Pioneers in the Beautiful Bahamas

By Janet Thomas

Print Share

    The Bahamas are a cluster of 700 beautiful islands, 30 inhabited, just 95 kilometers off the southeastern coast of the United States in the Atlantic Ocean. If the country had a national color, it would be pink. Why pink? Pink stucco is the color of choice for government buildings in Nassau, the capital city on New Providence Island. Trimmed with white and accented by the intense fuchsia and reds of bougainvillea flowers, the buildings along the streets of Nassau shimmer against the intense blue backdrop of the ocean and the sky.

    Pink is also the color of the inside of conch (pronounced conk) shells. Once a staple of the national diet, the conch is a large shellfish now most often served minced and simmered in chowder or deep fried as fritters.

    The population of the Bahamas has largely English, American, and African origins, joined in recent years by a large number of Haitians. English is the official language, but the Haitian population speaks Creole.

    Latter-day Saint missionaries first arrived in the Bahamas in 1979. Unfortunately, they were refused visas. It was not until 1985 that full-time missionaries were able to return there. On 20 November 1997, Elder Neal A. Maxwell dedicated the Bahamas for the preaching of the gospel. At present the Church has two branches in the country—the English-speaking Nassau Branch and the French- and Creole-speaking Soldier Road Branch.

    When visitors come to the charming meetinghouse at Soldier Road on New Providence Island, they walk among living pioneers. Milestones of Church history in the Bahamas are being reached yearly. And those first faithful members—the first Bahamian to be baptized, the first Bahamian branch president, the first Bahamian to serve a full-time mission, the first Bahamian couple to be married in the temple, the first Bahamian family to be sealed—are all there each Sunday, continuing to increase their faith in Jesus Christ and build the kingdom of God in their beautiful country.

    Feeling Drawn to Utah

    Clarence E. Newry Jr. was the first Bahamian to be baptized a member of the Church. He joined the Church 19 years ago when he was a student living in Utah. Now he is head of the technical department in a government high school. Each morning before dawn, he makes three or more trips in his car, picking up most of the teenagers in the two branches and taking them to the meetinghouse for early-morning seminary. Then he waits until seminary is over and takes the students home before he leaves for work. If he didn’t provide transportation, most of the students couldn’t attend seminary.

    Brother Newry’s specialty is carpentry. Twenty years ago, he was offered a government scholarship to attend a technical college anywhere in the United States. He remembers: “I looked through all the catalogs. Then I prayed and chose Utah Technical College. The government officials asked me why I chose Utah. They told me the Mormons didn’t like blacks. But I was set on attending college in Utah.”

    At Utah Technical College (now Utah Valley State College), he met some Church members who became his friends. He also discovered that his roommate was a less-active member. Brother Newry wanted to attend a Latter-day Saint Church meeting, so he insisted that his roommate get up and take him to church. Of course, he was introduced to the missionaries.

    “I told the missionaries,” says Brother Newry, “that I had some questions I wanted them to answer before we discussed their religion. I wanted to know: Where did I come from? Why are there no prophets? Where am I going? Where did Christ go after his death?” The full-time missionaries broke into big smiles. When they answered his questions, Brother Newry said, “Now I know your church is true.”

    When Brother Newry returned to the Bahamas, he found a very small branch that had been formed while he was gone. The little branch met in homes and rented buildings until they built their own chapel. He remained faithful through the years and eventually received his endowment in the temple. Along the way his friend, Antoinette Russell, asked to attend church with him. She was impressed by the members’ warmth, and without telling Clarence, she began meeting with the missionaries. She says: “I knew we were each someone special. When the missionaries told me where we had come from, I knew it was true. I felt peace.”

    Antoinette and Clarence Newry were married in March 1997 in the Orlando Florida Temple. Several other Bahamian couples have had their marriages sealed in the temple, but the Newrys were the first to be married in the temple.

    The First to Serve

    About the time Brother Newry was learning about the gospel in Utah, Antoine and Leona Ferrier were being introduced to the gospel by Alexander Paul, the Haitian consul general stationed in Nassau. The Ferriers joined the Church in 1978 and became the first Bahamian branch president and Relief Society president, serving in those callings for many years.

    Brother Paul himself was a convert to the Church. While in Nassau as consul general, he became interested in the Church, made inquiries, flew to Utah, and attended general conference there. Impressed by what he learned, he was referred to two LDS families living in the Bahamas—the McCombs and the Ballards. These families had been holding church services in their homes. Alexander Paul and his family were taught the gospel and baptized. It was then that he invited the Ferriers to investigate the gospel.

