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Stake is growing in history-rich area

It was here at Plymouth Rock, a cove along the Atlantic seaboard within the boundaries of the Hingham Massachusetts Stake, that the Pilgrims landed in 1620. They came in search of religious freedom and in the process, settled New England.

Modern pilgrims are following a similar course and are landing in the history-rich areas of the Hingham stake, including Plymouth and Cape Cod, Mass., and Newport, R.I.,"We still find various ethnic groups coming to this area for the same reasons the Pilgrims came centuries ago," said Pres. L. Clark Cox of the Hingham Massachusetts Stake.

"In addition, many Church members from all parts of the U.S. have relocated here because of the many business, financial and high-tech job opportunities found in Boston and its suburbs.

"Our stake comprises nine Church units linking more than 150 southeastern New England towns," Pres. Cox said. "Each ward and branch has its own distinctive identity."

Martha's Vineyard Branch has 50 members, while the North Dartmouth Ward has more than 600.

The North Dartmouth Ward includes the cities of New Bedford and Fall River with large Portuguese populations involved in the fishing industry.

The Brewster Branch on the southern portion of Cape Cod, and the Cape Cod Ward in the northern part of the Cape, have great influxes of tourists in the summer and small populations in the winter.

The past decade has been marked by incredible growth and change, explained Pres. Cox. In 1997, the stake recorded 250 baptisms.

Recent converts and new move-ins were called to lead when many military families were transferred after the government closed bases at Cape Cod in Newport, R.I., and at the shipyard in Weymouth, Mass.

The broad scope of talents and experiences, as well as the vibrant testimonies, of these new leaders has been a blessing to the stake.

Bishop Richard Hogan, a convert of 12 years, presides over the recently divided West Bridgewater 1st Ward. The ward has a cultural blend of challenges and blessings that makes it unique in the Hingham Stake.

Before the division six months ago, there was an explosion of convert baptisms among local Haitian and Spanish-speaking communities. Prior to the division, seven major languages were spoken in the West Bridgewater 1st Ward. Now, English, French Creole and Spanish are the chief languages. Since the division, a majority of the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking members attend the newly created West Bridgewater 3rd Ward.

"The division went along geographical lines, but language was a consideration too," said Bishop Hogan, who has been creative in his leadership to overcome language barriers.

The full-time missionaries, on occasion, translate the proceedings of the Bridgewater 1st Ward sacrament meetings for Haitian members who listen through headsets. However, said Bishop Hogan, many new converts want to learn English, especially among the youth and Primary-age groups.

"The older generation in ethnic convert families usually hold tightly to the culture and language they grew up with, while their children want to speak English and blend into American society," Bishop Hogan said.

"We are not trying to have them abandon their culture - in fact, we may ask them to give a sacrament meeting talk on how the Church is growing in their native country. We want everyone to be able to receive all the blessings of doing the Lord's work and to be able to serve easily in the ward. We have mixed-language home and visiting teaching companionships. They take turns speaking with their families in their native tongue whether that is English or another language."

After studying the variety of cultures in his ward and considering why they are attracted to the Church, Bishop Hogan feels that finding the Church "becomes the epitome of the American dream."

"Some of the most spiritual experiences I have had in the Church have happened when I've interviewed men for the priesthood and I've seen them realize that they can reach their full potential in God's kingdom. Something connects when they begin to learn LDS doctrine."

One of Bishop Hogan's initiatives involves turning the tables a bit so the American members come to understand the challenges of those from other heritages.

"For 20 percent of our membership, English is not their native language," he said. "Our ethnic members try to follow along in manuals written in their language while a teacher is reading passages from English manuals and scriptures. It seems fair that if 12 percent are Haitian, then 12 percent of a Relief Society or priesthood lesson should be taught in French Creole. That enables the Haitians to hear it in their tongue and takes us Americans out of our comfort zones for a few minutes. It helps us to gain an appreciation for what these brothers and sisters are going through."

Other members of the Hingham Stake - those belonging to Martha's Vineyard Branch - can be likened to their Pilgrim forebears.

The stake's smallest unit is located on the famous island of Martha's Vineyard that lies about 10 miles off the southern shore of Cape Cod. The island is a favorite summer destination for many, including celebrities, hailing from around the country.

In stark contrast to the larger units in the stake, the Martha's Vineyard Branch has only 50 members and meets in a remodeled store front in the Vineyard Haven section of the island.

Branch Pres. Steve Laverty is a convert who was baptized in 1987. He was called as president of the branch when it was organized in 1989 and his wife, Mary Jane, was called as Relief Society president the same day. Because of their devotion, they are considered the parents of the branch, an impression enhanced by their willingness to invite as many as 20 stake visitors to Sunday dinner following meetings.

"Before we had the branch," remembered Sister Laverty, "we would have to pack our children into the car and line up at the ferry - sometimes as early as 6 a.m. - to be able to make a 9:30 a.m. sacrament meeting at the Cape Cod Ward on the mainland. It would be 4:30 p.m. by the time we returned."

The prayers and petitions of the Lavertys, as well as their missionary efforts among their neighbors, resulted in the creation of the branch in 1989.

In those early days, a handful of members began meeting in the Vineyard Playhouse for Sunday meetings. "It was not the greatest place to meet, but we were just grateful to be able to hold services on the island," Pres. Laverty recalls.

"I would go around and take paintings I thought were not appropriate off the walls before the members arrived. The Primary met in the kitchen and dressing room, the Relief Society met in the hallway. Parts of the building were really drafty in winter, but we got by."

Through the years, the branch has met in other locations, including the local Baptist Church parish hall, until the current store front location was remodeled and dedicated for the branch in the spring of 1995.

Pres. Laverty remembers those earlier years with a smile of delight. "I would conduct the meeting, step down to bless and pass the sacrament and then step back to the podium and give a talk." The Laverty's five children were the only children in the Primary at the time.

The faith and tireless devotion of Pres. and Sister Laverty have been tried and rewarded over the years. Their meetinghouse has no indoor font, requiring all baptisms to be performed outdoors.

"Our font has salt water," Pres. Laverty said, referring to the ocean. "We had a baptism here last January - in the ocean. You know a candidate really wants to be baptized when he or she agrees to that."

But the building does contain a state-of-the-art family history library operated by Elder William and Sister Jewell Frost, a missionary couple from Utah. "I am amazed at how many people come to use this library," Elder Frost said. "We have people who come here from the mainland on Saturdays to do their research."

The Lavertys count the beauty and isolation of the island to be among the blessings of living in Martha's Vineyard. The branch continues to grow, though auxiliary classes are small and some Primary classes have only a single child.

The youth are developing testimonies, said Pres Laverty, who taught early-morning seminary to four young people this year. "I will call another teacher next year," he said, "so someone else can receive the blessings. It is hard to staff all of the positions with such small ranks. The blessings are shared. There is no back row in our branch, we all have to do more than what might be expected in larger units."

A regular sacrifice the Lavertys make is fulfilling their personal monthly commitment to serve as temple workers in the Washington D.C. temple some 450 miles away.

To attend stake meetings and activities, the Lavertys have to take a 45-minute ferry ride, then drive another hour. "Sometimes we need to go off the island just to attend an hour meeting," he said.

"The members on the mainland often house us and our children for activities," said Sister Laverty. "Everyone wants to see us succeed. Even though our unit is tiny, the stake leaders really look out for us spiritually," Pres. Laverty said. "They know the one is as important as the 99."

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