Thanksgiving Has Deepened Meaning for Mormons in St. Thomas after Hurricane Irma

Contributed By Jason Swensen, Church News staff writer

  • 23 November 2017

Members of the St. Thomas Branch gather for a recent sacrament meeting at the home of branch president Steven Richards. The branch’s meetinghouse was severely damaged during Hurricane Irma and is closed until it can be repaired. Photo courtesy of Steven Richards.

ST. THOMAS, U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS

Like legions of other Americans, Steven Richards headed to the market Tuesday in hopes of finding that perfect holiday turkey.

There’s little else that will be traditional this Thanksgiving for Richards, his islander neighbors, or his friends in the Mormon branch over which he presides.

“I hope I can find a turkey,” he told the Church News as he made his way to the grocery store. “But if not, I’ll find something else for Thanksgiving.”

That “come-what-may” attitude has helped sustain President Richards and the 20 or so Latter-day Saints who have remained in St. Thomas after the Caribbean island was ravaged by Hurricane Irma more than two months ago.

Puerto Rico’s painful recovery from Hurricane Maria snags most of the day’s headlines. But for residents of St. Thomas and other regions of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Irma remains, well, a four-letter word.

Counted among those severely affected by Irma were several Mormons. Two members of the St. Thomas Branch lost their residences. One man’s home was destroyed. The other man, who lived on a sailboat, could not save his nautical abode.

Members of the St. Thomas Branch greet one another prior to Sabbath day services at the home of branch president Steven Richards. The home has functioned as the headquarters of the Church after Hurricane Irma severely damaged the island’s Mormon meetinghouse. Photo courtesy of Steven Richards.

Bishop Dean M. Davies, First Counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, offers comfort and counsel to members of the St. Thomas Branch. Their island was severely damaged by Hurricane Irma.

President Richards says he counts himself among the lucky residents of the island. His home escaped significant damage. But make no mistake; Hurricane Irma has redefined his “new normal.”

His home is still without electrical power, so he fires up a gas-powered generator for a few hours each day.

“It’s just enough to keep the fridge cool.”

But living without reliable electricity is far easier than living without his family, admitted President Richards. His wife, Kim, and their three children who were still living at home have relocated to Salt Lake City during the island’s recovery so the kids can go to school.

“Spending Thanksgiving without my wife and kids is going to be different,” he said softly.

But he’s quick to add he won’t be spending the holiday alone. Some folks from the branch will be joining him for Thanksgiving, “and we’ll have a nice meal.”

Since Hurricane Irma, President Richards’s home has doubled as a shelter for several displaced members—and as the island’s unofficial Church headquarters.

The branch meetinghouse suffered significant roof and interior water damage during the storm. It’s closed until repairs are made. So each Sunday, about 20 branch members squeeze into President Richards’s home for Sabbath meetings.

The branch first meets together for sacrament meeting. Then, for the second hour, the Primary children remain in the front room while the adults move outside to the porch for Sunday School lessons.

As with Puerto Rico, the recovery effort in St. Thomas is a slow process. Power lines and poles remain strewn across some regions of the island. And blue tarp stretched across tattered roofs remains a common sight.

“But things are improving,” said President Richards. “Stores are reopening, and the leaves are returning to the trees.”

And on this unusual Thanksgiving, the island’s presiding Mormon authority insists he has much to be thankful for.

“I’m thankful for my life. I’m thankful for my safety. And I’m thankful my family is okay.”

A few days after Hurricane Irma raged across the Caribbean, President Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency visited with members of the St. Thomas Branch in their storm-damaged meetinghouse. (See related story.)

President Richards said he and others from the St. Thomas Branch will think back on President Eyring’s words as they sit down together Thursday and enjoy Thanksgiving. They’re grateful for his counsel shared at a moment of great difficulty. He promised them they would be strengthened if they chose to remain faithful.

“I remember President Eyring speaking to those of us who would be separated from our families,” he said. “He said, ‘Just know that Heavenly Father has you in mind and you are exactly where you need to be.’”

President Henry B. Eyring flew into St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, on September 15 to meet with and comfort Latter-day Saints and survey the damage caused on the island by Hurricane Irma.

The roof of the St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, LDS meetinghouse suffered significant damage during Hurricane Irma. Photo courtesy of Steven Richards.