I Am a Pioneer


How a French teenager became a Latter-day Saint pioneer

I Am a Pioneer

I could almost feel the jar of the wagon wheels as they crunched the rocks and churned the dust in the deeply rutted trail. It was an evening like many others during my teenage years in Paris, but on this particular night I was absorbed in a French television documentary about the Mormon pioneers. I had never seen anything like it before, and I marveled at the similarities between the Mormon trek and the exodus of ancient Israel from Egypt. The courage and suffering of the Mormon pioneers touched something deep within me.

I had never heard of the Mormons before, and I became interested in learning about them. But I soon became distracted by my busy life as a student and forgot the soft stirrings within me. Besides, I was only intellectually curious, or so I told myself. Little did I know then how the turning of those pioneer wagon wheels would change my life.

My mother worked in a fashion boutique in Paris and liked the Americans she met there. She grew to love the English language and encouraged me to study English even as a young child. During the summers, she sent me to England or Scotland to stay with English-speaking families. One year she encouraged me to get involved in an American summer camp exchange program. Through this program I became a camp counselor in Sharon, Vermont—the birthplace of Joseph Smith. Perhaps the Lord, even then, was trying to turn the wheels once more. Unfortunately, I heard nothing of Joseph Smith or the Mormons while I was there.

Several years later, however, the wheels turned again, with great power. I was studying English, with a specific focus on American culture, at Paris’s Sorbonne University. As I began thinking about a master’s thesis topic, I remembered the documentary about the Mormon pioneers. I asked my adviser if I could do something on them. No one at the Sorbonne had written a thesis about the Mormons, and so my adviser thought the subject might prove interesting. But he insisted that I pick an aspect of Mormonism that was unique.

After doing some preliminary research, I discovered that there was not enough information about the Mormons in the university library. I concluded I would have to talk to them. By then I had learned that the official name of the Mormon Church was The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. With that information, I located the headquarters of the Paris Mission and boldly knocked on the front door. I asked the missionary who answered, “Is there someone here who can tell me about the Mormons?”

The surprised young man managed to stutter, “Yes, yes, come in!”

As my research at the mission home progressed, I learned that Latter-day Saints believe in ordinances performed for dead ancestors. The more I read about temple work for the dead, the more I wanted to use that topic. The title I finally chose for my thesis was enough to make even long-time members of the Church pause: “Genealogy and the Mormon Church.” That’s how I became known in the Paris Mission as the “Genealogy Girl.”

It was at this point, just two months after my first visit to the mission home, that I met my future husband. He was a freelance American photographer and writer traveling in France. The missionaries told him about me, and he decided to interview me for a possible article for the Church magazines. After talking with me about the Church, he asked if I had ever considered joining. I shrugged my shoulders and said, “I’m really just curious.”

But as an afterthought, I reflected, “There is something unusual about your church. I always feel a sense of peace when I come to the mission home. Actually, I welcome reasons to come back.” Still, I insisted that my interest was only academic curiosity.

A few months later I decided to continue my thesis research by visiting the famous genealogical facilities in Salt Lake City. I arrived in Utah the day before President Joseph Fielding Smith’s funeral, and I went to the public viewing with an LDS girl I had corresponded with while I was in France. I was impressed by the lack of despair at the services.

During this time, the photographer I met in Paris returned to Salt Lake City, and we became reacquainted. I asked him to help proofread my thesis, and as time went on, he noticed my comments in the thesis becoming more and more positive—starting with “the Mormons believe …” and later expressing, without my realizing it, “We believe …”

One evening, he asked if I would like to take the missionary lessons. I hesitated and gave my former response, “I’m only curious.” But there was less certainty in my voice, so he suggested, “What have you got to lose?”

I smiled and said, “Well, nothing, I guess. OK.” Three weeks later, I was baptized, and the wagon wheels turned again as I became a pioneer myself—the only member of the Church in my family. Soon I would be privileged to give many of my ancestors the opportunity to choose to become members of the Church of Jesus Christ.

A year and a half after my baptism, the photographer and I were married in the Salt Lake Temple. Little did he know when he met me how the wagon wheels shown in a French documentary would affect his life.

Now it is 1997, the 150th anniversary of the pioneers entering the Salt Lake Valley, and as I tell my story I truly do feel the jar of the wagon wheels as they crunch the rocks and churn the dust in a deeply rutted trail. It is a day like many others, and I am pulling a handcart as part of the 1997 Sesquicentennial Mormon Trail Wagon Train on the old historic pioneer route near Big Sandy Crossing, Wyoming. During this reenactment, I am playing the part of an actual pioneer girl from France who joined the Church in Italy and came to Zion in the 1850s. It seems incredible that I am walking the same trail, breathing the same dust, and hearing the same sounds as she and so many other pioneers did so long ago.

As I walk, I remember the documentary I saw when I was a young girl in France, and I can feel the presence of the many Latter-day Saints who lived and died along this trail. However, the part I am playing is not just a story from our pioneer past, it is also my story—for I am a pioneer, too.

[photos] Photography by Don O. Thorpe

[photos] Above, from left: Catherine in Paris; Checking genealogical files; pursuing academic research; meeting Elder LeGrand Richards; with her husband-to-be, waiting to be baptized. Right: Catherine in costume as a volunteer guide at Deseret Village Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City.