The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a vital force in the lives of its members in Central America.
In an area that is uncommonly rich in colorful contrasts, one finds branches in remote village areas of the mountains of Guatemala; on tropical islands off the coast of Panama; and in the bustling cities of Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Nicaragua. And Guatemala City now has a stake of some 6,000 members.
To understand better the peoples of these countries, it helps to know something of their lands, which include high mountain ranges and great deserts, snow-capped peaks and tropical islands, great rivers and tiny streams, beautiful lakes and thundering waterfalls, and the coasts of two great oceans—the Pacific and the Atlantic.
Distinctive contrasts can also be noted in the people themselves. Many are Indians with a fierce dedication to ancient traditions; some are of pure Spanish ancestry; and the major portion of the population represents a fusion of these two bloodlines.
About two-thirds of the people in Central America work on farms, ranches, or plantations. In recent years a middle class consisting of doctors, lawyers, merchants, and other professionally trained people has begun to emerge.
The Maya Indians of Central America built the earliest-known civilization in the Western Hemisphere, erecting large cities and huge pyramids and temples. Today remnants of this culture are found in the great ruins, tribute to the memory of superior but vanished people.
Into this array of colorful contrasts, in accordance with prophecy and its fulfillment, the Holy Spirit touches the heart of man.
The beginnings of the modern-day influence of the Church in Central America go back just a little over three decades.
In 1935, while living in Colonia Juarez, Mexico, an eighteen-year-old Latter-day Saint, born in the United States of parents who had been expelled from Mexico during the Mexican revolution, received a patriarchal blessing with the promise that one day he would perform a great work among the Lamanite people in countries farther south.
Six years later, while this young man, John (Juan) O’Donnal, was finishing his studies at the University of Arizona, one of his professors was asked to recommend someone to go to Central America to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture on an experimental rubber plantation. Brother O’Donnal was recommended, and he accepted the appointment.
He noted in Guatemala that the country was blessed with natural resources and climate and with inhabitants who seemed to be dissatisfied with their present religion and were looking for a way of life that would give them greater satisfaction.
Brother O’Donnal preached the gospel wherever and whenever the opportunity presented itself, but he could see that full-time missionaries were needed. In September 1946, Arwell Pierce, president of the Mexico Mission, visited Central America for the express purpose of investigating the possibility of sending missionaries to the various countries in Central America. In December of that same year, Brother O’Donnal, with the definite impression that thousands of people there were anxious to hear the gospel message, visited Church headquarters in Salt Lake City and suggested to President George Albert Smith that missionaries be sent to Central America.
Just a few months later, in the summer of 1947, the countries of Central America were added to the Mexico Mission, and four missionaries were sent to Guatemala and Costa Rica to officially begin a missionary program.
In September 1947, President Pierce, Brother O’Donnal, and several missionaries met with government officials in Guatemala to briefly explain the purpose of the Church and to present copies of the Book of Mormon to them. And on Sunday morning, September 7, 1947, the Latter-day Saints climbed to the summit of a hill overlooking Guatemala City and held the first sacrament and testimony meeting in that country.
On November 13, 1948, at the bottom of one of those steep, deep, narrow canyons called barrancas, in a private swimming pool surrounded by tropical greenery, the first baptisms were performed in Guatemala. Brother O’Donnal baptized his wife, Carmen, and three other baptisms were performed by Elders Melvin E. Olson and Charles C. Welling.
By 1952 the mission had been staffed with twelve full-time missionaries, and locations had been found and appropriations approved for chapels in San Jose, Costa Rica, and in Guatemala City, established as the mission headquarters.
On November 16, 1952, Elder Spencer W. Kimball offered the dedicatory prayer for the creation of the Central America Mission, in which he uttered the following promises:
“… Bless, we pray thee, the missionary work in all the world, but today we ask thy special blessings upon the Lamanite cause and ask that the seed of Lehi in these Central American countries and the gentiles among them may see and hear and understand and have the courage and fortitude to accept and live the exalting program of thy divine gospel. Let stony hearts be turned into hearts of flesh. Let repentance come in great measure. Let them accept the revealed word as parched and thirsty lands drink in the rains of heaven.
