Tucked away on the shores of Puget Sound lies Gig Harbor - a town of serene surroundings and majestic mountain views.
Almost everyone who lives in the town, which circles the harbor, enjoys a view of the harbor entrance with the masts of boats in the foreground. On a clear day, Mount Rainier looms in the background.It's no wonder many Church members retire to the area and others move their families here to escape the fast pace of city life. About 10 miles from Tacoma, the second largest city in Washington, Gig Harbor has a population of 3,200 and is home to about 800 members.
Just in the past several years, the Church has experienced rapid growth in the area, said Kent J. Stepan, president of the Tacoma Washington Stake, which includes the Gig Harbor 1st and 2nd Wards.
The two wards also have high activity rates, he added. Sacrament meeting attendance in the two wards is the highest of the stake's nine units.
Pres. Stepan, who lives in Gig Harbor himself, said growth of the Pierce County area, the results of new businesses and a strong economy, has trickled down to Gig Harbor.
In addition to members who have moved to the area, there is a good number of converts who account for recent growth, Pres. Stepan explained.
Sidney R. Henderson, president of the Washington Tacoma Mission, noted that Gig Harbor is one of the more productive areas in the mission. Two full-time missionaries serve in Gig Harbor and are always busy, he added. "We baptize there at least monthly - usually one baptism a month in each ward.
"I think the reason for that is that the people there are very warm and outgoing, members and non-members. They receive missionaries well. Missionaries also have good success in community service, helping those in need in the area.
"It's a great spot to be a missionary," he continued. "The members are very supportive and the wards have good missionary programs. The bishops are missionary-minded.
"The Church also enjoys a great deal of respect in the area. The Church [meetinghouseT in town is one of the finer buildings. The Church is really a part of the community."
Pres. Stepan added: "We have a good rapport with the local press, the city and other churches. Most people in the community think highly of our kids. We do a lot of service projects."
For example, members in Gig Harbor joined with other service groups in the community to landscape the Gig Harbor city entrance and put in an irrigation system with a sign welcoming people to Gig Harbor.
"What was important about this project was that we joined with other service groups in the community, religious and non-religious alike," said Bishop Kevin T. Hale of the Gig Harbor 2nd Ward. "That type of service has a positive impact on the community and reflects well on the Church. They see us in a different light."
The Young Men and Young Women in the Gig Harbor 2nd Ward also serve the community by taking care of a two-mile stretch of Highway 16 (the main highway that runs through the ward from the Narrows Bridge up to Gig Harbor) by picking up trash each month, he added.
Bishop Hale, vice president and general manager of KSTW-11, the largest independent television station in the Northwest, said: "We've seen an influx of younger families who are moving into our ward because the job market in Tacoma has been quite outstanding and Pierce County has had a pretty strong economic growth spurt."
About 370 members live in the Gig Harbor 2nd Ward. A strong ward mission program has also helped the ward grow, Bishop Hales remarked.
"We visit the less-active and part-member families as a weekly practice. We work closely with the full-time missionaries and encourage members to invite friends out to functions and to Church."
Many ward members also attend the temple regularly, Bishop Hale commented. "We have a ward membership that understands the importance of serving in the temple and we're blessed by the fact that we have the Seattle Temple not more than an hour drive north of us."
Gig Harbor's surroundings also offer members a variety of different activities for ward and youth outings, Bishop Hale said. Young men and young women, for example, often go to the beaches, fishing, clamming or windsurfing.
The harbor was discovered by Capt. Charles Wilks during his around-the-world journey charting the Northwest country in 1841, according to the Gig Harbor/Peninsula Area Chamber of Commerce and Local Buyers Guide. Capt. Wilks brought a couple ships into the area, but could only enter the harbor with his gig [captain's boatT - thus the name Gig Harbor was given.
Boat building became a strong industry for the city in the early 1900s. Today there is still a very strong fishing fleet operating out of Gig Harbor, but tourism is the number one attraction.
Many Gig Harbor residents are of Yugoslavian and Scandinavian descent, said Gordon Wohlfeil, executive director of the Gig Harbor/Peninsula Area Chamber of Commerce.
Olaf T. Jensen, bishop of the Gig Harbor 1st Ward, is representative of the Scandinavian people who live in Gig Harbor. A native of Norway, he was attracted to Gig Harbor after hearing about its climate and fishing opportunities.
Bishop Jensen grew up outside Flekkefjord, Norway, on an island that was 10-by-10 square miles where fishing was a way of life. He has been a commercial fisherman during part of his time as a 20-year resident of Gig Harbor.
As bishop he has seen the ward grow from 185 members to 438 in about 31/2 years. A close-knit ward, members enjoy dinners together, holiday outings, Scouting activities, and service projects together, he said.
The ward has also had success sending youth on full-time missions, he added. "We now have eight youth serving full-time missions from our ward, along with three couples. Plus two more are in the Missionary Training Center.
"Every time we interview young people, we talk about how important a mission is. We start really early. At age 8 when they are baptized, we remind them how important it is to go on a mission, have a temple marriage and get an education."
For Ray and LaVerne Marecle, living in Gig Harbor is like a dream. Several years ago they sold their large home in Puyallup, Wash., in anticipation of serving a mission. Instead of buying a smaller home, they decided to move onto their 40-foot yacht.
The yacht, which was already moored in Gig Harbor, provided a perfect home in a perfect setting for the Marecles, members of the Gig Harbor 1st Ward. Because of health problems, they have been unable to serve a mission until recently. They are now serving on a six-month mission in the Washington Tacoma Mission in the Tacoma Employment Center.
Sister Marecle refers to Brother Marecle, who had served in the U.S. Navy as a young man, as "an old salt. He always had a desire to have a boat of his own because he loved the water." They often take trips around the Puget Sound and up to the San Juan Islands.
Mona Chipman, Young Women secretary in the Gig Harbor 1st Ward, refers to Gig Harbor as the Garden of Eden. "We have lived here about 16 years and enjoy the foliage, the bay and the charm of a fisherman's harbor. Our ward is absolutely the most spiritual yet interesting ward that we have ever been in. That's because of the love of the people, the closeness and the caring."
Ludene P. Snow, a well-known member of the Church in the Puget Sound area who has served as a stake president and regional representative, has lived in the Gig Harbor area for many years.
A branch was first organized in Gig Harbor on July 22, 1962, when the Gig Harbor Branch became part of the Puget Sound Stake, according to Church Historical Department records.
The branch stretched all through the Gig Harbor and Key Peninsula with many miles of islands, bays and inlets.
The branch then became a ward on March 28, 1971. In 1974 the Puget Sound Stake was renamed the Tacoma Washington Stake.
The ward met in a renovated school building until a new building was dedicated on Oct. 12, 1980, and 450 members of the Gig Harbor 1st Ward in the Tacoma Washington Stake moved into the new building, according to historical records.
The Gig Harbor 2nd Ward was organized from the Gig Harbor 1st Ward on Aug. 28, 1983, with about 250 members.