With an outpouring of gratitude for the gospel and the missionaries who brought it to these South Pacific islands, members celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Church in French Polynesia on April 30-May 12.
On April 30, 1844, Addison Pratt, Noah Rogers and Benjamin Grouard alighted on the island of Tubuai and began extensive missionary work in the South Pacific, the Church's first foreign-language mission.Now, 150 years later, joyous members sang, danced, prayed and feasted during nearly two weeks of festivities that involved many important dignitaries of French Polynesia. Traveling from Church headquarters, Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Council of the Twelve presided and participated in activities from May 4-May 11. Elder Rulon G. Craven of the Seventy and president of the Pacific Area, and his wife, Donna, also participated, having traveled from area offices in Sydney, Australia. Local leaders included Jean-Michel Carlson, regional representative; Pres. Victor Cave of the Tahiti Papeete Mission; and C. Jay Larson, president of the Papeete Tahiti Temple.
Many former Tahitian missionaries and former mission presidents returned for the commemoration. Adorned with leis and flowers, they were welcomed with traditional warm Polynesian greetings, and recognized at many events.
Warm greetings were also exchanged with government leaders. Edouard Fritch, minister of Post and Telecommunications, issued a commemorative stamp bearing a picture of the temple, and spoke at a ceremony April 30.
"Your church has contributed to the education of our population by teaching high moral principles," he said. "These teachings, essentially based on Christian principles, contribute meaningfully to building the family unit, and, in so doing, building the community as well."
At welcoming ceremonies May 5, Michel Buillard, vice president of French Polynesia and minister of Health, Housing and Research, commended the Church for "the good work you are doing with the principles you are teaching the rising generation. This is a point of pride for upcoming generations."
He noted that French Polynesia's President Gaston Flosse was in France at the time and was unable to attend the commemorative events.
Representatives of major religions also attended the welcoming ceremonies.
Elder Nelson honored government and religious leaders at the welcoming ceremonies, asking them to stand, and thanking them for their participation. He commended LDS Church leaders and members as well.
Later, Elder Nelson was invited for a visit with Monsignor Coppenruth, one of two Catholic archbishops in French Polynesia.
"The monsignor, who was convalescing from a recent operation, granted us the privilege of visiting him at his home," Elder Nelson said. "We had a very pleasant and significant meeting."
During the eight days he was in French Polynesia, Elder Nelson took part in many activities. He was guest of honor and received, along with other leaders, a flowered head piece at a dinner May 4 at the home of Stella Richmond on the island of Moorea. Later in the day, he spoke to missionaries and took part in institute graduation ceremonies in Tahiti.
On May 5, he spoke at welcoming ceremonies, and attended an all-day cultural presentation in Papeete. That evening, after the presentations, Elder Nelson, wreathed in leis, came to the microphone.
"I want to do something for you now," he said. "I can't dance. I can't play the drums. So we will sing for you." Elder Nelson, Elder and Sister Craven and Pres. Cave then sang a Tahitian song.
Afterwards, a lighted sign with the number "150" flashed on, to the cheers of the audience.
On Friday, May 6, Elder Nelson kicked the first soccer ball, opening a day of sports activities. Erroll Bennett, former professional soccer star and now president of the Pirae Tahiti Stake, diplomatically let the ball zip past him.
A short time later, Elder Nelson and a small group traveled by chartered plane to the island of Tubuai, where Addison Pratt first arrived in 1844. Here, Elder Nelson and his group, which included Elder and Sister Craven, attended a musical evening presented by the Tubuai District, under the leadership of Pres. Charles Tahuhuterani.
The Tubuai Saints performed ancient chants and retold accounts of early missionaries, including Elder Pratt, who labored on the island for a considerable length of time. Elder Nelson and Elder Craven spoke at a conference the next day, May 7.
Elder Nelson told how even before missionaries were sent to the South Pacific that Joseph Smith prophesied that "this Church will fill the world."
Elder Nelson quoted from the Book of Mormon: "Yea, then will he remember the isles of the sea; yea, and all the people who are of the house of Israel, will I gather in, saith the Lord, according to the words of the prophet Zenos, from the four quarters of the earth." (1 Ne. 19:16)
Elder Nelson said: "The Lord sent the first missionaries to the isles of the sea– to the islands of northern Europe, where my ancestors came from, and to these islands, to which your ancestors came. Now, 150 years later, we see what has happened…The Church is established in nearly 150 countries, and the great visions of the prophets are being fulfilled."
These islands, said Elder Nelson, are rich with the blood of Israel.
He added, "While we honor the missionaries who came to French Polynesia, we also honor the Prophet who sent them here.
"As we honor the Prophet who sent them here, we honor the Lord who inspired that Prophet."
Elder Craven encouraged the members to teach that "which is good and righteous in your culture" to their children, along with the gospel.
He encouraged fathers to be active in leading the home, and mothers to do their parts as well. "Be exemplary parents," he said. "Fathers, you must be active, and then you are united in the gospel. Our Father in Heaven has asked us to teach our children."
Elder Nelson and the group returned from Tubuai and attended a musical program in the Paea Tahiti Stake. The program featured a large, well-trained choir and had a three-hour portrayal of the life of the Savior, the Restoration of the gospel, and the coming to Polynesia of the first missionaries.
The remarkable efforts of the stakes, wards and branches to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Church in French Polynesia were covered extensively by television, radio stations and newspapers. This is the biggest event the Church has had in French Polynesia and it has generated the most favorable coverage by the media, said Lindy Carlson, director of public affairs for the Church in the islands.
As members honored their roots in this chain of islands, the electricity of the moment sparked their efforts. Following traditions of their ancestors, men pounded hollow wooden drums and sang in the background. Women, wearing brightly colored dresses and with palm fronds and flowers encircling their heads, sang in the foreground. Young men stepped, kicked and jumped to the pulse of the drums. Young women, in bright dresses adorned with banana leaves and flowers, stamped and swished as the dust stirred beneath their feet.
The time of commemoration was a time for reflection. Sister Richmond, in whose home Elder Nelson visited on the island of Moorea, recalled the comfort that mission Pres. Kendall Young provided her family in 1961, when her daughter died from burns suffered in an accident that year. She said Pres. Young stayed with the family three days and sent missionaries to visit frequently afterward. She and her family joined the Church that year.
This year, she held a dinner for visitors coming to the islands for the anniversary, including Pres. Young and his wife, Gabrille. In a traditional Tahitian ceremony at the dinner, she placed a palm wreath, called an auti, on Pres. Young. The tender moment seemed to be symbolic of the love between missionaries and converts. The love members expressed for the missionaries was conveyed for the members by missionaries in an equal manner.
"My experience here as mission president changed my life in every way possible," Pres. Young said. "The main change was that the people here taught me about love and how lasting it is."