    The first full-time missionary called from the Bahamas was Keith Dean. He joined the Church while attending school at Brigham Young University—Hawaii. “I had no intentions of joining the Church,” he said, “and I dodged the missionaries for the first two months I was there.” But after hearing the missionary discussions and having a spiritual confirmation of the truthfulness of the gospel, he was baptized 5 December 1981. Three years later, Elder Dean served in the California Fresno Mission. Now Brother Dean and his wife, Winnie, have three children, and he serves as elders quorum president in the Nassau Branch.

    Another diligent member is Talma “John” Bastian. Born in Haiti, Brother Bastian was introduced to the gospel by his friend Antoine Ferrier. After reading two Church pamphlets, Talma asked his friend for more information. Brother Ferrier gave him some Church books, including A Marvelous Work and a Wonder by Elder LeGrand Richards. He read the books eagerly and was ready when the missionaries came to him. He now serves as elders quorum president in the Soldier Road Branch.

    The Clouds Parted

    One of the stalwarts of the Nassau Branch is Willamae Kemp who began attending the branch 18 years ago when Antoine and Leona Ferrier invited her to a meeting. “Leona told me,” recalls Sister Kemp, “that she just saw me in this Church. She said she thought I would fit in.”

    Sister Kemp will never forget that first meeting. The teacher was talking about the Godhead, something Sister Kemp had wondered about. When it was explained that members of the Church believe that God the Father, his Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost are three separate and distinct beings who have unity of purpose, Willamae says: “The clouds seemed to part. From that day to this, I have been learning.”

    Among the momentous times for Sister Kemp in the branch’s history was the period between 1986 and 1988 when the members worked together to build a meetinghouse. “We did everything you could think of,” she explains. “We had rummage sales, cake sales, car washes. Every Saturday we did something to raise money. And we worked on the grounds clearing the growth. We grew together spiritually, and we grew to love each other.”

    Currently serving as the Young Women president, Sister Kemp says: “The young people who have come into the Church recently are really strong. I look forward to having the Church spread through this land.”

    A Detective Investigates

    The current Nassau Branch president, Edward Smith, remembers exactly how he became interested in the Church. Brother Ferrier was offering free Creole classes. As a detective inspector in the police force, President Smith wanted to learn Creole to help in communicating with the sizable Haitian population.

    In appreciation for the language classes, President Smith decided to attend a Church meeting. However, he somehow got the meeting time wrong. When he arrived at the chapel, no one was there. He circled the block for nearly an hour before someone opened the building and began to set up chairs.

    “It was friendly and warm here,” remembers President Smith. “I felt at home from day one.” That first Sunday, he attended the Gospel Essentials class. He noticed that the class used another book of scripture, the Book of Mormon, along with the Bible. He asked how he could get one of those books. The missionaries were glad to give him one.

    As he continued to investigate the Church, he found himself its defender among his coworkers. “But I was uncertain of the depth of my testimony,” he says. “I decided I had to really find out.”

    Over a period of time, President Smith prayed, attended church, and studied the gospel. One day, he recalls: “I was reading the scriptures. To this day, I can’t tell you where I was reading. I had this feeling of warmth. This was the church I had been looking for. This Church is where I want to be no matter what happens in my life.”

    After his baptism, President Smith invited a friend, Claudina, to church. She was taught by the missionaries and chose to be baptized. They were married and four years later became the first Bahamian couple to have their marriage sealed in the temple.

    The stories continue. Members of the Nassau Branch and the Creole- and French-speaking Soldier Road Branch have fascinating stories to tell about how they came to be taught the gospel and how they gained their testimonies. The young people respond to pressure from their friends by standing up for their beliefs (see “Paradise Found,” page 36 of this issue). The children take the lessons they learn home to their neighborhoods, where their influence for good is noticed. It is impossible to be an active member of the Church in the Bahamas and remain anonymous.

    The members here have a great desire to see the work expand in their islands. As true pioneers they have dedicated their lives to their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The gospel light in their faces reflects all the beauty of the Bahamas.

    Photography by Janet Thomas, except as noted

    Left: Edward Smith, president of the Nassau Branch, pauses with his wife, Claudina, outside their chapel. (Photograph by Julia Todd.) Above: Nassau Branch members gather on the steps of the meetinghouse.

    Antoine and Leona Ferrier, right, became the first Bahamian branch president and Relief Society president, respectively. (Photograph by Julia Todd.) While a student in Utah, Clarence E. Newry Jr., below, was the first Bahamian to be baptized a member of the Church.

    Above: Marco Dauphin and Sidney Noel Jacques, two young Latter-day Saints and future leaders of the Church in the Bahamas. The Nassau Branch Young Women presidency, right, consists of Willamae Kemp, Claudina Smith, and Antoinette Newry.