I’d always thought of Opapo as my grandfather—a man of faith; a hard worker; and very much loved, of course. But I had to grow up before I realized that he was not just my grandfather. He was a man who occupied a significant position during a historically important time.
Not much is known about his early life in Fogatuli, Savaii, the village in Samoa where he was born in 1859. Even in a poor land, Fogatuli was a poor village; and Opapo’s family had an especially difficult handicap to overcome. The mother, Malia Toa, belonged to a prominent family in Fogatuli, but the father, known only as Fonoimoana, was a stranger from Uvea (now Wallis Island, about five hundred miles to the west) who had been caught by a storm and driven ashore. Of Tongan ancestry, Fonoimoana was regarded all his life with slight suspicion in that village.
The first significant event in Opapo’s life was a dream he had as a young man. In it, he saw two foreign missionaries come into his village, walk directly to his fale (hut), and sit down. That’s where the dream ended; but when two Latter-day Saint missionaries entered his house a few years later, he recognized them as the men in his dream, and the Spirit strongly confirmed to him that their message was true.
The stage was set for this man to do a great work among his Samoan people.
The records show that he and his wife, Toai, were baptized in 1890, two years after the Samoan Mission was opened. By 1890 the Samoans were already familiar with the tenets of Christianity. The London Missionary Society had begun proselyting in 1830, followed by the Catholics and the Methodists soon afterwards. Blessed with a deep faith in the Savior, the people were familiar with spiritual gifts and miracles. But as my grandfather embraced the gospel and joined this struggling little church, the signs promised to the believers in Christ began to follow him in an extraordinary way, even among those faithful people.
Ironically, there was bitter hostility between the groups who claimed to worship the Savior and love him. Mormons bore persecution and ridicule and were even nicknamed “cowboys” because Joseph Smith had grown up on a farm. Through it all, Opapo was fearless and faithful, recognized as a leader among the Latter-day Saints.
In 1904, he and a few others founded a settlement called Sauniatu (“Preparing to Go Forward”), a small sanctuary for the Saints in the mountains of Upolu. Shortly after the first chapel was built, the small cooking house behind it caught on fire and, despite the efforts of the people to carry water from the fiver, the fire spread rapidly, endangering the chapel itself. Then people noticed that Opapo had climbed atop the chapel and sat astride its roofbeam. Raising his right arm, he looked to heaven and said, “Father, we can spare the small house, but we cannot spare the big one. In the name of Jesus Christ and by the power of the holy priesthood, I command the wind to change.”
It did; the small house collapsed, and the chapel was saved. Not only was the chapel spared, but the Sauniatu Saints’ faith was strengthened at a very difficult time.
Blessed also with the gift of prophecy, he touched the lives of many. On one occasion, he returned from a three-month trip to another island and saw preparations for a fiafia (celebration) in progress to celebrate the marriage of a young man and a young woman. As he interviewed the young woman, he suddenly told her, without any other explanation, that if she married the young man, she would soon be saddened. Trusting Opapo, she cancelled the wedding. Within a few weeks, the young man died.
Opapo and Toai were not spared personal trials. Eleven of their fourteen children died before adulthood. However, through it all they seemed to increase in humility, prayerfulness, and industry. Opapo reserved 5:00 A.M. and 5:00 P.M. for prayer, but frequently prayed at other times as well. And he always provided, not only for his own family, but also for others, especially widows and the fatherless.
He also served several missionary assignments, accompanying American missionaries to other areas for proselyting. On one of these journeys, Opapo, his long-time friend Elisala, and one of two American missionaries went to the island of Manu’a. Upon arriving they found that the local king, Tuimanu’a, had forbidden anyone from receiving or assisting the Latter-day Saints in any way—upon pain of immediate stoning. However, the missionaries were determined to succeed and stayed for two months, eating fallen coconuts from the beaches and sleeping each night in holes. They covered their heads with leaves to protect themselves from the mosquitoes, each one taking a turn nightly to help the others arrange their leaves and then, unassisted himself, suffering from bites the rest of the night.
After several weeks of this grueling ordeal, Opapo was awakened by the smell of some freshly baked food in a nearby basket. The missionaries did not know whether to attribute it to human or divine agency; but after weeks of coconuts, they were profoundly grateful. Near the end of their stay the incident was repeated when an elderly woman brought them some food, saying that if she had to die for her kindness, she would, but she did not fear Tuimanu’a.
A few weeks later, after exhausting every possible avenue, the missionaries prepared to depart. Ceremonially, Opapo and Elisala spoke directly to Tuimanu’a and his people, warning them that they would feel the wrath and power of God if they did not repent. As his last act before boarding the longboat, Opapo paused at the edge of the village and dusted off his feet as a witness against the island. A couple of weeks later a devastating hurricane struck the island, killing many, destroying all of the crops above ground, and leveling every house except one—the falé in which lived the elderly lady who had helped the missionaries.
It is true that miracles strengthen the faith of believers but do not necessarily give faith to the unbelieving. It was not until 1974 that a branch was actually organized in Manu’a. On the other hand, the Saints to whom Opapo returned heard of the incident and increased in faithfulness.
Soon afterward, Opapo and Toai moved their family from Sauniatu to the island of Tutuila, in preparation for eventually moving to Hawaii to join the Saints there. Persecution was particularly acute in Tutuila, and it caused Opapo much sorrow though it never shook his faith. On one occasion, he and Pinemua Soliai, a good friend, were walking towards Pago Pago and hailed a passing bus. It stopped for them, but as they neared it, the driver, recognizing them as Mormon missionaries, suddenly pressed on his accelerator and left them standing in the dust. Brother Soliai ruefully commented to Opapo, “Well, it’s going to take us a long time to get up to town now.” Sadly, Opapo said, “No, we’ll get to town before he does.” A mile later they came upon the scene of an accident. The bus had collided head-on with a truck and the bus driver had been killed.
Brother Soliai and his family were the only Latter-day Saints in their village of Nuuuli on Tutuila. On one occasion, he asked Opapo to come bless his children, his house, and his property. Present on that occasion was a wealthy nonmember widow, Salataima Puailoa, who was deeply troubled because her husband’s family was taking steps to deprive her of the land she had inherited from him. Impressed by the blessings, she requested one herself; but Opapo was reluctant because she was not a member.
She investigated the Church and was baptized, then came to him again and requested the blessing. In it, Opapo promised that she would receive the land without any hindrance from her husband’s relatives and that she would, if she were faithful, be an instrument in the Lord’s hands to further the work of the Church in American Samoa.
In the early 1950s, that blessing was fulfilled. The Church purchased some of her property and on it built a high school, faculty housing, a large welfare farm, and a stake center.
In 1926, Opapo and Toia sent my father, Teila, to Hawaii to prepare for their arrival. Two years later, the Church called my grandparents to come and do temple work for Samoans in the Hawaii Temple. In 1935, my grandmother died of pneumonia at the age of seventy. She was buried in Laie after a lifetime of generous and faithful support of the Church and of her husband.
Like Toia, Opapo died of pneumonia near his eighty-first birthday and was buried beside her.
I did not know my grandfather, but I have an increasing appreciation that I am his grandson. Because of his faith, my faith is stronger. The gifts he exhibited testified to his Samoan people, at a crucial time in the history of the Church in those islands, that the gospel is true, that the priesthood represents the power of God, and that the plan of salvation truly describes the pathway we must follow. Not only his family but all of the Saints in the Church can be heirs to the legacy of blessings he left.