CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — Seven days a week, month after month and year after year, early in the morning, Irma Villa de Ortiz and her children walked the narrow streets 10 blocks to the Church meetinghouse and primary school.
On weekdays they entered the Church's Benito Juarez Primary School where she taught. "It was a very beautiful experience to teach my own children as I taught others," she said. On Saturdays they attended Primary and auxiliary meetings in the meetinghouse, which was the first in Ciudad Juarez. On Sundays they joined Sabbath Day worship services.
Today, as Sister Ortiz reflects on her many years of toil in supporting the Church, the hardships of the past are effaced by accomplishments and progress of the present. Among the accomplishments are the leadership roles of her former students. Her son, Mario Ortiz Villa, for example, an engineer, is a counselor in a stake presidency. The greatest mark of progress is the change that has come to the spiritual center of Church members in Ciudad Juarez. A few years ago, the beloved Benito Juarez Primary School was taken down, no longer needed as public schools became generally available. In its place was erected the glistening white Ciudad Juarez Mexico Temple. This is an appropriate graduation for a primary school location to now have what some refer to as "a spiritual university."
"It is the most beautiful building in Ciudad Juarez," said Sister Ortiz.
The temple has become the spiritual center for an even greater area than its predecessor as the temple district straddles both sides of the Mexico-U.S. border.
To understand the temple's significance for the Church, one must also understand the significance of Ciudad Juarez. A muddy, meandering river — the Rio Grande — defines the border between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Texas. This river is crossed by a high and arching concrete bridge that leads to Mexico's customs plaza, and to lines of large trucks with rumbling motors, exhaust fumes, and brake lights as vehicles are slowly sorted and moved. Once inside the border, the heavy traffic never slows; commerce booms forward in this multi-national, industrially flourishing city.
The strategically located city was founded in 1659 as Paso de Rio del Norte, [Pass of the River of the North] and became a customs office in 1835. Although the community to the north took the name [El Paso], the city to the south retained influence.
It was in Ciudad Juarez where the Mexican Revolution accelerated. Gen. Francisco I. Madero's forces defeated federal troops near the city in 1911, the first important battle and the beginning of a long and costly internal war. More recently, since the passage of the North America Fair Trade Agreement, Ciudad Juarez was among the first to be industrialized as hundreds of small factories — many in one-story corrugated steel buildings — were erected. In the last three or four decades, it has grown in population from an estimated 70,000 to more than a million. Estimates of Ciudad Juarez' population range widely because nobody really knows how many people live in the continually growing rings of shelters on the fringes of town. These fringe dwellers mostly come north to cross the border.
"Ciudad Juarez is a trampoline city, where many hope to jump into the United States," said President Jorge Alberto Morales Sanchez of the Ciudad Juarez Mexico North Stake, a computer systems engineer.
President Morales, one of Sister Ortiz's many students now in leadership, said that some of those who come north are Church members.
"Some come looking for a better way of life, and some stay," he said. "We encourage them to stay in their native land and build up the Church." Those who leave often divide their families and spend many years apart, he said.
Just as the city has grown in recent years, so also has the Church, said President Morales. Ciudad Juarez's east, north, south and La Cuesta stakes have large memberships and strong missionary programs. The new temple has also strengthened the membership, and is evidence that the Church is permanent here.
Those being baptized are mostly remaining active, said President Cesar Eduardo Perez Valadez, counselor in the Ciudad Juarez Mexico North Stake and a prominent builder in Ciudad Juarez. "We have given great emphasis to retention," he said. "Having the temple will help."
The current membership in Ciudad Juarez has deep roots. A Church presence here came on Jan. 7, 1876, when Daniel Jones led the first Church missionary effort into Mexico. This effort made no progress after a local priest denounced the missionary party. However, Jones set up a saddlery and won respect for his craft. He even made two saddles for the local priest, who nonetheless kept a sharp eye on the visiting missionaries. The Jones party did find some success farther south before returning to Utah. Later, this city became a favorite crossing point for the Mormon colonists.
The next Latter-day Saints in this city were colonists who came to Ciudad Juarez about 1898. Some members have lived in this city ever since, according to a history, "Mormons in El Paso Norte," by Leticia Gutierrez de Orozco of the Church's local Historical and Records Committee.
The first branch was created in El Paso in 1909 and attended by members from both sides of the border. This branch functioned for a time. On the Mexican side, the revolution and the subsequent discontent prevented missionary progress in Ciudad Juarez for many years. Particularly difficult was missionary work in 1926-34, when foreigners were banned from proselyting.
One of the members from that period is Evelia Antillon de Casavantes, now 95, who joined shortly after being widowed in 1937. She was baptized by Arwell L. Pierce, a well-known Church leader in El Paso, Texas, and in Mexico. Although members in Ciudad Juarez in the 1930s at first attended services in El Paso, Sister Casavantes' home became a hub for the Church in Ciudad Juarez. Her home was opened to the missionaries and became a sanctuary for them. Others in her family were baptized later.
Sister Casavantes has been a strong and faithful member ever since. She remembers when the Church here was comprised of only 15 members who held occasional meetings in her living room. She said the Church began to grow in 1944 and accelerated after World War II when missionary work was formally started in Ciudad Juarez.
Today, at her advanced age, while she is not able to attend meetings, she enjoys the spiritual and historic atmosphere of her living room.
A branch was created about 1947. The first meetinghouse was started in 1955 under the leadership of President Ismael Soza of the Ciudad Juarez Branch. President Soza, who attended the temple dedication Feb. 26, 2000, said, "When we first met as a branch, we did not have a chapel. We met in a photographer's studio, 28 families."
Currently serving as executive secretary of the Nogales Mexico District presidency, President Soza was pleased at the growth in Ciudad Juarez. In the early 1950s he served as president of the Mutual and was a Sunday School teacher, lacking but one thing before he could serve as branch president — baptism. When that was resolved, he became branch president.
The first conference in the new Paraguay Street meetinghouse in 1956 was attended by Elder Spencer W. Kimball, then of the Quorum of the Twelve.
President Gerald W. Berry was president of the branch when the Benito Juarez Primary School was built on the meetinghouse grounds in 1960. He was also a missionary who saw the Church grow from about a dozen members to its present size. The Ciudad Juarez Mexico Stake was created in 1976.
A pilot program to build multiple small meetinghouses at the same time was started in 1978, under the direction of Elder Richard G. Scott, then of the Seventy and now of the Quorum of the Twelve.
President Morales remembers as a youth, then about 17, with other Aaronic Priesthood holders taking turns staying at the construction site to protect it. Although occasions came when the youth felt protected from danger, the construction went smoothly and without any opposition. Once, recalled President Morales, he and a friend were staying at the site when they went into the newly completed bishop's office and were accidentally locked in. They remained trapped until morning when passers-by heard their cries for help and telephoned leaders to come and release them.
The labor project united the members, he said.
"Everyone worked together on the building, old men, young men, women and children," said President Morales. "We would stop working to eat. The sisters had prepared food. We all sat around the table and ate together.
"We really loved those times. There was a good feeling among the members for the new buildings. Here in Ciudad Juarez, the Church began to grow."
That good feeling for new buildings continues with the temple, he said.
"It is really a miracle to have a temple here. Ciudad Juarez needs a temple."
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