“Faithful, Good, Virtuous, True”: Pioneers in the Philippines

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    The Lord has raised up and nurtured many Filipinos who have served well and advanced the growth of the Church.

    Full-time missionaries began working in the Philippines in 1961. When the Manila Philippines Temple was dedicated in 1984, 23 years later, the Church had grown from a handful of Filipino members to more than 75,000 Latter-day Saints, 15 stakes, and numerous districts, wards, and branches. Today the growth of the Church continues at a rapid pace, with the number of members approaching 400,000.

    Map of the Philippines(click to view larger)

    Map by Pat Gerber

    The seeds for this remarkable growth were planted by LDS servicemen. During the Spanish-American War in 1898, servicemen Willard Call and George Seaman from Utah were set apart as missionaries but had no convert baptisms. Half a century later, during World War II, several LDS servicemen moved through the islands with advancing Allied forces. In 1944 and 1945, servicemen’s groups held Church meetings in many locations, and numerous LDS servicemen were still in the Philippines when the war ended. The Korean War again drew Latter-day Saint military personnel to the Philippines.

    Over the years, Clark Air Force Base, near Manila, was home to hundreds of Church members, and it was there that President Joseph Fielding Smith dedicated the Philippines for the preaching of the gospel on 21 August 1955.

    Maxine Tate Grimm

    Among the hundreds of foreign Latter-day Saints who lived or served in the Philippines, Maxine Tate Grimm stands out as a pioneer whose efforts did much to strengthen the Church in those early years.

    In 1945 Maxine Tate arrived in the Philippines as a Red Cross worker. Following the war she married E. M. “Pete” Grimm, a U.S. Army colonel and long-time resident of Manila, where they made their home. As years passed, Sister Grimm constantly encouraged Church growth in Asia. Although Pete did not join the Church until 1967, he used his means and influence to open doors for the Church not only in the Philippines but also in Indonesia and other nations of Southeast Asia.

    Sister Grimm was present at almost every important occasion that led to the opening of missionary work. Her home was the center of Church activity, and most of the first 2,000 baptisms in Manila were performed in the Grimms’ swimming pool. Sister Grimm played her portable pump organ at many Church meetings and activities.

    “I cannot praise her efforts too highly,” President Gordon B. Hinckley said. “She was a genuine pioneer in the work in that island nation where we have now a very substantial Church membership.” 1

    Until 1961 Sister Grimm and her two children carried on Church activities by themselves or with other LDS families, except when they attended conferences with members at Clark Air Force Base or at Subic Bay Naval Station. In 1961 this began to change.

    Full-time Missionary Work Begins

    American servicemen, their families, and others living in the Philippines loved the Filipinos and in 1960 pleaded with Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, then an Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles assigned to supervise the Church in Asia, to open the Philippines to missionary work. 2

    On his first visit to the Philippines in 1960, Elder Hinckley realized the potential the Philippines offered as a mission field. Legal challenges slowed official recognition for the Church, but Elder Hinckley and Robert S. Taylor, president of the Southern Far East Mission, believed permission for missionary visas would soon be granted. With authorization from the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, they scheduled a meeting at the American War Memorial Cemetery on 28 April 1961 to initiate missionary work.

    At 6:30 on a quiet, peaceful morning, around 100 members of the Church—mostly servicemen and their families, but including David Lagman, a Filipino member—met near the small memorial chapel. At the conclusion of a brief meeting, Elder Hinckley offered a prayer in which he invoked blessings “upon the people of this land, that they shall be friendly and hospitable, and kind and gracious to those who shall come here, and that many, yea Lord, we pray that there shall be many thousands who shall receive this message and be blessed thereby. … We pray that there shall be many men, faithful, good, virtuous, true men who shall join the Church.” 3

    Since that time, his prayer has been answered many fold. Visas for full-time missionaries were soon approved, and on 5 June 1961 the first four missionaries were transferred from Hong Kong to Manila. Probably because the people were curious about them, the elders were invited into every home they visited that day.

    After the missionaries arrived, most of the pioneering and nurturing of the young Church was done by the Filipino converts. Despite major economic problems and natural disasters, they have forged ahead in building the kingdom of God in their islands.

