HAMILTON, New Zealand — At age 86, Hoki Purcell admits her hearing isn’t quite what it used to be. But get her and others recalling their experiences from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ South Pacific labor missionary program from the early 1950s well into the 1970s — especially about the building of the Church College of New Zealand and the New Zealand Temple in southwest Hamilton’s Temple View area — and her mind is sharp and her wit keen.
But her eyesight? Well, she’s seeing things — OK, seeing things in a figurative way.
“This place is sacred to us,” she said. “And when I look at the temple, I see the labor missionaries.”
That means she’s seeing herself as well, since she and her husband, Owen Purcell, 89, served as a couple together as labor missionaries, working on the New Zealand Temple project just prior to its dedication nearly 65 years ago.
Just two days before the Sunday, Oct. 16, rededication of what is now known as the Hamilton New Zealand Temple by Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the Purcells joined fellow labor missionaries Waitoki Elkington, 92, and George Chase, 82, to share with the Church News past anecdotes and current perspectives for what they hope will extend well into the future.
“Naturally, it’s wonderful,” said Chase as he gazed up at the temple. “When they said we were here to build it for eternity, that’s what I expected.”
While Church College closed in the late 2000s, some buildings have been refurbished and renovated, while others demolished to make way for a new combination stake center and cultural hall and a new housing development. The legacy of the labor missionaries is sustained through exhibits at the nearby Matthew Cowley Church History Center and Museum, a neighborhood park built in tribute and a YouTube video produced by the Church’s Pacific Area earlier this year.
Originally dubbed “The Project,” the construction efforts of the labor missionary started in the early 1950s with the Church College — actually a secondary school — and expanded to the temple in the mid-1950s, with Church President David O. McKay dedicating both the college and the temple in 1958. But it also included meetinghouses and schools throughout the isles of the South Pacific and on into the Maori village at the Polynesian Culture Center.
Experienced construction managers were brought in to direct and supervise the work being done — mostly by young Maori men but also couples and young families were called.
Chase was 17 and off with his father to the bus station, going to Rotorua for an apprenticeship. They ran into George R. Biesinger, one of the construction supervisors, who asked what the teen was doing and then pitched a labor mission instead.
“In those days, you listened to your father,” Chase said, who did that and worked not at a paid apprenticeship but as a labor missionary who would be afforded 10 pound shillings a week (10 shillings equaled a dollar). Couples and families were given twice that amount.
Local Latter-day Saints were asked to help with donations and contributions to help fund the labor missionaries and their construction efforts. The members contributed money, clothes and food. When meat and vegetables were slow to arrive from outlying Church districts, labor missionaries would see repeat offerings at meals, leading to their phrase “same old soup again.”
He arrived in late 1957 and worked about six months before the temple’s dedication on the concrete steps, walkways and walls around the property.
Given their construction efforts with meetinghouses, schools and other Church-related buildings throughout the area, Chase likes to label the labor missionaries “the founding fathers of the South Pacific.”
Owen Purcell arrived about the same time and worked on the same stairs and walls before moving on to school projects. He got his “call” as a labor missionary one Sunday when he stayed home from church meetings, feeling sleepy and nursing a headache. Knowing it was hard work and that he was inactive in the Church at the time, he mulled the options of doing the work or going home.
“I stayed here, and I’ve been active all my life,” he said, adding that he used the same make-or-break commitment to what he calls his “Word of Wisdom problem” at the time.
“I promised never to revert back to it, and after a month, that problem went into the rubbish.”
But it was four years of hard, demanding physical work, sometimes unsafe work for Owen Purcell. He remembers hot, summer days in December, standing atop the hill where the temple sits, wondering not only how he was going to navigate a double-wide wheelbarrow down the slope without dumping its contents but also “what am I doing here.”
“But it taught me a lesson,” he said. “But the reward was seeing it finished. By then, we were all converted, and the Church was true.”
Like the other wives of the men serving as labor missionaries, Hoki Purcell had tasks at the temple and school projects in addition to family responsibilities. She recalled being given a toothbrush to clean the debris out of the new grout installed in the temple restrooms, with construction supervisor E. Albert Rosenvall — who later was called as the New Zealand Temple’s first president — telling her to “think of it like cleaning your teeth, we want it to be clean and shiny.”
She was among the 12 sisters asked to each take one of the 12 metal oxen to be installed at the base of the baptismal font and to clean the plaster and debris from the hooves and lower legs. They were given small hand picks and chisels, with directions not to cut or ding the metal.
She tried to make the work a little lighter, naming her ox “Ferdinand” and encouraging the other sisters to name theirs. Then she started to sing to pass the time — until Rosenvall came in with a finger pressed to his lips in shushing fashion.
“’You are about a sacred work,’” she recalled being told by Rosenvall. “I learned a great lesson that day. We thought it was hard, laborious and boring work, but he reminded us that everything we did was sacred to the Lord.”
She recalls Monday nights as family home evening, as missionaries and families gathered in the Kai Hall dining hall, with Biesinger giving an update on the past week’s work and construction goals for the coming week. Missionaries shared music and testimonies, with ice cream treats handed out.
“We were treated as part of the plan, part of the family,” she said.
Elkington served twice with her husband, John, as labor missionaries — first in 1951 on school construction when they had one child and again later to work on the temple project in 1957.
“My feelings were ones of gladness,” she said of returning to help cook and clean for the men and boys working on the temple. The Elkingtons had lost a child at an early age, and so they were wondering how to get to the temple in Hawaii to have the family sealed. “Now there was no need — there was a temple here.”
Still, another challenge faced Waitoki Elkington as the temple was ending its construction phase and being prepared for dedication. The limited finances meant a number of families didn’t have the money to purchase temple clothes and garments for once the temple would open for ordinance work.
To earn money to cover those costs, Elkington and about a half-dozen others would get up before daybreak and go to the nearby fields to bag potatoes.
“Building the temple was very worthwhile,” she said, “But being able to go to the temple was the highlight. When you saw your fellow labor missionaries dressed in white and the prophet dressed in white for the dedication, it was a sacred highlight.”