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'Fortress of faith' prompts brotherhood and tears

SUVA, Fiji — In spite of major political uncertainty, the Suva Fiji Temple was dedicated by President Gordon B. Hinckley on Sunday, June 18.

To protect Church members from potential danger, the First Presidency elected to conduct a small dedicatory service attended by members of the local temple committee and their families.

Members in Fiji gather for the temple open house. Despite internal political troubles, members of all ethnicities were unified in joy.
Members in Fiji gather for the temple open house. Despite internal political troubles, members of all ethnicities were unified in joy. Photo: Photo by Talat Mehmood

Among the guests in the dedicatory service, which was held in the celestial room of the temple, were 60 Latter-day Saints, both young and old. These included presidencies of the four stakes in Fiji and the newly called temple presidency and their wives. Another 20 Church members, from local Suva stakes, performed three choir selections which, because of their vocal excellence and spiritual power, brought many in the congregation to tears.

Following the dedication, President Hinckley described the great feeling of brotherhood that he felt in meeting with the members in Fiji.

"There was a great outpouring of the Spirit, matched by the feeling of good fellowship among those in attendance," he said.

Many present commented on the fact that indigenous Fijian Church members were mingling in love and unity with Indian members, despite the political unrest in the country.

During the visit, President Hinckley and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve set apart the temple president, Sitiveni Bale, his counselors and the matron and her assistants.

The Suva Fiji Temple is situated in prominent hills a few-minutes' drive above the Suva city center. The site of the temple, formerly owned by the Australian government, is near ambassadorial residences in the suburb of Samabula and has a commanding view of the city and the Pacific Ocean on three sides.

Pacific Islands Area President, Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Seventy, said the hand of the Lord has been evident in the selection of the site from the beginning.

"President Hinckley first identified [the Samabula property] as the site for the temple in October of 1997," he said. "At that time the owners of the property seemed willing to sell it. Subsequently, they took it off the market. Though many efforts were made to acquire it, it was not available. Three other sites were identified and were about to be taken to the Brethren for approval when the original owner called and said that the property would be sold to the Church and at a very reasonable price."

Elder Cook quoted from the area history prepared by former Pacific Islands Executive Secretary, Elder Allen Christensen. The history records that, while preparing the site for construction, several large underground concrete bunkers were discovered. "They had been erected during World War II for the defense of Suva," wrote Elder Christensen. "Where once stood structures erected to resist [invasion] will now stand a fortress of faith, a House of the Lord . . . where the blessings of eternity can be given to the faithful."

Despite little publicity, thousands of Fijians, including many community leaders, participated in temple open house.
Despite little publicity, thousands of Fijians, including many community leaders, participated in temple open house. Photo: Photo by Talat Mehmood

The Church was introduced to Fiji when Latter-day Saint families from Tonga and Samoa began to hold Church meetings in Suva. The first missionaries, Elders Boyd L. Harris and Sheldon L. Abbott, organized the Suva Branch on Sept. 5, 1954. Work proceeded slowly because of the multiple languages spoken in Fiji and the availability of only two missionary visas at one time.

In January 1955, President David O. McKay had an aircraft layover in Suva. While meeting with the small group of Church members and missionaries, he urged the building of a meetinghouse. Anticipating great future growth, the meetinghouse that was later built was nearly the size of a stake center. Three hundred attended dedicatory services for the new meetinghouse in 1958. About that time, the number of missionaries serving here was increased by six.

Church growth was fostered when a Church school was established in 1969. In 1975, the LDS Fiji Technical College was opened.

Elder Holland, who was then Church Commissioner of Education, dedicated the college. He described his feelings at being in Fiji on two significant occasions in the history of the Church in this island nation.

"I feel most honored to have participated in the dedication of both the school and now the temple," he said.

The Suva Fiji Stake was organized on June 12, 1983. At year-end 1983, membership in Fiji was 2,722. Today, there are more than 14,000 members in four stakes and two districts. The size of the Suva Fiji Temple district is much larger at 23,117 because the temple also serves members in the nearby island nations of New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Kiribati, Nauru and Tuvalu.

The First Presidency made the decision to proceed with a low-key dedication just a few days before the event. This followed a public open house which, in spite of little publicity, and a deliberately unobtrusive approach, attracted 16,423 members of the general public, 300 community leaders and 304 neighbors and contractors.

Elder Cook, accompanied by Blake Rosenvall of the Temple Department and Alan Wakely of the Pacific Public Affairs Department, conducted the spoken tours for community leaders and neighbors. "We had the privilege of taking a large number of visitors through the temple," said Elder Cook.

"As they entered the temple they initially showed the evidence of the political crisis that exists in Suva. But, as we took them through the temple, we saw the cares of the world melt away and, by the time they reached the Celestial Room, you could tell that they were experiencing something very special.

"One person, an Indian woman who had been a member of parliament, stood against the wall and as she looked around the Celestial Room she closed her eyes, obviously in prayer, and great big tears ran down her cheeks."

According to Sister Lolene Adams, a Church Educational System missionary, who, with her husband, Elder Ron Adams, helped to organize the special-guest tour program, these feelings were echoed in the comments of many others who visited during the six-day open house period.

"Three high-ranking military men came through and were very quiet and reserved when they viewed the introductory video," she said. "I spoke with the second-in-command and asked how he felt when he looked in the reflections in the mirrors in the celestial room. He said he had studied eternal life for many years and had never understood it but when he looked in the mirrors it all came clear to him and he was excited."

Sister Adams said the senior officer asked if they could bring the full military council back if it were possible. "Because of the strife in Fiji, he felt that the temple was a place they could come and close out the outside world . . . and find peace."

Changing public attitudes toward the Church is often one of the major results of a temple open house. On Saturday, June 10, three busloads of members and people of other faiths came from the village of Toga to go through the temple. Sister Alanieta Logavatu, who is a member of the Toga Branch of the Nausori Fiji Stake, described a remarkable change in one lady who had previously held strong views against the Church.

"As she got off the bus, she said she had this wonderful feeling," said Sister Logavatu. "The feeling became stronger as she made her way towards the temple and then went through the video presentation. She remembered all those unkind things she had said about the LDS Church and started to pray earnestly for forgiveness before entering the temple."

As she was relating this account to Sister Logavatu, after having gone through the temple, she could not hold back the tears. "Before she left she told me, 'Today I know this is the Lord's true Church. Please send the missionaries.' What a wonderful blessing the temple open house has been," said Sister Logavatu.

Temple committee coordinator Paul Whippy said that there was a wonderful feeling of unity, peace and love associated with the preparations for the temple open house and dedication. "We could have had a great many problems," said Brother Whippy, who is also president of the Suva Fiji Stake. "The military authorities could have told us to stop our efforts. However, the Spirit of the Lord has been with us in our planning and implementation."

President Whippy said that while "we felt worried about the surrounding events, we just felt confident that it would go well, no matter what was happening in the community."

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