Church leaders walked in the ministerial footsteps of President Thomas S. Monson in the Pacific nations of Tonga, New Zealand and Australia during an area review in latter February.
“One of the most remarkable things was to go to Nuku’alofa, Tonga,” Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles reflected March 2, just a few days after his return, “and what was so fascinating was that 49 years ago, Elder Howard W. Hunter and Elder Thomas S. Monson of the Quorum of the Twelve went there to organize the first stake in Tonga, on Sept. 5, 1968.”
He added, “The people there still remember that visit, and almost everyone I shook hands with would say, ‘Please, please, please give greetings to President Monson.’ They wanted to convey how much they loved him and the impact that he’d had.”
In Tonga, Elder Renlund was accompanied by Elder Donald L. Hallstrom of the Presidency of the Seventy; Presiding Bishop Gérard Caussé; and Elder O. Vincent Haleck, General Authority Seventy and Pacific Area president. They were assisted by Elder Aisake K. Tukuafu, Area Seventy.
Evidence of what President Monson did in Tonga, Elder Renlund noted, is that the Church there has grown to 19 stakes and two districts since that initial stake organization in 1968.
“Tonga has the highest percentage of LDS population of any country in the world,” Elder Renlund said. “It’s up over 60 percent.”
Church leaders’ activities in Tonga included a Feb. 17 meeting with the royal family at the Royal Palace in Nuku’alofa.
King Tupou VI, out visiting other islands on government business, expressed regret that he was unable to be present, but the Church leaders and their wives met with Queen Nanasipau’u and with Crown Prince Tupoutoʻa ʻUlukalala and his wife, Sinaitakala Fakafanua.
“Additionally at the Royal Palace was Prince Ata, who joined the Church two years ago,” Elder Renlund noted. “He works once a day as a temple ordinance worker and serves on the high council in one of the stakes.”
Elder Renlund said, “This gracious, wonderful royal family greeted us with warmth and kindness. There are so many things that are of mutual interest to us in trying to help the people of Tonga.”
At a special conference that Sunday, Feb. 19, he told Church members “that we owed it to the royal family to be helpful of the initiatives that are trying to improve the health and well being of the people.”
“The queen is very interested in self-reliance, in 72-hour kits, and thinks those are very good things,” Elder Renlund added. “The crown prince’s wife is very interested in trying to help with educational efforts of getting children to read in the home.”
He said other members of the royal family attended the Sunday conference as well as government ministers.
“The relationship of the Church with the government and the royal family is just excellent, and they treat us with great dignity and respect and are so gracious in everything they do,” Elder Renlund reflected.
Typical of such area reviews, other meetings were held in Tonga, including a conference with priesthood leaders from all 19 stakes and two districts, devotionals with youth and young single adults, and a meeting with all the missionaries in the Tonga Nuku’alofa Mission.
A women’s meeting, attended by some 2,500, was remarkable, he said. “We got there early, and the sisters were sitting outside in tents waiting for us, just so delighted to be there. They clearly brought such a wonderful spirit with them. There are some meetings where the congregation brings such a warmth and spirit that you have the feeling it doesn’t matter what you say because the Spirit is present and the Spirit is doing the teaching.”
Church leaders also visited and held a devotional at the Liahona high school and middle school, a decades-old institution at which generations of Tongan and other island students have been taught.
Elder Renlund told of a personal connection he has in Tonga in that his mother-in-law was born in Nuku’alofa “as her parents were serving a mission there as a very young married couple and then later when he was a mission president.”
Jay and Ada Cahoon from southern Alberta, Canada, were both 19 and newlywed when they were called on a mission. Elder Renlund said they traveled by boat from San Francisco to Samoa, and as they were about to board a boat to go to Tonga, were told not depart, as LDS missionaries had been banned in Tonga.
Determined to fulfill their calling, they made the journey and docked in Nuku’alofa on the day the ban was lifted.
When they were 21, he was called to be mission president, and they moved to the capital city of Nuku’alofa. It was there that two daughters were born to them. The younger one, Nola, in adulthood would become the mother of Sister Ruth Lybbert Renlund, Elder Renlund’s wife-to-be.
