EL PASO, TEXAS
Through the darkness of hardship and oppression in early Church history there are, here and there, beams of light wherein the Latter-day Saints benefitted from the humanitarianism and charity of others.
One such episode occurred precisely a century ago.
That event, the exodus of Latter-day Saint colonists from the turbulence of revolutionary conflict in Mexico to refuge in the Texas border town of El Paso, was commemorated July 28 with a centennial observance in that same locale, today a thriving city.
Co-sponsored by the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation with BYU College of Religious Education, the El Paso Museum of History and the University of Texas at El Paso, the event included a day-long symposium, the opening of an exhibit at the museum and an evening dinner and program. El Paso Mayor John F. Cook and Maj. Gen. Dana J. H. Pittard, commanding officer of Fort Bliss in El Paso, attended some of the events. Fort Bliss in 1912 was involved in humanitarian service to the Latter-day Saint refugees, and at the centennial program, the military base's 1st Armored Division Band performed some of the same selections with which the base's band entertained the refugees back in 1912.
Richard E. Turley Jr., Assistant Church Historian and Recorder, was the featured speaker at the program. He told of the experiences of the Mormon colonists, who included his own Turley and Eyring ancestors.
Brother Turley said the Church, beginning in 1885, began to establish settlements throughout northern Mexico as a haven for members seeking to escape threats of arrest and imprisonment in the United States for their practice of plural marriage.
"Those who went to Mexico included some of the hardest-working, brightest and most resourceful members of the Church," he said.
But the dry conditions tested their mettle. "Both the Sonora and Chihuahua colonies were isolated in many respects," he said. Yet some did learn the language and began to integrate into the Mexican community, he said, including his great-great-grandfather Henry Eyring, a German immigrant to the United States. When he moved to Mexico he changed his name to Enrique as he learned Spanish.
Conditions grew increasingly difficult for the Mormon colonies in the months before the exodus in July 1912. Brother Turley quoted this written reminiscence from Edna Payne Jones: "We never felt safe. ... The rebel gangs would come and steal horses out of the corrals. Sometimes stop men on the road and take a horse off their wagon, sometimes both horses. We lived in constant fear [and] worry. ... Things got worse and worse and we were finally, July 28th 1912, forced to leave Mexico."
As rebel forces disarmed the colonists and demanded supplies, the situation seemed yet more perilous for the colonists. Stake president Junius Romney ordered the removal of women and children to the United States by rail as quickly as could be arranged. The men were to follow later on horseback. Brother Turley quoted further from Sister Jones: "Can you imagine 1,000 people gathered at night out in the open, some in a little bundle, some a suitcase, some not hardly that. Lots of them felt they would soon be back. I had a very small trunk and a roll of bedding. ... People waited all night out in the open, babies and children crying. Some old people were sick and no place to rest but the ground."
The colonists arrived in El Paso with no assurance of where they would stay or what would become of them. But, Brother Turley said, "almost immediately, assistance from a variety of sources, including the Church, the U.S. government, and the City of El Paso, became available to the refugees. In particular, charitable acts of service by the citizens and municipal government of El Paso greatly blessed the newly arrived Latter-day Saints. On Aug. 1, 1912, the Deseret News of Salt Lake City reported, 'To the credit of the El Pasoans and others active in the relief work, it must be said that everything possible is being done for the refugees.' "
The displaced colonists were encamped temporarily in makeshift quarters at a former lumber yard. Later, the U.S. government offered to transport the refugees to any section of the country at no cost, Brother Turley said. Thus, before winter, they were "scattered like wheat from the Rio Grande on the south to Canada on the north," one observer said.
"The colonists' struggle to rebuild their lives after leaving the colonies certainly was not easy," Brother Turley said. "My great-grandfather Edward Franklin Turley and some other family members had a hard time finding good work and eventually returned to Colonia Juarez. My grandfather Turley, however, remained behind in El Paso. My father, who is now 81 years old and is here with us this evening, was born and raised in El Paso, and I also lived here as a small child." (His father is Elder Richard E. Turley Sr., a former member of the Seventy.)
Only a fraction of the Mormons who left Mexico returned. Today, only Colonia Juarez and Colonia Dublan remain active. A temple was built in Colonia Juarez in 1999.
Speaking of the accomplishment and "real purpose" of the colonies, Brother Turley said, "It was the colonists' Spanish-speaking sons and daughters who would eventually become fully engaged in the culture and society of Mexico as missionaries. Subsequent generations of those original colonists have faithfully served as missionaries in almost every Latin American country, and that service continues to the present time." More than one-third of all Church members live in Latin America today.
At the program in El Paso, held 100 years to the day since the refugees arrived in El Paso, a new DVD documentary, Finding Refuge in El Paso, premiered, produced by Fred E. Woods, a Church history professor at BYU, and directed by Martin L. Andersen.
One of the speakers in the documentary is President Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the First Presidency and a descendent of Mormon colonists in Mexico, who says:
"On behalf of the people who descend from these 1912 refugees, may I express my own profound thanks to your parents and grandparents, the noble and great citizens of El Paso. What they did for our people was gracious, kind and benevolent.
"A century ago members of the El Paso Relief Committee expressed their thankfulness in an article prepared for the El Paso Times. Along with this relief committee I too say, 'May he who regards all people according to their works do unto you and yours as you have done unto us.'
"Thank you to the people of El Paso for all that was done. It is not forgotten, nor will it ever be."