BAYAMÓN, Puerto Rico — As the coquí frogs’ songs filled the night air outside, the sound of excited voices filled the upstairs meeting room of the Bayamón chapel in this suburb of San Juan.
More than 75 people were hugging and laughing — and at times wiping away tears — as they reunited with fellow Puerto Rican pioneers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Friday, Jan. 13.
“I feel just a lot of emotion,” said Mayra Irizarry Hanks. “It’s unreal, it’s unreal.”
Hanks grew up in Cabo Rojo in the southwest part of the island, and her family became some of the first Church members in Puerto Rico. The new San Juan Puerto Rico Temple — to be dedicated Sunday, Jan. 15 — is a fulfillment of many hopes, dreams and prayers for the Puerto Rican people.
“They are humble people, but they are strong,” Hanks said. “They know even though you go through difficult times, there’s always sunshine at the end — a hope it will be better tomorrow.”
Despite terrible hardships even just in the past five years — Hurricane Maria, two earthquakes, the COVID-19 pandemic and Hurricane Fiona — the Saints have persevered and have cause to celebrate the blessings they know will come to their island now that a temple has been built.
“This is really a celebration,” Hanks said, gesturing to those around her who were taking pictures with each other and reminiscing about mutual friends and memories.
A wooden chapel
At one point in the evening, people stood to share two of the most important things in their lives: the day of their baptisms and their testimonies of the gospel.
Many in the room were first- and second-generation members of the Church in Puerto Rico, being baptized in the 1960s and ‘70s. The history of the Church here goes back to the 1940s, when Latter-day Saint members of the military met together at Ramey Base. The first missionaries from what was then the Florida Mission arrived in the early 1960s.
Jeff Jiménez remembered attending Primary at a wooden chapel at the U.S. military base in Fort Buchanan in the 1960s.
“The meeting was held in English only, making it difficult for me to understand the lessons at that early age,” he said. “Previously, missionaries would teach the lessons only in English, but we rejoiced when Spanish-speaking missionaries started arriving on the island.”
When the missionaries gave Nivea Rebecca Fraticelli a copy of the Book of Mormon in 1963, she could not put it down for hours. In a matter of months, she was baptized at Escambron Beach in Old San Juan, becoming one of the first native Puerto Ricans to join the Church.
She still has that large copy of the Book of Mormon, proudly displaying it at Friday night’s gathering in Bayamón — though she almost lost it when a hurricane’s heavy rains flooded her home in Aguas Buenas in 1979.
Fraticelli knew practically everyone in the room, having watched the gospel grow on her island to now include more than 23,000 members in five stakes.
Jiménez has witnessed the steady growth of the Church through the decades, with more chapels being built and new stakes forming. And in a compilation Fraticelli made of the history of the Church in Puerto Rico from 1950 to 2000, she wrote, “Thanks to the faith of those first members in Puerto Rico, today we have a chapel in almost all the municipalities and in many of the islands in the sea.”
And now they have a temple.
Dorany Rodriquez-Baltazar organized Friday’s gathering. She knew many Puerto Ricans and missionaries would return to the island for the temple dedication. She was born and raised in Puerto Rico and now lives in South Jordan, Utah.
Her mother was baptized when Rodriquez-Baltazar was a baby; it took her father 30 more years to be baptized. Rodriquez-Baltazar knows what it is like to wait upon the Lord.
“I had an impression,” she said, “wouldn’t it be awesome to meet with some of the pioneers and people who prayed for this temple for so long?”
Maria Gonzalez Hanson also grew up in Puerto Rico and now lives in Windermere, Florida, returning for the temple dedication and joining with friends at the gathering.
“I had faith we would have a temple but I didn’t know when,” she said. When Hurricane Maria hit Sept. 20, 2017, Hanson did not hear from her brother on the island for three days. Finally she learned he was fine.
Her family’s gospel roots reach back to the early 1970s, which she called “a big boom at that time” for Ponce, on the south side of the island. She said the temple in San Juan will create more growth for the Church and bless the people.
“As they go to the temple and make covenants, and the kids go to the baptisms and do the work for their ancestors, it will strengthen their faith and hopefully will make their conversion even stronger,” Hanson said.
Seeing the temple will remind them to attend more often, she said. The San Juan temple is the third in the Caribbean; dedicated temples are also in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Puerto Rico and the surrounding islands were in the Santo Domingo temple district before now — a long distance across the sea.
Paul Barney from Bentonville, Arkansas, lived in Puerto Rico during his high school years from 1980 to 1983 when his parents were mission leaders. He then was called to the island for his own full-time mission a year later and now returns for work two to three times a year. He greeted many dear friends at the gathering.
“I have so many good memories, and it’s so fun to see how the Church has grown,” Barney said. “There have been some challenges, and the hurricane [Maria] was devastating for so many of those people, but they’re such good people. They’re good, humble and happy. I’m honored to be back here.”
Rodriquez-Baltazar described a tender feeling of love and brotherhood in the room, even among people she had never met before.
“It’s crazy to know that we are from this little island. And all these people believe the same thing that you do, and they have the same faith that you do, and they pray for the same things that you do.”
Said Fraticelli: “With faith and perseverance, you and I can make a difference in the gospel, even if you are the only member in your family or a descendant of many generations.”