    Ruben and Nenita Gapiz

    Ruben Gapiz and Nenita Reyes were among the earliest Filipinos to join the Church. Nenita, who was baptized on 25 November 1961, was the fifth person to join the Church after missionary work began. She was a college graduate when her brother-in-law sent the missionaries to her home. Her response and the response of several family members was immediate and positive. Nenita was soon called to lead the music for the growing group of members in the Manila area. She has since served in the presidencies of the Young Women, Relief Society, and Primary.

    Ruben Gapiz was interested in Nenita before he was interested in the Church. A talented guitar player, he was recruited to accompany Church members for an evening of Christmas caroling. Disappointed that he was not offered payment for his services, he was about to leave when he saw Nenita leading the singing. He stayed, eventually listened to the missionary discussions, and was baptized a year after Nenita.

    Two years later, Ruben and Nenita became the first Filipino Latter-day Saint couple to marry. Almost everyone in the branch attended the ceremony and the celebration afterward. The Gapiz family was eventually blessed with four daughters.

    Ruben accepted a number of callings in the Church, but he served with less eagerness than Sister Gapiz, although his testimony continued to grow. In 1975, however, Nenita says “the Lord tapped him on the shoulders and woke him up.” Ruben was diagnosed with cancer of the nasopharynx. He was not expected to live more than a few years. Nenita and Ruben’s oldest child was only 10 years old when the cancer was discovered; Ruben wanted badly to live and raise his family.

    “In August 1978,” he recalls, “I received my patriarchal blessing from Patriarch F. Briton McConkie. My wife was in the room with me. … [The patriarch] did not have any prior knowledge of my affliction. Toward the end of the blessing he pronounced these words, which brought tears to my eyes and caused my wife to sob softly: ‘You will live your life to the fullest and will be called to serve in many leadership positions.’

    “After the blessing was over, [the] patriarch … asked me the reason for my tears. I told him that I had been diagnosed with cancer, that I had only two years to live, and that the blessing he pronounced was almost too good to hope for. … I knew that day that the Lord had answered my prayers.” 4

    The blessing awakened his dedication to the gospel. “He became a different man after that,” Sister Gapiz says.

    He has since worked tirelessly to strengthen the Church in the Philippines. Through the years he has served as bishop, stake president, mission president, and regional representative. He also served as chair of the committee that translated the Book of Mormon into Tagalog, the predominant native language. He currently serves as an Area Authority Seventy and Materials Management manager in the Philippines/Micronesia Area.

    Augusto A. and Myrna G. Lim

    Unlike other Asian countries where Christians are greatly outnumbered, the Philippines were converted to Roman Catholicism by the Spanish, beginning in the 16th century. Because 90 percent of Filipinos are Christians, many readily listen to and embrace the message of the Restoration.

    Augusto and Myrna Lim were such a couple. When they were baptized in October 1964, they had no idea what the Lord would ask of them in building up the Church.

    Brother Lim had graduated with a law degree and by 1964 was well established in his profession. He understood organizations, and he spoke well in public. He also made time for spiritual pursuits, having studied the Bible throughout his life. He had been reared by Protestant parents. Myrna had been reared a Roman Catholic. 5

    Shortly before the missionaries visited his home, his three-year-old daughter asked why the family never attended church on Sundays like other families. Moved by his daughter’s question, he knelt and prayed: “I feel guilty about what has happened. If you want me to work full time in the church as a minister or do anything for you, just let me know.” 6

    A week later the full-time missionaries knocked on the door. Augusto’s studies had prepared him to accept the missionaries’ message. “I joined the Church,” he said, “because the doctrine of the Church was what I actually believed in, even before the missionaries visited me, about God the Father, for example, and about revelation. Those are things that even when I was in high school and college I believed in. … The missionaries were teaching me something that I felt I knew.” 7

    At his baptism in October 1964, Augusto silently made a special covenant with his Heavenly Father: “I will be active, and I’ll do everything that I can to help.” The following week he was called as second counselor in the Sunday School. And before his first year in the Church ended, he had successively served as branch financial clerk, assistant district clerk, district clerk, and first counselor in the branch presidency in Quezon City. In this last calling he served for two years under American serviceman Montie Keller, who taught him “the proper way of running the Church. … I was taught by a great Church leader.” 8

    Brother Lim’s intensive period of apprenticeship continued when he was called as second counselor in the Luzon District presidency. Nine months later, on 22 August 1967, the Church organized the Philippines Mission with Paul H. Rose as president. Brother Lim was called as first counselor in the mission presidency, a position he held for six years. He also served as president of four different branches. President DeWitt C. Smith, who followed President Rose, often called upon Brother Lim as a trainer.

