The story behind the Mexico MTC: How the Benemérito private school with 90-acre campus became one of the busiest MTCs

MEXICO CITY — Less than a month into 2013, talk about celebrating Benemérito de las Americas’s 50th academic year later that fall had already started circulating around the private high school. But at a Jan. 29 meeting with school administrators and local leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, then-Elder Russell M. Nelson and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles shared a shocking announcement: The Church-sponsored Benemérito would close at the end of the current school year, with the 90-acre campus and its scores of buildings to promptly reopen as the new location of an expanded Mexico Missionary Training Center.

Church leaders saw the change as critical to help accommodate the sudden surge of new missionaries, spawned by the October 2012 general conference announcement of lowering the ages when young men and women begin serving as full-time missionaries.

“We need an MTC immediately; we need it now,” said Elder Holland at the meeting. “If we started to build one tomorrow, it would take us three years and millions of dollars to construct, and what would we do in the meantime?”

Elder Nelson followed, pronouncing Jan. 29 as an important day in Church history, moving from the hundreds educated annually at Benemérito to the training of many thousands of missionaries.

“Many of them will come from other countries,” he said.

“They will not only receive training, they will develop a love for Mexico, its language and its people. They will be pioneers in their missions. They will be leaders throughout the entire world. So, that’s what we see in the future.

An area near the entrance of the Mexico Missionary Training Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is pictured on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020.
An area near the entrance of the Mexico Missionary Training Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is pictured on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020. Credit: Ravell Call, Deseret News

“This hallowed ground where we sit tonight will become more sacred with each passing year,” Elder Nelson continued. “Better, higher and holier purposes will be served in the future, more than they ever have been before.

“Now I don’t know what the future will bring. I don’t know when this story will end. Perhaps it will never end. It will continue on and on, more and more, higher and higher to bless the lives of generations yet unborn. This sacred place will help the country of Mexico to become all that God intends it to become. With that sanctification, it will be a blessing to the entire world.”

“Better, higher and holier purposes” and “a blessing to the entire world.” Those prophetic declarations from the man who now leads the Church of Jesus Christ describe the Centro De Capacitación Misional México, the Spanish name found on the Mexico Missionary Training Center’s large entryway sign, with a huge, whitewashed letter “B” on the hillside behind it serving as not only a visual backdrop, but a reminder of the campus’s roots.

Seven years later, the Mexico MTC —  or CCM Mexico — has become the Church’s second-largest center for missionaries trained and its largest in property size. The training center both receives from and sends out missionaries throughout the Western Hemisphere and across the globe. And the Mexico MTC is one of the key reasons why the Church has been able to close five smaller MTCs since early 2019.

“When President Nelson announced the change and came here to make the change from the Benemérito School to the MTC, the Spirit has been here ever since,” said President Timothy M. Olson, president of the Mexico MTC. “We have received missionaries from all over the world — Asia, Europe, North and South America, Central America, the Caribbean. And we send them throughout the world. The impact of those missionaries is going to be generational and just a fantastic change from a school with limited impact to a worldwide impact.”

Closing Mexico’s legacy learning center

Benemérito de las Americas had functioned for nearly five full decades as a private school, its last years as a high school. The site in the northern part of the Mexico City metropolitan area — built on a Church-owned ranch — served as a reminder of the longevity and vitality of the Church and its members in Mexico.

“One of the great feelings that you have when you go to Mexico is the understanding of how long the Church has been there,” said Elder Brent H. Nielson, a General Authority Seventy and executive director of the Missionary Department. “It started there in the 1800s, and some of our Mexican Saints there are eight- and nine-generation members.

“When you’re there, you realize that this feels like home. It feels like this is a place where the Church has been for a long time, and these members are some of our most faithful members on the face of the Earth. They work at the MTC, and they have a wonderful, welcoming spirit for our missionaries.”

Benemérito, however, was to give way to a much-larger Mexico MTC than the smaller one operating near the Mexico City Mexico Temple. Capacity at the then-existing MTC — which dated back to the late 1970s — had been upwards of 150 missionaries at a time; attendance projections for the expanded MTC could exceed 1,000.

