Polynesian Pearls


The faith of Latter-day Saints in French Polynesia, like the pearls for which these islands are famous, grows layer upon layer, becoming brighter and more beautiful with time.

Pearls are the product of patience. They grow layer upon layer, gaining luster with time. In French Polynesia, faith in the restored gospel has also grown in such a manner. That growth began in 1844, when the first missionaries arrived, and generation by generation, it has provided hope and meaning. Today Latter-day Saints make up 8 percent of the population—20,000 members in 79 congregations. They are known as people who care for each other and for those around them. Like pearls, their glow is gentle. But as they reflect the light that comes from Christ, they truly shine. Here is a glimpse at some of these Saints.

Tubuai: Place of Beginnings

Just off the road on the far end of the island of Tubuai, Ronny Harevaa and his wife, Sandrine, tidy up the ground around a small stone monument. It is dedicated to the memory of Elder Addison Pratt, the first Latter-day Saint missionary to visit this island 450 miles (700 km) south of Tahiti. Addison Pratt grew up in New Hampshire in the United States of America, but at age 19 he became a seafarer. He traveled to what are now the Hawaiian Islands, then sailed the Pacific, Atlantic, Caribbean, and Mediterranean before marrying and settling in New York. In 1838 he and his wife joined the Church. By 1841 they had gathered with the Saints in Nauvoo, Illinois. In May 1843 Addison Pratt was called by the Prophet Joseph Smith to help begin missionary work in the Pacific. On April 30, 1844, he and two other elders, Noah Rogers and Benjamin Grouard, arrived on Tubuai.

The islanders were eager to have a missionary among them, and Elder Pratt remained. He began learning Tahitian and preaching. The first convert was his interpreter, another American. Six of seven sailors on the island were also baptized and confirmed. Then on July 22, 1844—three years before Latter-day Saint pioneers arrived in Utah—the first Polynesian converts were baptized. By February 1845, 60 of the 200 inhabitants of Tubuai had joined the Church. From these beginnings and from the work of Elder Rogers and Elder Grouard on other islands, the Church spread throughout what is now French Polynesia.

Today on Tubuai, Ronny Harevaa is the president of the Tubuai Australes District, which numbers 593 members in five branches. Quite a few of the members are his relatives, and President Harevaa has learned much from them. “There is a deep heritage and history here,” he says, “a great love of the Church and family.”

“Most people on Tubuai don’t have a lot of material things, but they have all they need to be happy,” says Lucien Hoffmann, president of the Mahu Branch. “Here you can get fruit from the trees, vegetables from the ground, and you can go fishing whenever you want. And when you ask people to help those who are sick or in need, they are always ready.”

“My wife and I chose to live on Tubuai to be close to our parents,” President Harevaa says. “It’s a wonderful place to be together as a family.” In fact, he has a brother who lives next door, another brother who lives in the house beyond that, and his father serves as one of his counselors. There are enough Harevaas on Tubuai that many people refer to President Harevaa as President Ronny, just to keep things straight.

In front of the Mahu chapel, one of three meetinghouses on Tubuai, Sandrine points out another monument honoring Addison Pratt. “I think Elder Pratt would be pleased to know that after more than 160 years, the Church is still strong here,” she says. And it is still growing.

One recent convert is Johan Bonno, who was born in the Marquesas Islands, the northernmost part of French Polynesia. Although he had led a rough life, he became interested in the restored gospel because of a schoolteacher who had moved to the Marquesas from Tubuai. “Maimiti spoke to me of the true Church,” he explains. “She taught me about the Book of Mormon. Little by little, I let go of the bad things in my life. She invited me to church, and little by little good things entered in.”

They married and moved to Tubuai. “My father-in-law invited me to a missionary open house, and there I felt a powerful, comforting feeling,” Johan explains. “It filled me with a desire to know the truth. I prayed in earnest about Joseph Smith. I came to understand that the Lord had restored the Church through him.” Johan was soon baptized and confirmed.

Today Johan and Maimiti are preparing to be sealed in the Papeete Tahiti Temple. “Having the light of the temple in our life will be like trading a 15-watt bulb for the brightest sunshine,” he says. For Johan, learning of the restored gospel required building a layer of faith. So did getting married, moving to Tubuai, and joining the Church. Now going to the temple will add yet another layer to a pearl that keeps on growing.

