QUEZON CITY, Philippines
Just two months after Latter-day Saint missionaries first arrived in the Philippines in 1961, Nenita Gapiz began learning the discussions.
On Nov. 25, 1961, she became the fifth member to be baptized in the country.
Back then, the handful of native Filipino Latter-day Saints met with American servicemen. Although they knew they were involved in something special, early Church pioneers in the Philippines never dreamed that, in less then six decades, 100 stakes would dot their land.
Sister Gapiz was part of a capacity congregation that watched on Sept. 10 as Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles created the 100th stake in the Philippines — the Mandaluyong Philippines Stake.
The stake is created in an area that was part of the first stake in the Philippines, formed in 1973; members sustained Noel Delos Reyes Placer, Marcial Evangelista and John D. Bautista as the new stake presidency.
Held in the Kia Theater in Metro Manila, the creation of the 100th stake marked a historic milestone for the Church and the Philippines — the first nation outside of the Western Hemisphere to experience this level of LDS growth. The Church has only reached the milestone of 100 stakes in four other countries of the world — Brazil, Mexico, the United States and Peru.
After creating the stake, Elder Andersen praised Sister Gapiz and the generations of faithful Filipino members who followed her.
“You not only embraced the gospel, but you held on to the gospel and you lived your life worthy and true,” he said.
His wife, Sister Kathy Andersen, shared her testimony in Tagalog and then expressed her love for Filipino Latter-day Saints. “We look to your faith and it increases our faith,” she said.
Today there are more than 746,000 members of the Church in the Philippines — a remarkable number considering that the growth in the country occurred in just more than half of a century.
Although the first official Mormon conference was held in the Philippines on May 13, 1945, it was only attended by Latter-day Saints in the U.S. military.
The Philippines wasn’t dedicated for the preaching of the gospel for another decade; on Aug. 21, 1955, then-Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, who became the 10th president of the Church, offered a prayer of dedication on the Philippines.
On April 28, 1961, under the direction of Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, who would also serve as a prophet, the Church was legally registered in the Philippines and received permission to send missionaries to the nation.
“This is an occasion you will never forget,” Elder Hinckley told a group gathered at the American Cemetery and Memorial in Manila in 1961. “What we will begin here will affect the lives of thousands and thousands of people in this island republic, and its effect will go on from generation to generation for great and everlasting good.”
Ruel E. Lacanienta, Philippines Olongapo Mission president, was 10 years old when he and his family met Mormon missionaries in 1963 — just two years after Elder Hinckley prayed for the country and the people.
Like so many early members, President Lacanienta was baptized in the swimming pool of Sister Maxine Grimm, who worked with her husband, E. M. “Pete” Grimm, a U.S. Army colonel, to open doors for the Church in the Philippines.
In his lifetime, President Lacanienta has watched the Church grow from one branch, meeting in a rented building, to 100 stakes, meeting in more than 700 Church-owned chapels that now dot the Philippines.
Elder Augusto Lim, the Church’s first General Authority from the Philippines, witnessed much of that growth.
In 1964, two missionaries knocked on the Lims’ door. After meeting with the missionaries, Elder Lim, an attorney, realized that what the missionaries were teaching “was what I believed in the first place. … I just knew this was it; this was something I could understand.”
Elder Lim said rapid Church growth began when the Philippines Mission was formally organized from the Southern Far East Mission in 1967; by the end of that year there were 3,000 members of the Church in the Philippines.
In 1973, when President Ezra Taft Benson organized the first stake in the country, Elder Lim was called to serve as its president.
The construction of temples in the country also helped the work move forward, he said. President Hinckley dedicated the Manila Philippines Temple in 1984; President Thomas S. Monson dedicated the Cebu Philippines Temple in 2010. Additional temples have been announced for Urdaneta and Alabang, Philippines.
The Alabang temple, which will be built in Metro Manila, speaks to the rapid growth of the Church in the Philippines, said Elder Shayne M. Bowen, a General Authority Seventy and Philippines Area president. “The Philippines is a country of over 100 million people,” he said. “Travel times are very long in the Philippines with the heavy traffic. This is particularly the case in Metro Manila. A normal 30-minute trip can take up to five hours. With another temple in Metro Manila in a place called Alabang, the saints will be greatly blessed to be able to attend the temple more often and with much less time spent on travel.”
Rufelia Salangad said growth is occurring so fast in the Philippines that she has witnessed many children she taught in Primary grow and become young Church leaders.
In 1963, Sister Salangad met two American Mormon missionaries who taught her the gospel of Jesus Christ. With her mother, brothers and sister, she entered the waters of baptism on Aug. 11, 1963.
Two years later, she accepted a call to serve as a missionary in her native land. Along with one other Filipino sister who entered the mission field on the same day, she began her mission on Jan. 5, 1966. Today, the legacy began by Sister Salangad and other early missionaries continues with more than 4,000 native Filipinos serving in the country.
The Church not only spans many stakes in the country, but many generations as well, said Milagros Emata.
She joined the Church two years after her husband, Melecio Emata, entered the waters of baptism in March of 1965. Today their great-granddaughter is a fourth generation Filipino Latter-day Saint.
“The Church grew very fast,” said Brother Emata.
And that growth continues. On Sept. 17, Elder Allen Haynie of the Philippines Area presidency and Elder Ryan Pagaduan, an Area Seventy, will organize the 101st stake in the Philippines. The new Calasiao Philippines Stake will be part of the Urdaneta Philippines Mission.
After creating the 100th stake, Elder Andersen asked why among all the nations of the earth “has the Savior set his feet so firmly here in the Philippines?”
“It is because of who you are,” he told the Filipino members. “This is a special place. Do not underestimate who you are. … The most important part of the Philippines is the people.”