“I believe God knew this day would come the day we broke ground for this school,” Elder Holland said at the Jan. 29, 2013, meeting, adding, “what a tribute, what a compliment to you, to be in the absolute vanguard of this work, and be the only place God and His leaders could turn to further this work. I can scarcely pay you a higher tribute.”

Elder Nelson continued the tribute, saying the success of 18-year-olds in Mexico being called as missionaries — ongoing since 1999 — had been a significant consideration in the decision to make the age change worldwide.

Less than five months after the announcement, Benemérito closed its doors as a school, with a ceremonial twist at its June 14, 2013, final graduation. When a school closes, Mexican law requires the burning of its flag, so the flag-burning ceremony symbolized Benemérito’s end of academic activities and the start of the property’s new role.

Out of the ashes and from the property arose something greater — as prophesied. Benemérito accounted for some 23,000 graduates in its 49-year history. In less than seven years, the Mexico MTC has trained well more than 30,000 missionaries who have spent anywhere from three to nine weeks on the campus before departing throughout the Americas and beyond.

Transitioning to a training center

Missionary Department personnel — such as Shawn Cates, the Mexico MTC’s first director of training and operations, and Kirsti Vogeler Polo, who would oversee the training of the MTC’s teachers — arrived in May 2013, initiating the transition while allowing Benemérito to conclude its academic year. They witnessed — and empathized with — teachers, staff and students saddened by the school’s closing.

“I saw their dance programs, I saw everything, and I cried so hard — it was such a beautiful thing,” recalled Cates, who now serves as the Missionary Department’s manager of worldwide finding. “The students made shirts that said, ‘I’m giving up my spot for you.’ ”

With the first missionaries scheduled to arrive 10 days after the June 14 graduation, “it was a tight time window,” Cates said. “It was amazing, and I would say miraculous, to see what people were able to do to make that happen.”

While the property and buildings remained much the same besides some necessary remodeling and enhancements, operations for an MTC differed considerably from a school. The latter closed operations for weekends, holidays and summer breaks, while a missionary training center is like a mini-village, staffed and operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Missionaries talk as they eat in the cafeteria of the Mexico Missionary Training Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020.
Missionaries talk as they eat in the cafeteria of the Mexico Missionary Training Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. Credit: Ravell Call, Deseret News

“We had to hire about 100 new people who knew nothing about how an MTC operates,” Cates said. “We had about a month and a half to ramp up all these people and help them get a vision and realize what we were trying to do before the first missionaries showed up at the end of June.”

Working at the Mexico MTC from May 2013 through December 2013, Polo initially brought down MTC teachers from Provo for six to 12 weeks at a time, then started hiring local teachers, soon admiring their dedication, sacrifice and quick learning.

“There was this feeling of ‘This is our MTC. This is so special, we want to be a part of it, and we’ll do anything to be here,’ ” recalled Polo, now the Missionary Department’s assistant administrative director of MTCs. “That was when I just knew ‘this is going to work out and they don’t need me here.’ ”

Once Benemérito classes concluded, the move from the existing MTC campus to the new one began. The push to move furniture and allocate and arrange office space and classrooms  went down to the wire, as the staff had a matter of days to get ready, set and going.

“The night before the first missionaries arrived, we were changing the sign from the school out to the Mexico Missionary Training Center,” Cates said. “We finished that at about 1 in the morning before they got there.”

And the school library — now named for President Thomas S. Monson, as most Mexico MTC administrative and classroom buildings bear the names of latter-day prophets — got last-minute attention, too. “We were clearing out the library books and everything and the bookshelves,” Cates added. “That was going to be their reception hall.”

The era of an expanded MTC

And on June 24, 2013, they came — first a young local sister missionary, brought by her family, and then a young elder by his. Fittingly, the first missionaries arriving at the newly expanded training center were Latter-day Saints from Mexico, the nation that sacrificed an education center for its youth in exchange for a training center for missionaries from all over the world.

