Clouds rise mountainously above the fertile plains of the subtropical state of Tamaulipas, forming magnificent billows as they sweep in from the Gulf of Mexico.
The flatness of the land in Tamaulipas, located in the northeast corner of Mexico, accentuates the infinite expansion of the clouds. And the land creates another kind of panorama as fields stretch as far as the eye can see.Here, half a century ago in the broad tabernacle of the outdoors, a few Latter-day Saint families who had moved from Mexico City, some 600 miles to the south, held the first Church meeting in this part of Mexico. They gathered beneath a tall mesquite tree to pray and share their faith of the restored gospel.
One of those who was part of that tiny circle is a modern pioneer of the land and the Church, Concepcion Perez de Lara, 89, a slight woman who speaks in an exacting and firm way about the gospel.
She explained that in 1937, she and her husband were living in Atlixco, near Mexico City, as members of a Protestant denomination when he met LDS missionaries.
"My husband was very interested in Mormonism, but I was sincere in my beliefs. Then a woman formerly of my congregation who had become a Mormon visited me. She invited me to attend a meeting in her home. I agreed to go, but went to criticize, not to learn. My husband became more interested in becoming a Mormon, but I wanted to stay with my religion."
She was, however, persuaded to attend a missionary conference with mission Pres. Harold R. Pratt as the speaker. Here, her life changed.
"Pres. Pratt was a great man," she recalled. "In the conference we sang hymns and then he began to speak. He spoke with authority and I felt he was a man of Christ. It appeared to me that he was very well informed. He had a good speaking voice and he spoke excellent Spanish. As he was speaking, I felt the Spirit of the Lord and knew that it was true. At this moment, I became a convert."
After the meeting she visited her sister and told her that she had heard the true gospel preached. As she told of this new religion, her sister also felt the Spirit and invited the missionaries to her home. She and her husband, mother and a friend were baptized.
Sister Lara herself was baptized Jan. 27, 1939, in a small canal outside Colonia Cabrera. The missionaries who taught them were Elders Simon Zuniga and Ricardo Flores.
Meetings were first held in her home and later the Atlixco Branch was created and meetings were moved to a larger home. In the early days, they had few materials to aid their gospel study.
In 1947, Sister Lara and her husband were invited by friends to move to Tamaulipas where land was available. They moved to the town of Sautena on Nov. 15, 1947. Here, beneath that mesquite tree, two or three families began holding Sunday School.
"I remember the first meeting," she said. "The tree is gone now. I outlived the tree." She continued: "The first chapel was in a wooden home. We had the first meetinghouse in the district."
This quiet beginning of an infant branch nearly half a century ago became the cradle of the Church throughout the area. The strong members of Sautena fostered other branches that started in Reynosa, Valle Hermoso and Matamoros. A ward has been created in Sautena, which has a population of some 6,000.
"The Church is well-established now," said Sister Lara.
Her family has contributed significantly to the stability as they held many callings and attended meetings faithfully. Her 42 descendants are mostly active in the Church. Nearly all her adult male descendants served missions and two are presently serving. These descendants and other Sautena youth often leave to attend school and find opportunities elsewhere. Hence, the small farming community has a secondary impact as it exports potential leaders.
A branch in nearby Valle Hermoso started in the 1940s. Benjamin Morales Sanchez, longtime member and former regional representative in Valle Hermoso, was baptized in 1953. He and his wife, Esperanza Mejia Valdez de Morales, have served in many capacities. He was a missionary a year after his baptism, from 1954-56, and became branch and district president. He was the first president of the Valle Hermoso Stake when it was created on Oct. 28, 1973. He also served as counselor to the president of the Mexico North Mission, with headquarters in Monterrey. He was called as a regional representative in 1987. He is currently stake patriarch and high priests group leader in the Valle Hermoso 2nd Ward.
"When I was baptized in 1953, the members rented a small wooden house about 10 blocks from the center of town," said Brother Morales.
One day, he said, the mission president, Claudio Bowman, attended a meeting of the branch at the small wooden house. "Our branch president was Francisco Guzman. I said to Pres. Bowman,
We would like a chapel here in Valle Hermoso.' Pres. Bowman said,Why not build one yourselves?'
"So Pres. Guzman, with great love, said, `Let's do it.' We began to organize to build a wooden chapel.
At this time, he said, their way of raising funds was to ask the Lord, sell crops they raised, and to work with great enthusiasm. He said the building was started in 1955 and completed in 1958. The chapel was used for about two decades and then was replaced by a sturdy block meetinghouse that now stands in Valle Hermoso, he said.
In the 1950s, "Most of our members lived in the country," he explained. "Still, few were absent from the meetings. Even when it was raining they walked to the meetings, or came on tractors or by horseback. But they were here. The Church was a great center of activity in the 1950s."
Members of that era had strong faith, strong testimonies and commitment, he said. "Still, for many years the Church grew very slowly." At one time, missionaries almost considered it punishment to be assigned to Valle Hermoso.
But in the 1970s, after the new meetinghouse was completed, membership began to increase. At that time the mission district was made up of branches in Valle Hermoso, Reynosa, Matamoros, Rio Bravo, Sautena and San Fernando.
"The Church is well thought of here. The residents have always had a good concept of the Church," he said. He said membership in the city is now about 1,000 people in two wards.
With the continuing progress of the Church, missionaries now consider themselves fortunate to be assigned to this region, he said.