When two missionaries in Montpellier, France, baptized two young students 35 years ago, they had no idea of the impact that would have on a small island off the coast of Madagascar. Especially when the young couple, along with their daughter, left France only a month after their baptism.
It was 1969, and Alain and Daniele Chion-Hock were baptized by Elder Alan Bird from Utah and Elder Blair Bennett from Alberta after being struck with the young men's message, "Your family can be eternal." But when they returned to their home on Reunion Island with no training, no priesthood authority, no Church experience and no members to support them the elders must have surmised these were "two baptisms that may have fizzled and been lost," recalls Brother Chion-Hock today.
Not so. In fact, those two seeds planted in southern France three and a half decades ago have grown to a district on "La Reunion" a "mountain in the sea" 425 miles east of the coast of Madagascar, which is off the east coast of Africa. Brother Chion-Hock has served as district president twice and branch president twice. Sister Chion-Hock has been right by her husband's side, building the Church here by serving as branch and district Primary president.
The Chion-Hocks, whose family came to include five children, are now among some 740 members living in four branches, part of the Madagascar Antananarivo Mission in the Africa Southeast Area. The first convert baptism on the island came a decade after Brother and Sister Chion-Hock returned to Reunion. In 1979, Brother Chion-Hock baptized his sister, Rose Thia-Soui-Tchong.
We have a growing number of solid and strong families," Brother Chion-Hock told the Church News during a recent visit in Utah. "These families have been endowed and sealed in the temple and attend the temple. These families have strength that allows the Church to continue on. We have approximately 100 members who are endowed. They save their money, they sacrifice, they buy their airfare and they go to the temple (in Spain or South Africa) as often as they are able."
These members include Gilberte Mayer, the Saint-Denis Branch Primary president. "When she goes to the (Johannesburg) temple, she does many, many sessions, 14 in one week," Sister Chion-Hock related. "There are only 14 sessions offered in that temple a week, and she does all 14 of them."
In the city of Le Port, there is the Adolfe family, the Chion-Hocks continued. Their son, Darice Adolfe, returned from the South Africa Johannesburg Mission two years ago. "That son is a good example of the second generation (of Church members on Reunion), the rising generation," Brother Chion-Hock emphasized.
Sister Chion-Hock added that when Darice returned from his mission and got a job, "he asked his employer, 'Did you hire me because I speak English or because I'm a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?' and the employer said, 'Because you are a Mormon.' "
That example has brought the Church's image a long way in this French overseas department of some 755,000 people. Reunion Island, part of the Mascarene Islands along with Mauritius and Rodrigues, became a French possession in 1642. The majority of Reunionnese are "Creoles," a mixture of peoples of three continents: Africa, Asia and Europe. There are also many residents of Indian descent. The most representative country in the European component is France, thus French is the main language spoken, along with the local Creole dialect.
When they returned home in 1969, Brother and Sister Chion-Hock were the only Church presence on the island and that lasted for some seven years. In 1976, they returned to Montpellier where they stayed for six months. "It was the first time that we learned that there was a Relief Society, a Primary and priesthood quorums," Sister Chion-Hock said.
That was also when Brother Chion-Hock was ordained to the priesthood. In August 1977, the Chion-Hock family traveled to the Swiss Temple to be sealed.
Over the years, some members moved to Reunion, including a young military man from Tahiti, along with his family. Finally, on Oct. 18, 1979, the day Church members on Reunion had been anticipating, the call came to Brother Chion-Hock that the first missionaries from the Church's International Mission were on their way.
Elder Joseph Edmunds and Sister Ruth Edmunds arrived soon after. By the end of the year, at the Chion-Hocks' swimming pool, the first baptisms occurred on Reunion Island, including Brother Chion-Hock's sister and her sons, Richard and Jacky. On Dec. 30, the first branch on Reunion was organized. Nearly 100 converts were baptized in the Chion-Hocks' pool over the next seven years.
In 1986, Reunion Island became part of the South Africa Johannesburg Mission. In 1988, the Mascarene Islands Mission was created. On Nov. 23 of that year, from the balcony of the Chion-Hock home, Elder Marvin J. Ashton of the Quorum of the Twelve dedicated Reunion Island for missionary work. (The day before, he dedicated Mauritius.) In his dedicatory prayer, Elder Ashton prayed: "We thank Thee for the growth of the Church in this island, that we now have branches that are thriving and presided over by humble, dedicated members whom Thou has raised up for these purposes."
On July 1, 1998, Reunion was placed in the newly created Madagascar Antananarivo Mission. Throughout the years, the growing membership faced opposition from other faiths and the media. "We have a lot of open houses. We send press releases to the newspapers," Brother Chion-Hock said. "We've purchased newspaper space. . . . Many, many people read those pages with interest. . . . We are in the midst of this change in image for the Church right now."
Brother Chion-Hock added: "We are on wobbly knees and taking it step by step. But we are going in the right direction."
Today, the Church on Reunion forges on. Brother Chion-Hock speaks with great affection of faithful members, such as President Antoine Allamelou of the Sainte-Marie Branch, which he says is rapidly becoming the largest branch on the island. Brother Chion-Hock describes the man who speaks only Reunionnese Creole as "a unifying force in the branch, his great spirit."
In the 1960s, a 15-year-old Antoine Allamelou prayed and searched for the true Church. In an address to the Sons of Utah Pioneers in Salt Lake City April 12, 2004, Brother Chion-Hock related how the young man prayed "that Heavenly Father would raise up another man, a brother from his own country like him, who, under more favorable conditions, could be the instrument by which the Church of God could be carried to Reunion."
In 1962, a young Alain Chion-Hock left his native Reunion Island to pursue a university education in Montpellier, France.
In 1997, the Chion-Hocks were reunited with one of their missionaries. It was in the Salt Lake Temple in 1997 when Elder Bird joined the Chion-Hock family for the temple marriage of one of the Chion-Hock children.
Brother Chion-Hock said Elder Bird was "initially surprised" at the news of the Church on Reunion Island as a result of two baptisms in Montpellier, France, some 28 years before.
Sources: Deseret Morning News 2004 Church Almanac; Dec. 17, 1988, Church News; address given by Brother Chion-Hock April 12, 2004, to Mills Chapter of Sons of Utah Pioneers at SUP headquarters in Salt Lake City. E-mail: [email protected]