PAPEETE, Tahiti — Latter-day Saints held a celebration Oct. 8-10 in Papeete, Tahiti, commemorating the arrival of the first missionaries from the Church in French Polynesia 160 years ago.
Presiding at the 160th Anniversary was Elder Robert K. Dellenbach of the Seventy and president of the Pacific Islands Area. Oscar Temaru, president of French Polynesia; Tony Geros, president of l'Assemblee of French Polynesia; several members of parliament and other dignitaries also attended some of the events.
"It was one of the most fascinating, exhilarating and well-executed events I have attended in the South Pacific," said Elder Dellenbach.
The three-day celebration culminated months of planning and preparation. Friday and Sunday events were held in the To'ata amphitheater on the Papeete wharf and the Saturday venue was in the city of Arue. The celebration began with an open house and booths set up to display the programs, auxiliaries and beliefs of the Church. Among the investigators attending the events of the day, one remarked, "It is good to know that in this difficult world there is a religion that is still teaching moral values for the stability of our society and French Polynesian families."
The visiting media representatives from the two national newspapers Le Depeche de Tahiti and Nouvelles Tahiti printed full-page articles on the Church in French Polynesia the week before and featured other articles on the event. Regional television RFO Polneisie and national television TNTV produced a news segment on the open house that was aired the next morning. The stations sent television crews back to the evening program.
"The media provided the opportunity for the families of Tahiti to see and hear the historical history of the Church in French Polynesia through this event," said Marama Tarati, the Church's national director of public affairs.
The evening program began with a 500-voice stake choir performing musical numbers in Tahitian and French. Opening remarks were given by Elder Dellenbach and President Temaru. Elder Dellenbach told the gathering of more than 3,000 and the vast television audience how wonderful it was to see members "giving their all" and displaying the finest they have to offer the Lord. "You cannot be in a gathering like this, with this 500-voice choir behind me and hundreds of youth performers, and not be impressed with the dedication, testimonies and fervor for what they have been involved in. It is beyond all expectations."
The program continued with a depiction of the historical events surrounding the arrival of the first missionaries to French Polynesia. A large replica of the whaling ship Timoleon seemed to sail across the stage carrying three missionaries who were depicting the journey of the first missionaries arriving in the islands. The Prophet Joseph Smith called four young men, Addison Pratt, Benjamin F. Grouard, Knowlton F. Hanks and Noah Rogers to open a mission in the Sandwich Islands, now known as Hawaii. Waiting for three months, they were unable to find a ship going to the Sandwich Islands but one leaving for the Society Islands (Tahiti) and decided to board this ship. Elder Hanks died of tuberculosis and was buried at sea. The Timoleon anchored in Tubuai after 203 days at sea; the date was April 30, 1844. The islanders gave them such a warm welcome and expressed their desire to have missionaries remain on their island that Addison Pratt decided he would stay on Tubuai, while the other two missionaries traveled on to Tahiti. (See May 7, 1994 and July 16, 1994, Church News .)
The five stakes in Tahiti were each asked to represent one of the five archipelago chains, Society, Gambier, Tuamotu, Marquesas, and the Austal Islands through music and dance. Each stake provided 80 to 100 adults, young adults and children who performed dances from their assigned island. The sounds of Tahitian instruments of drums, guitars, and ukuleles, along with singers and chanters added to the authenticity of the period and island they were representing.
A multi-media presentation using several large jumbo screens was shown inside the To'ata amphitheater as well as on a screen outside the amphitheater on the wharf. The historical and statistical growth of the Church in each of the island groups was part of the presentation. The program also included a large, lighted replica of the Papeete Tahiti Temple. A contingency of young single adult dancers came onto the floor, the young women were dressed in long flowing white dresses and the men in white shirts, black ties and black trousers.
The emotional finale featured mission President William J. Welsh III and Sister Christine Welsh and the missionaries of Tahiti marching into the stadium singing, "Called to Serve" with the audience spontaneously joining in at the chorus.
Saturday's event was held in a stadium complex in the nearby city of Arue. The highlights of the day were the ancient Tahitian sport competitions of stilt racing, stone lifting, fruit carrying and canoe racing. Another highlight in Arue were the cultural food booths, displays and demonstrations. Tahitian artisans demonstrated some ancient and modern handicrafts. A Tahitian house was also constructed replicating what the housing was like when the early missionaries arrived.
A surprise visitor to the event was Renny Rogers of Mesa, Ariz., great-great-grandson of Noah Rogers, one of the celebrated first missionaries to Tahiti. Brother Rogers had by chance arrived in Papeete on a cruise ship the day before and learned about the celebration. He made his way to Arue the next day and was introduced to the crowd at the stadium where he received a standing ovation.
During the Sunday devotional back at To'ata, President Temaru and many other government leaders attended once again. President Temaru (speaking in three different languages, English, Tahitian and French) congratulated the celebration's planners and participants and noted how he has seen missionaries traveling throughout the islands and the good influence they and the Church bring to the people of French Polynesia. Elder Dellenbach spoke of the courage and diligence of the first missionaries.
The 500-voice choir was joined by a Primary choir, a youth choir and selected soloists. A multi-media presentation was shown that depicted Book of Mormon and Church history. The story of the first missionaries to French Polynesia and the growth of the Church here was re-told; followed by photos, old and new, of missionaries who have left French Polynesia to serve around the world.
At the conclusion of the program Patriarch Iosua Brothers sang in Tahitian, "I Have a Testimony." Joining him was 6-year-old Tekura Ammaru singing in French. Their voices blended in perfect harmony.