New Caledonians have several names for their South Pacific island home. The native inhabitants know it as Kanaky (home of the humans). When the French colonized New Caledonia’s largest island in the 19th century, they called it Grande Terre (great earth). Today, locals sometimes refer to Grande Terre as Le Caillou (the rock) or Ile de Lumiere (island of light). The names all fit, especially for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who are basking in the light of the restored gospel and building lives upon the rock of Jesus Christ.
New Caledonia is part of Melanesia, an area of the South Pacific stretching from New Guinea to Fiji. It is bordered on the north by Micronesia and on the east by Polynesia. New Caledonia itself sits solidly in the Pacific, more than 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) east of Australia. Most of the population live on Grande Terre, in Nouméa, New Caledonia’s capital city. Since New Caledonia is a territory of France, French is the official language.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is relatively young in New Caledonia. Unlike French Polynesia, which was reached by LDS missionaries in 1844, New Caledonia was introduced to the Church only a few decades ago when Polynesian members came to Nouméa to work. Among them was a young Tahitian named Teahumanu Manoï. His story, and how he came to be New Caledonia’s first district president, is also the story of the Church’s beginnings there. His successors—first Ricardo Gaya, a European, and now Abel Seiko, a Melanesian—represent the next chapters.
Teahumanu Manoï joined the Church in Tahiti on 24 May 1954, the same day he was married. In fact, his wife, Térotí, would not have married him if he had not been a member. Her parents were members, and she was baptized at age eight. Determined not to marry unless it was to another Church member, Térotí worked hard to convince Teahumanu to investigate the Church.
Brother Manoï resisted at first because his father was president of the Protestant church in Tahiti, but he loved Térotí and began reading some material she gave him. His conversion came when he read in the Doctrine and Covenants about tithing. An unpaid clergy leading a congregation that supported their church through the payment of tithes seemed to Teahumanu much more Christlike than what he saw in other churches. “Christ’s service was free,” he observed. “So why shouldn’t the service of His servants also be free?”
But like many new converts, Teahumanu saw the gospel light he had received dim as worldly pressures overshadowed his initial commitment. In 1957, after Brother Manoï brought his family to Nouméa to look for work, he started to smoke and drink. Térotí would have none of it and returned to her parents in Tahiti. Teahumanu followed her—with some trepidation. When they were married, Térotí’s father had told him, “I’m giving her to you as a trust. If she ever comes back to me, watch out!” Teahumanu asked both Térotí and her father for forgiveness and promised to give up his bad habits forever. He has kept that promise.
The Manoïs returned to Nouméa in 1959, and two years later, in 1961, the Nouméa Branch was organized. Brother Manoï was called to be its president.
In the beginning, there were only five families in the branch, and they met in President Manoï’s home. Meetings eventually moved to a theater, then to another (where classrooms were created by pushing boxes of beer and soft drinks together), and then to a Chinese restaurant.
“The branch was my heart,” Brother Manoï says. “But where we met was not good. During our meetings, people were either lining up to go to a movie, or the proprietor was banging whiskey bottles around. We needed a chapel of our own.” Land for a chapel was finally purchased in 1970.
The first glimmerings of the changes ahead came in 1968. That year Elder Thomas S. Monson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles dedicated New Caledonia for the preaching of the gospel, and the first missionaries to serve there, Harold and Jeannine Richards, arrived. Their first convert was 13-year-old Etienne Sun. Other missionaries and other converts followed, and in 1976 the branch in Nouméa was split to become two. That same year, a district was created for New Caledonia as part of the Fiji Suva Mission. Brother Manoï was called to serve as the first district president.
While President Manoï was busy overseeing the construction of the long-anticipated Magenta chapel (in 1971) and the creation of a third branch in Nouméa (in 1978), his future successor as district president was being introduced to the Church—and to Church leadership. Ricardo Gaya is not a native of New Caledonia, nor of any island in the Pacific. He was born in France, the son of Spanish parents who emigrated from Spain after the Spanish Civil War. World War II convinced them to leave Europe permanently, so they took their family to Australia for three years, then to French-speaking New Caledonia.
Anita Gaya’s family has lived on New Caledonia for three generations. She and Ricardo met at a party and were married in 1968. Three years later, LDS missionaries contacted Anita’s mother, Gabrielle Laigle. She invited her two daughters, Anita and Armelle, to join her in listening to the discussions. At the time, Ricardo wasn’t interested; he was too busy with his job and his position as goalkeeper and captain of his soccer team.
Sister Laigle and Anita were baptized in 1971 on 23 October, Anita’s birthday. Anita became so excited about the Church that Ricardo knew something important had happened to her. And so when she asked him to listen to the missionary lessons, he consented. He was baptized in January 1972, along with his sister-in-law Armelle Aparisi. Armelle’s husband, Miguel, was baptized the next day, and a few months later his brother and sister-in-law, François and Madeleine Guerrera, joined the Church.
“The message the missionaries gave us was like an echo,” Sister Gaya says. “The way they described the Church is the way I had always imagined the Lord’s Church should be. I felt at home.”
Brother Gaya felt the same way. “For me, it was so simple. The Church was what I had always been waiting for. When the missionaries talked to us about tithing, I said, ‘Why not? If it’s a commandment of God, we will do it.’ Don’t drink alcohol—it wasn’t difficult to quit.”
What was difficult for Brother Gaya to change was playing soccer on Sunday. For him, this was a real sacrifice. As captain of Association Sportive Le Nickel-SLN, he felt responsible to his teammates to be available for every game—and in New Caledonia, practices for the high level of soccer he played are held only on Sunday. He was an excellent player and had been the national soccer team goalkeeper for 10 years. It became clear, however, when he was called to be a counselor to the branch president that it would be impossible to continue competing on that high level. “I couldn’t follow two roads,” he says. Refusing to let soccer compete with his duties to the Lord, he abandoned competition and made soccer a hobby only.
