MONTREAL — Nancy Landrigan was reading an online biography of President Russell M. Nelson just days after he was ordained and set apart as Church president in January, carefully attentive to his involvement in the research and development of the heart and lung machine that keeps patients alive during open-heart surgery
The LaSalle (Quebec) Ward member was just two days away from a surgery required to perform a complicated and extensive valve repair, and the thought of the procedure and possible outcomes consumed her with sheer terror and extreme anxiety. However, as the 55-year-old mother of three and grandmother of two read of President Nelson’s achievements as a cardiac thoracic surgeon, Landrigan felt a calm reassurance wash over her.
“My prophet developed the machine that would keep me alive while they stopped my heart in two days, and I knew Heavenly Father would watch over me and keep me safe,” she said. “I knew right then that President Nelson was indeed a prophet of God.”
During Saturday night’s devotional in Montreal’s Palais des congrès auditorium, Landrigan sat among the 4,000 listening to President Nelson share both gospel truths and his medical perspectives about the heart.
“I felt a love and kinship to him for not only working to keep me spiritually alive but also for his part in keeping me physically alive during my open-heart surgery,” she said. “It took everything I had to keep from running up there, giving him a hug and thanking him for saving my life.”
Saving a life or saving a soul — hers was just one of many heartfelt connections experienced by thousands of Latter-day Saints during President Nelson’s three-devotionals-in-as-many-nights trip to central and eastern Canada, with the Aug. 17-19 itinerary featuring stops in Winnipeg, Manitoba; Montreal, Quebec; and Hamilton, Ontario.
Joining President Nelson and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, were Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Kathy Andersen. Elder Randall K. Bennett — a General Authority Seventy and president of the North America Northeast Area — and his wife, Sister Shelley Bennett, participated in the final two meetings.
The trip mirrored a similar three-devotional itinerary in the Canadian province of Alberta in June. And with a two-city swing in September for similar meetings in Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada will have accounted for nearly half — or seven — of the 16 cities where such general devotionals have been held or planned so far this year, in Great Britain, Israel, Kenya, Zimbabwe, India, Hong Kong and the United States.
So why Canada?
“It could be that I’m married to a Canadian lady,” said President Nelson with a smile, mindful of Sister Nelson’s Alberta roots. “But it isn’t.” Rather, his staff thought quick, nearby international trips could be made while still handling preparations for October general conference and other currently pressing matters.
“Canada is really not that far away, and they don’t get to have leaders of the Church in some of these places quite as often as they do in the United States,” he explained. “Really, we want to get to every country, to every person. And that won’t be possible — but we’ll try.”
Seeing the prophet
Elder Bennett understood firsthand how special the devotional visits were for local Latter-day Saints. “I grew up in Canada, and my only interaction with members of the First Presidency or Quorum of the Twelve was listening to their voices on the family radio during general conference,” he said, noting the one exception was a stake conference visit by an apostle when he was 6 years old.
“The memory of seeing him and listening to him in person was deeply embedded in my soul, and I have never forgotten those two hours more than a half-century ago.”
Elder Andersen said similar lifelong impacts would result from the Winnipeg, Montreal and Hamilton experiences.
“For the Saints to see the prophet of the Lord face to face, to hear his voice and to feel his powerful spirit is beyond expression,” he said, adding specifically of the “never-to-be-forgotten” moments for the children and the youth. “They’ll always cherish that they had this privilege to see the prophet of the Lord and feel his spirit and to know that what he teaches is true.”
In several venues, the weekend devotionals coincided with stake youth conferences, providing once-in-a-lifetime endings. For example, the Montreal Quebec Mount Royal Stake conducted a tri-stake conference with the Concord New Hampshire and Montpelier Vermont stakes that ended at 4 p.m. Saturday, just in time to be shuttled for the 6 p.m. devotional at Montreal’s Palais des congrés.
“No one has ever had a better keynote speaker at the conclusion of a youth conference,” said Mount Royal Stake President Jay Glowa. “The dates for the conference were chosen prior to our knowledge of the prophet coming, a testimony to me that the Lord knows His children and organizes events in His Church to further His work.”
Testimonies of the prophet
Sister Andersen and Elder and Sister Bennett shared brief devotional messages that blended their appreciation to accompany the Nelsons on the trip, their testimonies of the prophet and key life learnings gleaned from studying President Nelson’s teachings and example.
Elder Andersen did the same in longer addresses, sharing part of his Montreal message in French. At each location, he identified himself as an eyewitness to the spirit and power of the ordination and setting apart by the Apostles of President Nelson as Church president and prophet.
“The room that day was as we read of in Acts Chapter 2 — the day of Pentecost — when it said that the whole room was filled with the Holy Ghost and the power of God was upon President Nelson like fire.”
Sister Nelson detailed watching and sensing the spirit of inspiration and divine direction work upon her husband in his seven months serving as prophet-president, a message she has shared around the world. She also testified of a unique, distinctive experience she had two days after the passing of President Thomas S. Monson regarding President Nelson’s new sacred role — “to let me know the mantle of prophet was upon him,” she said.
“Every singular detail of that event was sealed into my heart,” she added, and that experience — too sacred and personal to describe — was repeated again two days later. “I can never forget and will never deny; I can take any witness stand in any nation on earth.”
A temple city
With the Winnipeg Manitoba Temple in construction phase, President Nelson focused his message in that city on the temple — the preparation for, the ordinances of and the covenants made within. President Nelson and his traveling group making a brief stop at the temple site prior to the evening devotional.