After their missionary service, they returned to Canada. In the late 1960s, Brother Cahoon was employed by the church to return and build some housing at Liahona High School. Thus, when the first stake in Tonga was created, he was called as its first stake patriarch.
“Both Elder Hunter and Elder Monson said as Jay’s name was read to be the patriarch, there was such a murmur of approval that came through the congregation that both were concerned that applause would break out,” Elder Renlund said.
While in Nuku’alofa, the Church leaders viewed some recreational property the Church is constructing on land where Jay and Ada Cahoon in 1927 planted several hundred coconut trees.
Elder Renlund and Elder Haleck traveled to Auckland, where they were joined by Elder S. Gifford Nielsen and Elder Craig A. Cardon, General Authority Seventies and first and second counselor in the area presidency, for a typical area review.
Accompanied by their wives, they went to Hamilton, about two hours south of Auckland, and on Feb. 23 visited the former site of the Church College of New Zealand, closed in 2009 and now being renovated to become a Church history center for the Pacific Area to be dedicated this spring. It adjoins the temple site there on beautiful property, Elder Renlund said.
According to Mormonnewsroom.org, the project will include a stake center, cultural center and museum. The outlined intent is “to enhance the temple environs, preserve and celebrate heritage, stimulate economic development and implement ecological improvements.”
In Hamiton, the leaders held a meeting with missionaries of the New Zealand Hamilton Mission, then Elder Renlund held a youth devotional in Hamilton while the other leaders returned to Auckland for a similar meeting there.
For the following weekend, the leaders flew on to Perth, Australia, “about as far away from Salt Lake City as you can get,” Elder Renlund said. “It’s on the western extreme end of Australia. There are four stakes there, and those stakes are very, very mature.”
In Perth, they were assisted by Andrew O’Riordan, Area Seventy.
“While we were in a priesthood leadership conference, Elder O'Riordan shared a story that relates to President Monson that greatly affected the O’Riordan family in profound ways,” Elder Renlund said.
In March 1965, just two years after then-Elder Monson had been ordained an apostle, he was assigned to visit a stake in Melbourne. He asked to visit personally with prospective elders in the stake.
One of the men he met with was Elder O'Riordan’s father, also named Andrew. He had been a Church member for just two years, having served as a building missionary, but he described his faith as “shaky.”
“Elder Monson met with him personally for an hour, talking with him about the priesthood, the responsibilities, the blessings that come,” Elder Renlund recounted. “And then, Elder Monson invited him to be presented the next day, March 1, 1965, to the congregation to be ordained an elder.
“Brother O’Riordan said, ‘I don’t feel worthy. I’m not qualified.’ He said that Elder Monson put his hands on his shoulders, looked him square in the eye and said, ‘Let me worry about that. And if you are willing to go ahead with this, I’ll personally ordain you.’
“Elder Monson ordained Brother O’Riordan, and it changed his life and his family’s life, and now, one of Brother O’Riordan’s sons is an Area Seventy who was with us in Perth.”
Elder Renlund reflected, “It once again suggests this extraordinary ministry that President Monson has been carrying on from the time of his call to the apostleship. Everywhere he went he ministered to people. Everywhere he went he encouraged people in their progression. Everywhere he went he taught them that whom the Lord calls the Lord qualifies. And he taught over and over again that when you’re on the Lord’s errand you’re entitled to the Lord’s help.”
Also in Perth, the Church leaders held a missionary meeting with the Australia Perth Mission, and conducted member devotionals as if they were stake conferences.
On Friday through Sunday, he visited each of the four stakes “and was profoundly impressed by the strength, the dignity, the faith and faithfulness of the members,” Elder Renlund said.
“But also in Perth, as I shook hands with people, one of the of the first things they wanted to do was make sure I conveyed their love and greeting to President Monson, because of the profound effect that he has had on Australia. Many of those in Perth had joined the Church or had been in meetings with President Monson and were touched by him.”