The welcoming MTC staff included many who had been Benemérito employees. “You could see tears in their eyes,” Cates said. “They were just so happy, and at the same time a little sad realizing, ‘Hey, this is it. This has happened.’ It was a temple-like experience, it was extremely spiritual to be a part of that. We all felt like it was a historical moment.”

Before 2013, the Mexico MTC primarily trained missionaries from Mexico who would serve in one of the several dozen missions in that country. However, with the expanded capacity, the Mexico MTC could accommodate considerably more missionaries, so it was determined that not only could it host missionaries from Mexico and throughout Latin America but also help lessen the load of missionaries learning Spanish at the flagship Provo Missionary Training Center.

As such, missionaries who were called from the United States and Canada to proselytize in the Spanish language in either of those two countries could go to Mexico City to be trained and to learn Spanish and then return for their service.

Both training programs still continue today.

“That has relieved a lot of the pressure that we have in Provo,” Elder Nielson said, “and it has also allowed us to give them a cultural experience in Mexico so that they can get a feeling for the Hispanic cultures they serve in Mexico.”

And a timely decision by the Mexican government helped facilitate bringing in new trainees to the Mexico MTC from other countries. Just prior to the expansion, Mexico adjusted the requirements for short-term visas into the country, allowing missionaries from North American and many other nations to enter without a visa and to stay up to 180 days — well over the three to nine weeks needed to train missionaries. All a training missionary needed was a passport, a return ticket and no visa — a welcome relief to the Missionary Department.

“Visas are so expensive,” Elder Nielson said. “We are all day every day applying for visas for missionaries all around the world, and this one is fly there, fly back — and it is just a three-and-a-half-hour flight (from Salt Lake City). It is that easy.”

The cultural experience of training in Mexico with native speakers is a bonus for missionaries from the United States and Canada, said Lane Steinagel, who recently moved as director of international MTCs to area mission specialist within the Missionary Department.

“What better way to prepare them not only to learn the language,” he said, “but to go down and be among those people, be among the culture and be among the missionaries who are from the places or going to the places or have connection with the people that they’re going to meet on their mission and teach.”

Mexican Saints embrace the new MTC

As missionaries started to be assigned to the Mexico MTC for training, the numbers included children of former Benemérito staff as well as former students themselves, some who had graduated just months earlier.

“During its almost 50 years, Benemérito de las Americas blessed the lives of tens of thousands of members in Mexico through its secular and religious education programs. Graduates from the school served as bedrock for past and current Church leadership in the country,” said Elder John C. Pingree Jr., a General Authority Seventy and counselor in the Mexico Area presidency.

“When it was announced the Benemérito would be closed and a new Mexico MTC would be opened, the loss of the school was painful for many in Mexico. However, the faithful Saints here readily accepted the school’s new, higher purpose to prepare missionaries to gather Israel in preparation for the Second Coming of the Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Nicolás Castañeda, the current director of training and operations at the Mexico MTC, said it was very difficult for local members to initially accept the change from the popular, successful school.

Nicolas Casteñeda, director of the Mexico Missionary Training Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hugs Elder Enrique Cepeda of Nuevas Casas Grandes, Mexico, as they finish talking on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020.
Nicolas Casteñeda, director of the Mexico Missionary Training Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hugs Elder Enrique Cepeda of Nuevas Casas Grandes, Mexico, as they finish talking on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. Credit: Ravell Call, Deseret News

“But quickly they received a testimony of the blessing and the power of having a bigger MTC in Mexico to bless many people in the world,” he said, underscoring Elder Nelson’s promise of increasing sacredness each passing year.

“I have seen this; I witness of this prophetic promise. Every time a family arrives with their son or their daughter, I can feel — for this reason — this place is more and more sacred, because of the sacrifice and love of the people.”

Perla Velazquez is one who can claim a full range of campus experiences — a Benemérito student as a teenager, a young missionary training at the Mexico MTC and now a teaching supervisor there.

“I feel gratitude for being in this beautiful place. I know the Lord visits this place. I feel when the teachers teach, I feel the love of my Savior,” she said. “When I see the missionaries walking here, I remember this place was to prepare people for conversion — not just for the missionary training but before, in the school, in my training, and now as a supervisor. I feel this place is prepared in order to help others receive conversion.”