Raiatea: Haven of Peace

When 23-year-old Spencer Moroni Teuiau received his mission call, he couldn’t stop smiling. After four years of delays waiting for dental procedures to be completed, this young man from the island of Raiatea received his call on his birthday. He remembers reading aloud phrases from the letter: “minister of the restored gospel,” “advocate and effective messenger of the truth,” “ambassador of the Savior,” and thinking, “Wow! With all my weaknesses I’m going to have to trust in the Lord.”

But that is something he is used to doing. Moroni grew up in the Church. He is the third of six children to serve a full-time mission, and he recalls “dreaming about serving a mission ever since I was a little boy.” He remembers memorizing missionary scriptures during his four years of seminary and listening to returned missionaries talk about their missions. But he also remembers dental examinations, adjustments, and years of wearing an apparatus. “There were times when I almost gave up,” he says. However, with the encouragement of his family and his own perseverance, he kept hope alive. Today he is faithfully serving in the Tahiti Papeete Mission.

For Moroni and other young Latter-day Saints like him, the Church on Raiatea is a haven of strength. Garry Mou Tham, 16, a third-generation Latter-day Saint from the Avera Ward, explains. “Here,” he says, “we are different from the outside world. We have good relationships with friends and parents. We have the teachings of the prophets to remind us to stay close to our family, to read our scriptures together, and to have home evening. We know the Church is going to progress, and we choose to be part of the Lord’s great work.”

Garry’s friend Fari Le Bronnec, 14, agrees. He talks about two things that keep him safe from the world: seminary and prayer. “Seminary gives you a spiritual boost each morning,” he says. “And prayer can give you a boost anytime you pray with faith.” The seminary and institute program is strong in French Polynesia, with a total of 740 seminary and 524 institute students in 2004–2005.

Another source of strength is the example members provide for those who are interested in the gospel. Such an example helped bring Adrien and Greta Teihotaata and their children into the Church. Although they had been without religion for years, “we decided we wanted to change,” Sister Teihotaata says. “We asked the Lord to guide us.” Just a few days later, neighbors invited them to an open house at the Uturoa Ward. “We decided to come back on Sunday,” Brother Teihotaata recalls, “and at church, we were impressed that everyone was involved—teaching, going to classes, taking care of children. They really seemed to love each other.”

It was fast Sunday, and “when testimony meeting began, we felt something peaceful we had never felt before—the Holy Ghost. We said, ‘This is something we need,’” Sister Teihotaata says. The family met with the missionaries and continued learning. Though their oldest son did not join the Church, Brother and Sister Teihotaata and their five other children were baptized and confirmed in 1998. Since then, keeping the commandments, studying the scriptures, and going to the temple “have strengthened us in our testimony, and so has the continuing example of members who have taught us and helped us,” says Sister Teihotaata.

Another member is at the stake center this day, one who was baptized in 1956. “The Church wasn’t so well known on Raiatea back then,” says Harriet Brodien Terooatea. “There weren’t many members, and meetings were held in a little house that had one room for a chapel and one room for the missionaries. But little by little, the Church grew.” Kind of like a pearl.

Tahiti: Center of Strength

One way to see how far the Church has come in French Polynesia is to talk with the public affairs council in Papeete, Tahiti. At a recent meeting, they reminisced about some significant events:

  • The Church in French Polynesia celebrated its 160th anniversary in October 2004. Events included (1) public exhibits about the Church; (2) a spectacular in the stadium, featuring dancing, singing, choruses, and multimedia presentations; (3) a sports day including traditional competitions such as carrying bananas on a bamboo pole; and (4) a fireside with speeches from Church and government leaders, as well as a 500-voice choir. Many activities were covered by newspapers and broadcast on national television.

  • Church officials have paid several courtesy visits to government officials, and several Latter-day Saints presently serve in the national assembly. The government has expressed thanks for the benefits the Church brings, especially its role in teaching family values.

  • A 400-voice LDS choir performed before an audience of 30,000 during French president Jacques Chirac’s visit to French Polynesia in July 2003. The event was televised not only in French Polynesia but also in France. The choir left many in tears when they sang “I Know That My Redeemer Lives” (Hymns, no. 136) and “God Be with You Till We Meet Again” (Hymns, no. 152).

  • The Papeete Tahiti Temple celebrated its 20th anniversary in October 2003. To mark the event, members of the Paea Tahiti Stake did temple work from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. so all endowed members could perform at least one ordinance.