    When the Church organized its first stake in the Philippines, Elder Ezra Taft Benson of the Quorum of the Twelve called Augusto A. Lim as stake president. The Manila Philippines Stake was organized 20 May 1973, only 12 years after missionary work began in Manila and only 9 years after President Lim joined the Church. As the Manila Stake grew and was divided, President Lim was called twice to preside over the new stakes that were organized.

    In the years that followed, President Lim served as a regional representative and as president of the Philippines Naga Mission. In early June 1992, a few weeks before his release as mission president, President Lim received a call to serve in the Second Quorum of the Seventy, becoming the first Filipino to serve as a General Authority. His call was a pioneering call. He was to continue his profession but also serve in the Area Presidency, just as Area Authority Seventies do today.

    In the summer of 1996, Elder and Sister Lim were called as president and matron of the Manila Philippines Temple. They are the first Filipino couple to lead the work at that temple.

    Their years of service have been exemplary, particularly for their eight children. Their sons have served missions, and their daughters have married returned missionaries in the temple.

    Remus G. and Yvonne L. Villarete

    For Filipinos, 1972 was a year of economic and political crisis. Political corruption was rampant; the economy was in chaos. Remus Villarete was out of college and had a good job, but he was concerned about growing economic disparities among his people. Hoping to help the poor, Remus began organizing antigovernment rallies. One of his close friends, Yvonne L. Cawit, a nurse, also helped by treating people injured in street demonstrations.

    In September 1972 President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law. His government considered protesters like Remus and Yvonne enemies of the state. When the government published its list of most-wanted agitators, Remus’s name was second on the list in his area; Yvonne’s name also appeared on the list.

    Remus and Yvonne began to discuss their future. Remus believed Yvonne would be better off surrendering to the military. Yvonne’s father also asked her to give herself up to the authorities. Three days after the declaration of martial law, she surrendered. Remus considered going into the mountains to become a guerilla fighter, but at the urging of his father and some relatives who had influence on government officials, he also surrendered. After spending more than three months in a stockade, he was released.

    Family members had arranged his release on condition that he marry Yvonne; his family and the military believed marriage would keep Remus from going to the mountains and continuing his fight against the government. They were right. Ten days after his release, on 21 January 1973, Remus and Yvonne married. Remus stayed out of the mountains, but he and Yvonne continued to fight injustice peacefully.

    Life was difficult at first, especially because they had trouble finding jobs. Eventually both found work in their respective hometowns—Yvonne in Cadiz and Remus in Bacolod, 65 kilometers away. While staying with Yvonne’s parents in Cadiz, they met the full-time missionaries. The gospel changed the lives of everyone in the household.

    Carmelino Cawit, Yvonne’s father, was a religious man who enjoyed listening to the elders. Only a few months passed before he, his wife, and two daughters entered the waters of baptism. Brother Cawit became the president of the Cadiz Branch and later a bishop, stake president, and patriarch.

    Remus and Yvonne also appreciated the message of the restored gospel, but Remus was distracted by his friends, who did not live the Word of Wisdom. Because he had not been reading the Book of Mormon, Remus was not ready for baptism when the time came for his baptismal interview.

    He also wanted to practice what the elders were teaching him before he committed to baptism. “Once I join a certain organization, I am committed to the work,” Remus said years later. So he began attending Church, paying tithing, fasting, contributing to the missionary fund, and reading the Book of Mormon carefully and prayerfully. By doing the will of his Heavenly Father, Remus soon came to “know of the doctrine” for himself (John 7:17). He and Yvonne were baptized in May 1975.

    Three months later the first Philippines area conference was held in Araneta Coliseum in Quezon City. President Spencer W. Kimball was scheduled to speak, and Remus was determined to see him.