On 3 March 1973, Ricardo, Anita, and their two children, accompanied by Anita’s mother, became the first to travel from New Caledonia to New Zealand to be sealed in the temple for time and eternity.
In 1974, Brother Gaya was asked to work at his company’s headquarters in Paris, France. “The five years we were there were very enriching on a spiritual level,” he says. While there, he was called as bishop of the Versailles Ward and served for nine months until his company reassigned him to New Caledonia. Less than two years after his return, he was called as district president in May 1981. He served in that position almost 16 years.
In some ways, President Gaya’s administration marked a transition for the Church in New Caledonia. Greater numbers of people joined the Church, and as the Church gained in strength it also gained in maturity, becoming more capable of serving the different cultural groups there. By the time President Gaya was released in November 1996, there were five branches in the district: four in Nouméa and another in Tontouta, some 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Nouméa. Two of the branches were organized specifically to serve Polynesian members.
During this time, Brother Gaya was assisted by some faithful counselors, one of whom, Jacques de Geoffroy, served with him for 15 years. Brother de Geoffroy’s heritage—a mix of European, Melanesian, and Indonesian—reflects the varied cultures that make up New Caledonia and became a valuable asset in reaching out to new and longtime members alike. Another counselor, called in 1995, was Abel Seiko, a native Melanesian. The calling prepared Brother Seiko to become district president when President Gaya was released.
“During the second half of the 1980s and now the 1990s, greater numbers of Melanesians have joined the Church,” Brother Gaya says. “Where once we had a total of 20 or 30 baptisms a year, we now have 80 or 90, and most are Melanesians. I believe this is their time to accept the gospel. That is why we have Brother Seiko now as our district president. He has a great job to do with the Melanesians.”
Abel Seiko was born on Lifou but was living in Nouméa when the missionaries knocked on his door. He and his future wife, Louise, listened to the discussions for two months and decided to be baptized. However, they faced two serious obstacles. In Melanesia, the tribe is considered an extension of one’s family, and all major decisions must be approved by a person’s parents and tribal chiefs. Abel and Louise had not received permission to marry.
The second problem was perhaps even more difficult. Protestant missionaries from London had come to Lifou in 1842, and Abel’s tribe had been members of that religion ever since. Changing religions was tantamount to rejecting the tribe.
Still, Abel had received a testimony. He knew he needed to join the Lord’s Church, and he knew he needed to be married. He gathered his courage and went to Lifou to ask permission of his parents and tribe.
“I first asked permission from my father to marry. He said: ‘No. That is not the custom. You must wait until your oldest brother is married.’
“I said: ‘I can’t wait, because I know I’m not living the law of God, and I want to join the true Church.’
“My father said: ‘I will not give my permission, but you’re free to do as you want. If you decide to marry, I will not go to the wedding.’”
When Abel met with the tribal elders, he felt he was on trial. They told him not to be married or baptized into another church. Abel’s response was that he had received permission from his parents to do as he wished. And he wished to be married and join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
That was when the tribal elders asked for a big piece of wood with which to beat him. Fortunately, the high chief arrived before the beating began. “No one will be hurt here,” Abel recalls him saying. “But we don’t want another religion in our tribe. If you want to join another religion, you’re out of the tribe.”
So Abel returned to Nouméa and was married. He and Louise were baptized in 1977. But the tribal bond is very strong. Abel discovered just how strong when, a year after joining the Church, he says, “My heart began to yearn for my parents and my tribe.” He took his family back to Lifou. With no branch of the Church there, he lost contact with his new religion for six years.
Brother Seiko remembers: “During those six years, I didn’t have a good job, and I had problems with my wife. Nothing was going as I wanted it to. Then, after a big argument, Louise left for Nouméa. She knew it wasn’t good to be away from the Church. I was alone on the island. After she left, I went to my house and prayed all night to have the Spirit again.”
A few days later, Brother Seiko had his answer. Before he could have the peace he wanted, he had to go back to church. “I knew the Church was true,” he says, “and I knew I needed to repent. From then on, my goal has been to work for the Lord all the time.”
And work he has. In the years since, he has served as a Primary teacher, president of the elders quorum, counselor in two branch presidencies, branch president, high councilor, counselor in the district presidency, and now district president. His goal as district president is to see the district become a stake.
“The Melanesians are faithful, believing people,” President Seiko says. “And many of their customs and the teachings of the Church go together, so that helps them accept the gospel. One custom is sharing. It is a Melanesian custom to help others, so when they hear that taught in the Church, they are drawn to it. Another thing Melanesians find attractive is the great importance the Church places on the family. The example of the members helps quite a bit too. They can see people have made positive changes in their lives.”
One of the most positive changes people see is the love and respect members of the Church have for one another. In New Caledonia’s sometimes uneasy mix of cultures, Church members’ example of unity shines. “We leave political discussion out of our meetings,” says Brother Gaya. “What we want is to be near the Lord. We want to keep His commandments—to love Him and to love our neighbor. We are not just French or Polynesian or Melanesian. We are first and foremost members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
That spirit of unity and acceptance is clear as you talk to Church leaders and members in New Caledonia. They have learned that although there are many cultures in the world, each with its own strengths, the Church embraces and strengthens them all. These islands of light in the South Pacific are making it clear that no matter what our nationality, language, or culture, we are all members of the same family—the family of God.