“The Church has come of age here,” says Marama Tarati, the Church’s national director of public affairs. “Throughout French Polynesia it is recognized as a force for good.” On Tahiti the Church has beautiful meetinghouses, congregations filled with faithful Saints, and—as the brightest jewel of all—the temple, a well-known landmark in the capital city.

The light of the temple has come into many lives. “Before I became a member of the Church I did not know what my life would be after death,” explains Marguerite Teriinohopua. Her family learned of the Church because another family prayed to find them. Ernest Montrose, now first counselor in the Faaa Tahiti Stake presidency, was at that time bishop of the Heiri Ward. When missionaries encouraged members to pray to find investigators, “I figured our family should go first.” Inspiration came. Bishop Montrose invited a coworker, Danielson Teriinohopua, to bring his family to a home evening with the missionaries.

“We were at the same time praying to be guided to the truth,” recalls Danielson, who is now a member of the high council. “At the end of the evening, we told them we wanted to know more—immediately.” Bishop Montrose scheduled another meeting the next night, then the next and the next. Within weeks the Teriinohopuas were baptized and confirmed, and a year later they were sealed in the temple. “Today I have a response to my questions,” Marguerite says. “In the temple I feel great peace and joy.”

Chanterel Hauata of the Heiri Ward also knows the joy of attending the temple. Although a benign brain tumor caused him to go blind six years ago, in the temple he sees clearly. “It is a place of clarity,” he explains. “In the temple we learn of eternity. It lifts us beyond this mortal life.”

The Pepe Mariteragi family has also felt the blessings of the temple. When they gathered at the family home in Paea in October 2003, they spoke about Tepahu, Pepe’s wife—their mother and grandmother. “She passed away seven months ago,” explained Lucien, one of her sons, “but our hearts are still turned toward her.”

“It is thanks to the gospel that we are able to deal with such things,” said Jean-Marie, another son. “The blessings of the temple give us the understanding that we can be an eternal family.”

This spreading of the gospel across generations is another indication of the maturity and strength of the Church. Bishop Moroni Alvarez of the Tavararo Ward and his wife, Juanita, talk about heritage that stretches back to his grandfather. They spread out seminary and institute diplomas for all six of their children and photos of all six while they were serving full-time missions. They talk about children married in the temple and grandchildren being raised in the Church. “We talked and studied and prayed together and shared our testimonies,” Bishop Alvarez explains. “Now they do the same with their children.”

Talk with Jared Peltzer, 21, of the Matatia Ward, Paea Tahiti Stake, as he prepares to leave for a mission in the Philippines, and you’ll meet his older brother Lorenzo, 30, who served in French Polynesia several years ago, and two younger brothers, Narii, 18, and Hyrum, 14, who plan to be full-time missionaries. “We didn’t have a missionary tradition in the family until now,” says Jared. “But when Lorenzo went, it made me want to go, and now we’re encouraging our younger brothers too.” Layer upon layer, the pearl keeps growing.

Takaroa: Home of Heritage

If you live on Takaroa, you know about pearls. Many of those who live on the island owe their livelihood to pearl farming. Some raise the oysters in which the pearls grow. Others clean the shells, attach the oysters to cords, insert pearl starts, hang oysters in the water, harvest the pearls, or make jewelry and souvenirs.

“We take things Heavenly Father has given us and bring out the beauty that is in them,” explains Tahia Brown, who works at one of the dozens of pearl farms that dot the island. She and Marie Teihoarii, both former branch Relief Society presidents, love to display necklaces, table decorations, and other crafts made by Latter-day Saints. “I learned to do this from my mother,” Sister Brown explains. “Most of the sisters here do this or some other craft that requires skill. We work to earn food and to make good use of our time but also to create things of beauty.”

Pearls and shells aren’t the only things of beauty created here. Sisters like Tera Temahaga weave plant strands into exquisite fans, hats, and baskets, while others like Tipapa Mahotu use cloth and thread to sew brightly colored quilts and pillows. Tradition holds that quilt making was first taught by Addison Pratt’s wife, Louisa, who came to the islands in 1850.