“As temples are prepared for the people, the people need to prepare for the temple,” he said, explaining that each temple ordinance is not a route to go through but rather an act of solemn promising with God. “Covenants are not restrictive but protective; they’re not restraining but enabling and elevating.”
In the Montreal and Hamilton devotionals, he spoke for a few minutes about the importance of using the Church’s full, correct name — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — rather than falling back on oft-used and incorrect nicknames and abbreviations.
In Montreal, he listed “the 10 things I know for sure” and provided mini-sermons on each point — God is our Father, Jesus Christ is our Savior, we are created in Their image, God communicates via prophets, the scriptures are true, the Church is true, Satan is allowed to function, the youth of Zion are a chosen generation, joy comes from keeping the commandments and the Church and its members are engaged in the work of salvation and exaltation.
'I Am a Child of God'
In Hamilton, he asked the children in the crowd of 8,000 to stand and join him in waving their hands high above their heads. Once he had their attention as well as their parents, President Nelson again listed off principles and teachings that parents and leaders should provide the youngest generation.
Many of the topics were similar to his “10 items” list from Montreal, but included others such as helping to understand what it means when children sing “I Am a Child of God” and the importance of the sacrament and its two emblems, prayer, father’s blessings and strengthening the family though the charts, histories and photographs gleaned through family history work.
“These are just a few ideas that may be helpful to you as they come to me from my teacher and mentor, my Lord Jesus Christ. It’s an honor to be his servant,” President Nelson said in conclusion, adding “I feel that He wants me to give you a blessing” before pronouncing an apostolic blessing on those gathered, as he did similarly at the close of the devotionals in Winnipeg and Montreal as well.
Similar to past devotionals in Canada and across the globe, the theme of the gathering of Israel was threaded through messages from President Nelson and Elder Andersen — how not only missionary work gathers people worldwide to the Church, but how the gathering is also bringing individuals into families through temple ordinances and covenants in preparation for the Lord’s Second Coming and to be received as Heavenly Father’s own eternal family.
During the Winnipeg devotional, Elder Andersen shared an example of such a gathering, recalling the Thébault family who joined the Church in Angouleme, France, just weeks prior to his assignment there as a missionary in 1972. Armand and Annie Thébault’s 17-year-old daughter, Brigitte, who was studying away at a boarding school, struggled on her weekend returns with the family’s conversion and move from their Catholic traditions. Despite taking lessons from “the Americans,” as she called the elders, Brigitte didn’t join her family in the faith.
A year later, the Thébaults emigrated to Alberta to have the family closer to a stronger gospel environment. Brigitte's boarding-school boyfriend, Yves Noblet, followed the family to Calgary. There, the two continued to learn of the gospel together — they were baptized in March 1974, married later that summer and then sealed in the Cardston Alberta Temple the next year.
And Elder Andersen then turned and pointed out Yves and Brigitte Noblet, sitting on the rostrum a row behind the Nelsons — after their conversion more than 40 years ago, he serves as president of the Regina Saskatchewan Stake, and the two traveled six hours to Winnipeg with 80 other stake members to be present that night.
Elder Andersen detailed the multi-generational faithfulness and testimony of the Thébault and Noblet families as well as the gathering work on the other side of the veil, with family history work done by the now-88-year-old Annie Thébault that has resulted in some 26,000 names prepared for temple ordinances.
With Ontario and Alberta long recognized for their roles in early Church history, the gathering and the gospel has flourished in Montreal, which boasts both an English and a French stake, as well as Winnipeg, where a branch just 60 years go has blossomed into a stake, a mission headquarters and an under-construction temple — and a now a 2018 devotional with President Nelson, which was relished by the Manitoba and Saskatchewan members.
“It’s confirmation that we’re doing the right thing,” said Winnipeg Manitoba Stake President Joshua M. Gruninger. “Just having him in the members’ presence reaffirms their faith and reaffirms their commitment.”
Diversity in the Church
The gathering of Israel in Canada is not just among Canadians themselves, but among the immigrants and refugees that are arriving to that country from throughout the world — Europe, Africa, Asia, South America. Not just to the major metropolitan melting pots of Toronto and Montreal, but to Winnipeg as well, which has an even more open-door attitude for immigration.
President Nelson singled out the audio offerings of the Montreal devotional in four different languages — English, French, Spanish and Mandarin — and the stake choir that performed there as symbolically significant of that racial, ethnic, language and cultural diversities represented in the Church in central and eastern Canada.
One of the world’s challenges is how people can love their neighbors and be friends with those in which they have little in common, he said. “Look at the choir tonight — there was every color of the rainbow represented, and different languages, different cultures. Yet in harmony they sang — that’s very significant. It shows that the gospel is in action, bringing harmony and peace among brothers and sisters.”
On Sunday morning, Aug. 19, the visiting Church leaders attended two ward sacrament meetings before departing Montreal. The Nelsons and the Bennetts visited the Montreal Ward, an English unit, while the Andersens went to the French-speaking Longueuil Ward.
Bishop Luis Amado of the Montreal Ward said members there felt both privileged to welcome the prophet and humbled by the Nelsons’ love and personalized attention. “The Montreal Ward members were uplifted and willing to do anything to build the Kingdom of God in our area,” Bishop Amado said. “The messages from the Bennetts and the Nelsons were what our members needed to hear, and as a consequence you could feel a greater sense of love and unity in our ward.”