president of the Pacific Area attended events for 11 days and spoke at several activities. His wife, Wati, was ill and did not accompany him.

Elder John H. Groberg of the Seventy, a former missionary and mission president in Tonga, attended with his wife, Jean. Elder Groberg attended activities for 13 days and addressed several congregations.

Many former missionaries returned to Tonga for the celebration. Among them was Ralph Lee, who served in 1937.

Also returning to the celebration were nine of the 11 living mission presidents. Among them was Eric B. Shumway who edited a book for the centennial, Tongan Saints, Legacy of Faith.

Regional representatives Tevita Ka`ili and Vaikalafi Lutui and the 10 stake presidents organized the events.

Celebration highlights included:

  • A showcase performance for the king Aug. 14 by Tongan students attending BYU-Hawaii and associated with the Polynesian Cultural Center, who performed the dances of other cultures of the South Pacific.

In a non-centennial coincidence, the Church's Liahona High School rugby team competed that same day against the largest high school on the island for the championship. Although Liahona lost 6-3, team members won respect as they held their powerful opponents scoreless in the second half.

  • A seven-stake dance festival, held in the Teufaiva Outdoor Stadium Aug. 15. The nearly 3,000 young performers streamed onto the field in a seemingly endless procession, each attired in a brilliant hand-sewn costume. They formed a giant "LDS," and then a "100" and released balloons. As they performed, their collective wholesomeness was touching to many.

The youth enthusiastically cheered the king, a Tonga hip-hipi HOORAY! The cheer was repeated for the king's niece, Princess Elisiua Fusipala Vahai, who is a convert to the Church.

  • On Saturday, Aug. 17, members marched in a procession to the royal tombs. There they presented large flower wreaths to be placed by the royal tombkeepers on the graves of past kings and queens, including King Tupou I, who allowed the missionaries to enter in 1891.

After a short memorial program, members then marched behind the Liahona Brass Band to the palace. There they presented gifts to the king. Each of the 10 stakes gave one cow, two pigs, 200 yams or ofa (a yardlong, half-a-foot-thick island root vegetable) plus stalks of bananas, baskets of vegetables, kauva roots, manioka and melons.

The gifts were received and accounted for in a ceremony that continued at length despite a heavy rain. Afterwards, a dance and song program was presented for the king and queen and nobles, who were assembled on the palace porch.

Feasting followed. Tongans generally leave the rest of the world behind when it comes to celebrating, and feasting is no exception. Typically, a table would be laden with four roast pigs, several chickens, fish, lobsters and baked yams, leaving no room for plates. Other delicacies wedged in the space left might include corned beef, noodles, sweet potatoes, beef, and casserole-type dishes. Some tables had a second level for desserts of melon, trifle, puddings and cakes. Coconuts and soft drinks were placed here and there with drinking straws.

Each table was connected to a similar one in long rows with perhaps 60 or more tables altogether. All comers were served buffet style.

As Elder Martin wryly observed, "It is not a good year to be a pig in Tonga."

Later in the day, Elder Nelson, Elder Groberg and Elder Martin had an audience with King Taufa`ahau Tupou IV.

  • A meeting in the Liahona High School on Sunday, Aug. 18, where Elder Nelson spoke at a conference to a congregation of 7,000 people.

"Ever since we arrived, we have basked in the love of the saints of Tonga," he said.

Looking at the history of LDS missionary work here, he noted that the progress of the infant Church was slow. "It was many years before the Book of Mormon was translated into the Tongan language. But from the beginning there has been a constant stream of missionaries of great faith here in Tonga."

He said that in more recent years, as members sacrificed to go to the temple in New Zealand and, later, here in Tonga, their commitment to the gospel was strengthened.

"Many of you here are children and grandchildren of these families.

"Today, the temple beckons all who will enter . . . there to become families forever in the kingdom of heaven."

Elder Groberg, acquainted with the royal family since he was a young missionary, hosted the king and queen at several events and thanked them for allowing freedom of religion in the kingdom, and for their support of the centennial.

He noted that he has been associated with Tonga for 35 years.

"In most of the world, people love others if they are loved. But here in Tonga, they love everybody. The gospel grows very fast here because of that love."

Elder Martin said the centennial celebrations will "be a great memory for me in the years to come."

He noted that as it was with the dedication of the Nuku`alofa temple in 1983, "there is only one feeling in the hearts of all the people - and that is a feeling of gratitude to Heavenly Father for His love for us."

  • Monday Aug. 19, was the official centennial conference at `Atele Indoor Stadium. A deluge of rain fell during the conference, flooding various spots on the island.

At the conference, Elder Nelson said the strength of the Tongan members indicates what the Church may be like a century from now in countries entered this year, such as those in eastern Europe.

He observed that just as the Church sent its roots in Tonga 100 years ago, the Church is planting seeds in eastern European nations this very year. "I look forward 100 years to similar congregations in other countries where the missionaries are just setting foot.

"The Lord said, `I will hasten my work in its time,' and you and I are living in that day when the work is being hastened . . . so as I look at this congregation, I have a vision of what can happen in those countries.

"It is your faith and example that will help, your missionaries and your tithing that will make it grow. So I thank you for your great example as Latter-day Saints."

He pronounced a blessing upon the members that "from this island kingdom, faith may radiate through the entire world and affect the lives of people all over the world."

Elder Nelson read a statement to the king from the First Presidency. (See story on page 10.)

Prior to Elder Nelson's address, the king extended a rare honor to the members as he spoke at the centennial conference. In his remarks, he thanked the members for their generous gifts, and commended them for their loyalty and good citizenship.

  • Each day dancing followed the feasts. Young and old took part in expressing their joy for being Latter-day Saints - a joy that was pervasive throughout the history-making centennial.

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