Another evidence of the craftsmanship of the people of Takaroa is the tallest building on the island—a beautiful white church built starting in 1891. The building is remarkable for the heritage it represents. Political situations in French Polynesia and the United States forced missionaries to withdraw from the islands in 1852. Missionaries did not return until 1892. But when they did, they found a congregation of 100 on Takaroa that had remained faithful. And these Latter-day Saints were in the process of building a large chapel where they could worship together. Within a month, missionaries baptized and confirmed 33 new members, and the congregation began growing again.

“Today the chapel presides over the village, just as the Church presides over our lives,” says Sister Mahotu, 82. She traces her LDS roots back to her great-grandparents. “The chapel,” she says, “reminds us of the heritage our ancestors have given us. It reminds us that we can be faithful like they were.”

At the Family History Center located in an addition to the chapel, director Suzanne Pimati labors to honor those ancestors. She regularly organizes firesides and spends many hours on the phone encouraging everyone on the island to attend. “I am eager for everyone to find his or her ancestors,” she says. The Spirit of Elijah is strong on Takaroa. And with a computer to help the work along, Sister Pimati plans for many names to be sent to the temple.

“At one time, the population of Takaroa was 90 percent LDS,” explains Thierry Teihoarii, president of the Takaroa Tuamotu District. By the 1950s population was in decline, but in the 1960s the cultured pearl industry brought people back. Today there are two branches on Takaroa, with a total of 380 members out of 1,000 residents on the island. There are also four branches with an additional 450 members on neighboring islands.

“Our greatest challenge is still those who leave our islands,” President Teihoarii explains, “particularly the young.” Though many of the youth go away to boarding schools, for those who remain, seminary and institute become their main source of education. “Seminary helps them not to forget the gospel,” President Teihoarii says.

So does going to the temple. “Every year we make trips to perform temple ordinances, and the youth do baptisms for the dead,” President Teihoarii says. “It encourages the youth a lot. It isn’t just the accomplishment of saving enough for the trip. They know that if they want to go to the temple they must be worthy, and that helps them to stay strong.”

Though his calling sometimes requires him to be gone on visits to other islands, President Teihoarii says his family has been greatly blessed. “The first thing I do when I come home is to share the faith and testimonies of the members with Marie and my two daughters. These are uplifting times for my family. We truly feel the Spirit is with us.” His wife agrees. “There is so much to learn in the Church,” she says, “and also many blessings. There is sweet work to do, and as we do it, the Church will prosper.”

It is evening on the island of Takaroa. The sun is going down. The shadows lengthen around the white chapel as the Saints gather—teens for seminary, Sister Pimati to do family history work, President Teihoarii to meet with two branch presidents. It is the crepuscule, a time of gentle light. Light like that which shines from a pearl.

[photos] Photography by Richard M. Romney, except as noted; photography of pearls and water by Christina Smith

[photos] Throughout French Polynesia, Latter-day Saints build on a heritage that began here in 1844. Top: Tera Temahaga of Takaroa shows handmade crafts. Heiana Teriipaia, Garry Mou Tham, and Fari Le Bronnec (above) and the Teihotaata family (left) of Raiatea say the gospel helps them stay strong. Bottom: On Tubuai, Sandrine and Ronny Harevaa care for the monument to Elder Addison Pratt.

[photos] Top: The Taumihau family joined the Church in Tahiti. Above right: Jewelry carver Johan Bonno (shown with his wife, Maimiti) joined the Church in Tubuai.

[photos] Above: Iosua Brothers, a patriarch in Tahiti, was baptized and confirmed on Moorea in 1968. Like many others, he has seen the Church become a force for good all over the islands. Below: On Takaroa, the rising generation includes Ranitea and Vehina Teihoarii and Vaimiti Nyjland.

[photos] Right: In a place known for craftsmanship, the temple is revered as the brightest jewel of all. Opposite page, top: On Tahiti, patriarch Tiatia Teio and his wife, Imihaa, feel the temple’s influence. So do deacons Jesse Pereitai and Jean-Philippe McGrevy. Below: The French Polynesian flag flies over Raiatea and Spencer Moroni Teuiau.

[photos] Tahia Brown of Takaroa works at one of the dozens of pearl farms dotting the island.

[photo] Left: On Tahiti, Bettey Tama prepares to baptize Eddy Tama.

[photos] Clockwise from above: The Takaroa chapel. This chapel “presides over the village,” says Tipapa Mahotu. Church leaders Pierre Tumarae, James L. Brown, and Thierry Teihoarii meet at the chapel. Suzanne Pimati runs the Family History Center.