“Bless the missionaries and the Saints that great power be given, that their devotion may increase, that their labors may be fruitful, their testimonies convincing, that this great people may be converted and be healed.”
Missionaries have been welcome and well received in all the countries of Central America. Early in their endeavors they became known as the “young men of strange aspect who always go in pairs, always dress in suits and ties, carry a book under their arm, and what is even more singular, always wear look-alike hats.” The truth was that these hats were all of a special style and were always worn by the missionaries because of a mission rule.
President Gordon M. Romney (1952–1955) was the first president of the Central America Mission. Succeeding presidents have included Edgar L. Wagner (1955–1959), Victor C. Hancock (1959–1962), Leslie O. Brewer (1962–1964), Terrence L. Hansen (1964–1967), David G. Clark (1967–1970), and the current president, Harvey S. Glade (1970– ).
On August 1, 1965, the Central America Mission was divided. The new mission was called the Guatemala-El Salvador Mission, with headquarters still in Guatemala City. The Central America Mission established new headquarters in San Jose, Costa Rica. Venezuela was added to the jurisdiction of this mission and missionaries were formally assigned to labor there. Teddy Eugene Brewerton (1965–1968) was the first president of this new mission; serving after him have been Milton E. Smith (1968–1971), and currently Quinten Hunsaker (1971– ).
Venezuela was divided from the Central America Mission on July 1, 1968, and combined with a portion of the Andes Mission, Colombia, to form the new Colombia-Venezuela Mission. Stephen L. Brower was called to be the first president of that mission.
With so many members worthy to receive their temple endowments, in 1965 permission was obtained from the First Presidency to schedule a temple excursion to the Arizona Temple for the Saints from the Guatemala-El Salvador Mission. Ninety-two members arrived by bus on November 5, 1965. This has become an annual temple excursion.
The first stake in Central America was organized on May 21, 1967, when President Marion G. Romney, then of the Council of the Twelve, assisted by President A. Theodore Tuttle of the First Council of the Seventy, organized the Guatemala City Stake, which included six wards.
Early in 1967 two missionaries knocked on the door of Edgar Juan Aparicio, a former ambassador from Guatemala to both Spain and Mexico. He greeted them and expressed interest in having an audience with the mission president about genealogy. He had used the records filmed by the Church in Mexico and had obtained some vital information regarding his own family line. He was so impressed by this valuable work in the preservation of records that he hoped the Church might be persuaded to go into Guatemala and begin the work there.
As a consequence, on February 1, 1969, the Church began microfilming from the general archives in Guatemala old colonial documents of genealogical value for all of Central America. Permission has also been granted to microfilm the civil registry in most of the 316 municipalities of Guatemala.
In 1965 early-morning seminary classes were begun in two of the branches in Guatemala City, and in 1971 the home-study seminary program was introduced there. More than 800 students from sixty-four branches and five wards were initially enrolled. This year approximately 11,000 students in Guatemala and El Salvador are participating in the program, which is now being introduced in Costa Rica and Panama. As a result of this program, many converts have been made, part-member families have been united in the gospel, and young people who might not otherwise have been missionaries are presently serving in that capacity.
This year the countries of Central America are noting the twenty-fifth anniversary of the arrival of the first missionaries there. There are now two missions and a stake, and the way has truly been opened for the Lord’s work. In Guatemala and El Salvador eight chapels are now in use, six are under construction, and several others are being planned.
Membership of the Guatemala-El Salvador Mission in March 1972 was 23,404, with approximately 6,000 in the Guatemala City Stake.
The Central America Mission has at the present time approximately 9,500 members. Eight chapels are now in use; property has been purchased in four cities, and plans have been made to begin construction on three of the sites before the end of the year. Additional land is being negotiated for two new chapels in San Jose, Costa Rica, one of which is anticipated to serve as the future stake center.
Future progress and growth in Central America are unlimited. These countries, so richly endowed with natural resources, a beneficent climate, and a great people, are beginning to enjoy the full blessings of the gospel, which is meant to bless the lives of all who will believe and obey.