    “Immediately after the conference, I returned to Bacolod. I went straight home and told my wife, ‘We have to follow the prophet.’ She said, ‘Why, what did the prophet say?’ The prophet said, ‘Families are forever, and it is important that families should be together.’ We should be together.”

    Remus had been staying in Bacolod during the week, returning to Cadiz on the weekends. Following President Kimball’s admonition, Yvonne quit her job in Cadiz, and the family moved to Bacolod to be with Remus. Opportunities for gospel growth soon came to the family as the Villaretes were called to many leadership positions. When the Bacolod stake was created in 1981 by Elder Marion D. Hanks of the Seventy, Brother Villarete was sustained as its first president. He served in that position until 1987, when he moved to Cebu to become a regional real estate manager for the Church.

    President Villarete then served as a regional representative from 1988 until 1991, when he was called as president of the Philippines Cagayan de Oro Mission on the island of Mindanao. He and Sister Villarete remained on Mindanao until he was released in June 1995. A few days later, Brother Villarete was called as an Area Authority Seventy in the Philippines/Micronesia Area.

    Once Remus and Yvonne found the right cause, they gave themselves to it with all their hearts, keeping the commandments and following the President of the Church. Their dedication to the gospel has never faltered.

    Pioneer Spirit

    These few stories do not begin to tell of the many hours that thousands of Filipinos have spent serving in the Church. Nor do these stories detail the numerous deeds of kindness and love that are common among Filipino Church members. They simply exemplify the strength and humility of many who accept the truth throughout the Philippines.

    Today, more than 1,000 wards and branches dot the islands, and the pioneering spirit truly lives on as Filipinos continue joining the Church in large numbers. Most of them are forging new paths for their families as they break with old traditions and move into a new era emblazoned with the gospel’s full light.

    [photos] Maxine Grimm, below, and right, with LDS military personnel, was among the hundreds of foreign Church members who laid the foundation for missionary work in the Philippines and the eventual construction of the Manila Philippines Temple, left.

    [photo] Photograph by Floyd Holdman

    [photos] Photography courtesy of Maxine Tate Grimm

    [photos] Far left: Latter-day Saints such as these learn early the satisfaction that comes with serving in the temple, even though it may entail many hours of travel. Left: Elder Bajarn and Elder Caday are among the increasing number of native missionaries who share the gospel in the Philippines. (Photography by Marvin K. Gardner.) Right: Ruben and Nenita Gapiz were among the first Filipinos to join the Church. He now serves as an Area Authority Seventy. (Photograph by Greg Frei.)

    [photo] Elder Augusto A. Lim and his wife, Myrna, president and matron of the Manila Philippines Temple. Elder Lim was the first Filipino called to be president of the temple. He was also the first Filipino to serve as a General Authority. (Photograph by Michael Angelo M. Ramirez.)

    [photo] Elder Remus G. Villarete, an Area Authority Seventy, and his wife, Yvonne. Elder Villarete first practiced what the elders taught him before he committed himself to baptism. (Photograph by Michael Angelo M. Ramirez.)

    Show References


    1.   1.

      Sheridan R. Sheffield, “‘A Genuine Pioneer’ in the Philippines,” Church News, 13 February 1993, 11.

    2.   2.

      Sheri L. Dew, Go Forward with Faith: The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley (1996), 214.

    3.   3.

      Gordon B. Hinckley, “Commencement of Missionary Work in the Philippines,” Dateline Philippines, April 1991, 17–18; emphasis added. See also, Go Forward with Faith, 226–27; 608, note 43.

    4.   4.

      As quoted in Ben B. Banks, “Go Forth to Serve,” address given at a Brigham Young University devotional, Provo, Utah, 24 September 1996.

    5.   5.

      Sheridan R. Sheffield, “As Church Grew, He Grew in Gospel,” Church News, 15 August 1992, 11.

    6.   6.

      Augusto A. Lim Oral History, 1974, typescript, The James Moyle Oral History Program, Historical Department Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, 17.

    7.   7.

      Augusto A. Lim Oral History, 15.

    8.   8.

      Augusto A. Lim Oral History, 18.