HOBART, Tasmania When Dutch explorer Abel Tasman sailed the Indian Ocean to the South Pacific in 1642, he discovered what is now Tasmania. Not finding silver or gold and encountering harsh weather, he sailed on, never returning to the island that would make his name famous.
The first British settlers to what was initially called Van Dieman's Land were convicts, sent to a far corner of the world by the British penal system to take advantage of the remoteness of the island and the miles of watery barriers surrounding it.
But the very location that isolated this area in earlier centuries today adds worth to the land, say Church members, as it inhibits some of the world's less praiseworthy trends and makes it a major vacation destination.
Tasmania, an island state south of the Commonwealth of Australia, has dramatic mountain and ocean scenery and a temperate if rainy climate that attracts throngs from the mainland. They come to hike its mountainous eucalyptus forests that are habitat of native animals such as the black cockatoo, ring-tailed cat, parrots, and the prolific wallaby and Tasmanian devil. In its moorlands are the wombat; in the coastal sedgelands, the platypus. Strutting its southern beaches are penguins whose cousins live in Antarctica.
Tasmanians, or Tassies as they prefer to be called, earn their living in such industries as mines, farms, orchards and timber. With modern electronic communication, they enjoy being part of the world's mainstream while relishing their unique geography.
Situated as it is, the land has well-established cultural and social organizations that once excluded the Church but have since come to tolerate it. Among Tasmania's 456,000 residents are some 4,000 Church members in the Devonport and Hobart stakes. They have at various times known isolation among
an isolated people but in recent years have come to enjoy the status of a people who hold fast to traditional values.
Most members of the Hobart stake live in the capital city, where three of its four wards are located. The fourth ward is in Glen Huon, a mountain valley where the first missionaries arrived more than a century ago and membership is in its fifth generation.
"Because we are a relatively small percentage of a relatively small population, the majority of members know or know of each other," said Gary C. Prebble, president of the Hobart stake, a school teacher. "This has brought about a real closeness and unity within the stake.
"Our youth are exceptional," he continued. "They maintain high standards, which are taught in the homes and supported by leaders who have a genuine interest in their welfare, and they have a high attendance rate in Young Men, Young Women, seminary and Sunday meetings.
"Though the stretch of water Bass Strait that lies between the mainland of Australia and us appears to be a disadvantage at times, it often shields us from some of the less desirable influences and negative trappings that come with development and large populations."
Hobart stake members have many opportunities to serve, he said. "I have heard some refer to this blessing as simply 'recycling' or 'rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.' To the contrary. . . I see this process as 'value adding.' There is so much strength to be gained from magnifying a calling, serving humbly and with integrity, and then being called to serve elsewhere, to build upon that which has been previously built."
President Prebble describes his members as "intelligent people and many are quite successful in the community. They are humble and truly strive to follow the direction of the Spirit both in the home and in their callings. They are a good people and I have found it impossible not to love them.
"Further, there is a great comfort in knowing that the Lord Himself has personally designed and continues to organize His church it will not fail. He then provides those who are willing an opportunity from time to time to view the horizon from a different vantage point. What a brilliant way to sail or cruise through life."
Among those who have been successful and even prominent in the community is Wayne Fox, former local vice president of the Labour Party and a policy adviser on mental health to the health department. The 1973 convert has served as bishop and high councilor and is director of public affairs in the Hobart stake.
Descended from a convict who was sent to Tasmania in the latter part of the 19th century, Brother Fox is pleased to note that his grandchildren are active in the Church.
He noted that the perception of the Church has improved significantly in the past 30 years. In 1997, a re-enactment of a handcart trek brought favorable publicity. The building of two meetinghouses has also helped. Considerable opposition mounted at the onset of the first one. After it was built, however, planned opposition against a second meetinghouse melted away.
The neighbors found that "we are what we said we are, and that we build our big chapels and meet quietly after that," he said.
The youth here are strong, said Robert C. Bell, bishop of the Hobart Ward. "There are not large numbers of them, but our youth are not exposed to the [moral problems] in such a high degree." The negative forces in Tasmania are not as aggressive as on the mainland, he said. "Our youth love early morning seminary."
Among the ward's challenges are the high number of single parents who struggle with difficult economic challenges. Many people migrate to the mainland for employment reasons, and the ward loses strong members in this way.
"We have had members here for a long time and while the membership is cyclic, we do have mature congregations."
Missionaries work hard in Tasmania, he said. While some people they meet are cynical, hard-bitten and non-spiritual, "we continue to have baptisms, and reasonable retention. Our goal is to retain 100 percent."
One of the outstanding youth is Caillin Eastwood-Sutherland. Despite a painful disability, Caillin, 16, has a full schedule. His day begins at 5:30 a.m. with seminary. Then he attends the Friends High School where he is one of two Church members.
"The teachers there are really nice," he said. "They help us do our work. There are nice grounds, and a nice sports center."
Regarding his disability, he explained that he has had 13 major operations and faces continual back pain. Sometimes it flares up. "I have an administration if it gets really bad," he said. "I can still play soccer and tennis." Few of his classmates are aware of his pain.
He would like to visit the temple to do baptisms more often but "it is not as simple as piling into a bus. We have to save up for a year or two to fly over to Melbourne or Sydney." Although health concerns likely preclude a full-time mission, his goals include temple marriage and studying to be an aeronautical engineer.
Distances between members and a temple can lead them to "feel a little isolated and forgotten," said President Prebble. "However, when President Hinckley arrived in Tasmania earlier this year, many members were comforted to know that he was aware of us, and loved us."
"Tasmania is a lovely place to raise a family in righteousness, live the gospel and enjoy the natural, wholesome beauties of this world," he said.
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