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How the Port Vila temple groundbreaking was particularly poignant for this Vanuatuan family

Ni-Vanuatu Latter-day Saint Mariella Kaun sought to bring temple blessings to her people

The Port Vila Vanuatu Temple groundbreaking was a joyful event for thousands of Latter-day Saints in Vanuatu, but for one family, the event — and the potential eternal blessings it represents — was especially meaningful.

Bishop Katimal C. Kaun and his wife, Mariella Kaun, prayed for many years for the blessing of a temple for their island home.

The native Vanuatuans, or Ni-Vanuatu, rejoiced when in October 2020 general conference, President Russell M. Nelson announced a temple for Port Vila, the capital city of the archipelago of 13 principal islands and some 70 smaller ones.

Bishop Kaun, who is bishop of the Port Vila 3rd Ward in the Port Vila Vanuatu Stake, keeps on his desk in his office a framed letter asking him and Mariella Kaun to be on the temple groundbreaking committee.

On April 8, Bishop Kaun and daughter Katalyna Kaun Tiasinmal attended the ceremony where Elder K. Brett Nattress, a General Authority Seventy and president of the Church’s Pacific Area, dedicated the site, signaling the start of construction.

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A photo of Bishop Katimal Kaun and his daughter Katalyna Kaun Tiasinmal in Port Vila, Efate, Vanuatu, in October 2022. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Toward the end of the event, Bishop Kaun and Tiasinmal posed for a photo in front of the large framed rendering of the future Port Vila Vanuatu Temple. In her arms, Tiasinmal held a photo of her mother, Mariella Kaun, who died last year of cancer at age 48.

Tiasinmal told the Church’s Pacific Newsroom, “My mother had a deep connection with the temple. During her final days she talked about it all day long, including the day she passed.”

Fluent in three languages — French, Bislama and English — Mariella Kaun translated Church materials, including conference talks and the scriptures, and was working on temple translation projects to make the ordinances accessible to her people.

“Of all the translation she did, my mother loved the temple projects the most,” Tiasinmal noted.

Elder K. Brett Nattress gives the president of Vanuatu, His Excellency Nikenike Vurobaravu, with a “Christus” statuette, as they shake hands following the Port Vila Vanuatu Temple groundbreaking ceremony held on Saturday, April 8, 2023.
Elder K. Brett Nattress gives the president of Vanuatu, Nikenike Vurobaravu, a Christus statuette as they shake hands following the Port Vila Vanuatu Temple groundbreaking ceremony on Saturday, April 8, 2023. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Mariella Kaun was loved and appreciated by many in Vanuatu and the Pacific, including thousands of young adults. 

With educational opportunities in Vanuatu being sparse and expensive, Mariella Kaun assisted young people to understand educational options and how to access them. She translated documents, helped young people apply for scholarships and grants, and even helped them enroll in Church colleges and universities, including Brigham Young University–Hawaii.

As a term of endearment, many of those she helped referred to her as “Aunty Mariella.” It was common for her to travel to the outer islands at her own expense to help some youth.

“She could see the potential in each young person,” Bishop Kaun remarked.

Dean Westerlund, the Pacific Area education manager for the Church, estimates she changed the course of more than 3,000 young Ni-Vanuatu lives through her service.

At the groundbreaking, Westerlund reflected on Mariella Kaun’s legacy and noted that her long vision for each individual included helping them worship in the temple. “Her main goal for every young person she helped into a school in another country was to get them to one in close proximity to a temple so they could attend and bring the Spirit of the Lord they found in the temple back to Vanuatu with them and become leaders in the Church,” Westerlund said.

Mariella Kaun celebrates with Lionel Patterson Lui as he receives his mission assignment in 2021 in Port Vila, Efate, Vanuatu. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Lionel Patterson Lui, one of the young people she advised, also attended the temple groundbreaking. “She was a great support to me. It hurt when she passed away. She was a mentor who encouraged me to go and do my best,” Lui told Pacific Newsroom. “She helped me and all the kids my age to get an education and to be self-reliant and to be strong in our faith. She helped me to understand the importance of temple worship. I know she was at the temple grounds with us, I could feel her there.”

Bishop Kaun also said he felt his wife close, rejoicing with him from the other side of the veil during the sacred event. “It was so wonderful, so lovely to feel her there.”

Although he has felt “terrible loneliness” since her death, Bishop Kaun said: “I know that Mariella is on the other side watching over us, and I am blessed by that knowledge. Our temple covenants matter.”

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