Closures, consistency and misconceptions

With the Mexico MTC’s continued growth and success over its first five years and its untapped capacity to house upwards of 1,200 missionaries, the Missionary Department found it could further streamline its operations and training by closing five smaller MTCs in 2019 and 2020 — including in Chile, Argentina, Dominican Republic and Guatemala — and having missionaries who would have been trained there instead sent to Mexico City.

Elder Nielson said that while the average person thinks trimming the number of MTCs worldwide is the result of a dwindling missionary force, the Church in fact has some 4,000 missionaries more this year than last.

Kelend Mills, the Missionary Department’s administrative director of MTCs, said the consolidations into the Mexico MTC had several benefits. “One is significant cost savings to the Church. Another is missionaries who come together have this experience of singing ‘Called to Serve’ with several hundred missionaries instead of 20 or 30, as might have been the case at smaller MTCs,” he said, underscoring how missionaries could feel a part of a larger, global force and how centralized training and operations helps ensure a consistent missionary experience no matter if they attend an MTC in Mexico or Utah, in Brazil or in Ghana.

One major difference in Mexico is the MTC’s expansive property, the sprawling, enclosed 90 acres of the former Benemérito campus, including 50 multiroom casitas or small residences for elders, several apartment-sized dormitory buildings for sisters and plentifully spaced administrative and classroom buildings throughout. Compare that to the 35 acres of the Provo campus or the less-than-two acres of the towering MTC complex in São Paulo, Brazil.

“When our missionaries arrive there, many of course make the trip from the airport to the Mexico MTC, which is culture shock just to drive through and see Mexico City,” Elder Nielson said. “But when they arrive at the MTC and they’re welcomed by all these wonderful Mexican members, they feel like they’re home.”

Added Mills: “While it is right in the middle of this loud, busy, noisy city, you go onto the property and the gates close behind you, and there’s this quiet, peaceful, sacred feeling on that space.”

The square footage “blows all of the other MTCs out of the water,” said Polo, highlighting the outdoor areas for study, teaching, practicing and role-playing among palm trees, flowering bushes, lush lawns and the squawking monk parakeets. “It’s a unique feeling that missionaries probably don’t feel confined — there’s open air, and the weather’s good most of the year.”

Getting to Mexico City from across Mexico as well as the United States and other nations isn’t much of a problem. The nation’s capital is served by plenty of nonstop flights, including from Salt Lake City.

“There are times of the year when we have lots of missionaries going down where almost every passenger on the plane is a missionary on their way to the Mexico MTC,” said Mills of the SLC-MEX route.

“One of the flight attendants who is on that flight every week told me the story once of a flight landing, and as they were taxiing toward the terminal, the missionaries began to sing ‘Called to Serve.’ ”

The Mexico MTC staff and Missionary Department work to dispel the many misconceptions that uninformed members have about the training experience in Mexico City, ranging from worries about missionary safety in a rough borough to concerns about food or water. At times, missionaries will complain to others back home that the food has made them sick, when in reality a combination of a new diet, new meal routines and possible side effects of anxiety and stress could cause such ailments.

“I think the members should know that their sons and daughters will be well cared for here,” said President Olson. “It’s a beautiful campus. We have a full-service campus with a health clinic, doctors, mental health counselors. We have a cafeteria, staff on hand for maintenance and a wonderful instruction team that is very competent and able to teach them not only the language but the way to teach the gospel clearly and effectively, with the Spirit.”

Missionaries walk from the building after attending the Mexico City Mexico Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020.
Missionaries walk from the building after attending the Mexico City Mexico Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. Credit: Ravell Call, Deseret News

Having eaten at the remodeled, expanded MTC cafeteria for its first seven months and returned every time she makes training visits, Polo said the food “is delicious — I loved it,” adding, “I wish moms knew that the food is great — there’s a variety, and (missionaries) are well taken care of.”

Said Steinagel of the property being enveloped by high, wire-topped concrete walls and monitored by 24/7 security: “The missionaries are very safe — that’s the priority above everything else.

“We’re able to meet the missionaries’ needs, either it be with special food needs or with the clinical and medical help that we have there and all of the different support from the area office,”

Elder Jacob Turley of Highland, Utah, preparing to serve a Spanish assignment in Arizona, offered advice to missionaries coming to the Mexico MTC: “Absorb everything — the culture, the food, the people, especially the teachers. It’s a great blessing to be able to have teachers from Mexico with that Latin culture being able to teach us, especially about the gospel.”

And Sister Annah Fossum of Forsythe, Georgia, used “bittersweet” to describe the conclusion of her six weeks of training before leaving to serve in Chile. “You’re taught a lot of information within that time period, but you’ve also made this place your home, and the people you meet here are super beautiful. So, it’s kind of sad but very exciting to move on and to take the things you’ve learned and to implement them in your mission.”

The Mexico MTC — now and the future

From its onset, the Mexico MTC has offered a three-week missionary training program for native Spanish speakers. With the move to having North American elders and sisters train in Mexico City, the six-week training and Spanish language program for English speakers was added.

With the recent closures of other smaller MTCs, the Mexico MTC has expanded its training repertoire. The training of missionaries speaking Haitian Creole — previously done at the Dominican Republic MTC — has moved to Mexico, requiring teachers to be hired and relocated to Mexico City. Also, the nine-week training in Q’eqchi’ — a Mayan language spoken in communities in Guatemala and Belize — for native Spanish speakers came from the now-closed Guatemala MTC.

“We’re beginning to look at the possibilities of being able to train missionaries in the Mexico MTC in other languages — for example, French,” Elder Nielson said. “Would it be possible for a Latino missionary who only speaks Spanish to come to Mexico and be taught French from Spanish? We’re looking at that carefully, trying to prepare ourselves for that type of event so that they could serve in a French-speaking mission, for example, in Africa or some other place.”

Another likely addition would be ESL — English as a second language — for Spanish speakers called to serve an English assignment, say, in the United States.

“Are there opportunities for us to teach other languages at this MTC,” asked Elder Nielson, “so that we can open up the world to other cultures that can go serve in other places?”

Missionaries arrive at their dorms at the end of the day at the Mexico Missionary Training Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020.
Missionaries arrive at their dorms at the end of the day at the Mexico Missionary Training Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020. Credit: Ravell Call, Deseret News

On a recent visit to the Mexico MTC, Mills observed the blend of training programs — North American missionaries learning Spanish interacting with native speakers from Mexico and other Latin American nations in their own training.

“A takeaway was this sense of connection between all these missionaries, wherever they were from,” he said. “There was just this feeling of connection, unity and the purpose they felt as missionaries.”

And it’s a feeling of the Spirit throughout, said Sister Rose A. Olson, companion to the MTC president. “When the missionaries first arrive, a lot of them are very overwhelmed, just with the change in environment,” she said. “But it’s a safe place, and if they get past those first two days, they’re going to enjoy the companionship of the other missionaries, they’re going to find that the teachers are wonderful, they’ll be able to feel the Spirit, they’ll learn to teach the gospel with the Spirit.”

Elder Enrique Cepeda, of Nuevo Casas Grandes, Mexico, echoes that expression: “We can feel the love of the Lord, and I love it,” he said.

Added his MTC companion, Elder Alex Sanchez of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. “Since the first day we arrived, we were told we would learn that we are cared for by Him, to have reverence and to stay within the limits of the rules,” he said. “And I have learned that as I do that while I am here, this has become a sacred place, just like the temple or my own home.”

Cates, who for three years witnessed the transformation from school to missionary training center, puts a grander perspective on the “an oasis in the desert” tag given to the site and carrying over from its Benemérito roots to its current Mexico MTC expansion to what the future holds in store at the 90-acre property.

“It’s an oasis among one of the largest cities in the world, and every day miracles are happening there and missionaries’ hearts are changing. Every day, there is something incredibly special happening, and whomever is there has a front-row seat to one of the most amazing miracles that we see on Planet Earth, which is the changing of the human heart.

“And in this case, it’s missionaries preparing to go out and change others’ hearts.”