History of the Church in Guatemala

David R. Crockett

The first missionary work performed in Guatemala was around 1902. In 1907 April General Conference, Church Historian Andrew Jenson reported on the progress of taking the gospel going forth to the nations. He said, "In Central America we have done next to nothing. In 1902 some of our Elders established themselves temporarily in Guatemala; but we have not preached in San Salvador, in Honduras, in Nicaragua, in Costa Rica, or in British Honduras."

In 1900-1902, the Brigham Young Academy conducted an exploring expedition to Central and South America. BYA faculty and students were called and set apart to go on this scientific expedition. It was led by Benjamin Cluff Jr. Others who went included: Asa S. Kienke, Heber Magleby, Walter S. Tolton, and Chester G. Van Buren. A group of fifteen left Provo to the sound of brass bands on April 17, 1900 with mounts and pack animals. Later, some members dropped out and leaving eight. During their trip, they visited Guatemala. The expedition arrived back home on February 7, 1902.

Some Mormon families started to settle in Guatemala in 1902. In 1903, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve read a letter from twenty-five Church members in Guatemala, seeking to establish a Church colony in the country. But no official Church presence was felt in Guatemala until many years later. (Rudger Clawson diary excerpts, 1903).

John Forres O'Donnal was raised in the Mormon colonies in northern Mexico. In his patriarchal blessing he was promised that one day he would perform a great work among the Lamanite people to the south. In 1942, while working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he was assigned to work in Guatemala on an experimental rubber plantation. He met and married his wife Carmen, a Guatemalan. In 1946, he was visited by President Arwell L. Pierce, of the Mexican Mission. Later that year, Brother O'Donnal went to Salt Lake City and met with President George Albert Smith. Brother O'Donnal believed that the time was right to open up Guatemala to missionaries.

On September 4, 1947, President Pierce assigned four missionaries to Guatemala, as part of the Mexican Mission. The elders were: Seth G. Mattice, Earl E. Hansen, Robert B. Miller and David D. Lingard. President Pierce and his second counselor, H. Clark Fails, accompanied the four elders to open up the country. Three days later, the first Sacrament meeting was held in that country. Brother O'Donnal assisted with this meeting which was attended by several government leaders. He was also set apart to serve as a local missionary. Elders Mattice and Hansen were left to work in Guatemala, the other elders departed for Costa Rica. The Church News reported: "The prospects are promising in both of these countries. Already several fine investigators have been found, and tracting and cottage meetings are being held." (Church News, October 25, 1847).

Elder Spencer W. Kimball reported in October 1947 General Conference: "And in the last three months two new fields have been opened. Mexican missionaries from the Mexican Mission have been sent into Guatemala and Costa Rica, and the work is going forward with the approval and hearty response, it seems, of the leading authorities of those nations."

In 1948, John F. O'Donnal was set apart as district president. Sixty-six people attended the first district meeting in a rented building on August 22, 1848. Brother O'Donnal's wife, Carmen Galvez de O'Donnal, was the first Guatemalan baptized in the country on on November 13, 1948. Only a few missionaries served in the country during those early years because of political and economic problems, and difficulties obtaining visas. The work progressed slowly.

In 1952, Gordon M. Romney [My grandfather!!] was called to preside over a new mission to be created, the Central American Mission. In June, he received a phone call from President Stephen L. Richards who said: "We would like you to go to Central America to build some chapels, to build a mission home, and to preside over the mission."

In the fall of 1952, Elder Spencer W. Kimball, Elder Bruce R. McConkie, and Gordon M. Romney went on a five-week tour of Central America. The flight from Mexico City to Panama was it little bit hairy. One of the four motors stopped. Sister Elizabeth Romney [My grandmother] recalled: "To look out the window of the plane and see the propeller stopped was a bit terrifying. . . . We were assured that 'all was well.' That really didn't reassure me, especially when the co-pilot came running down the isle and removed a piece of floor board, with tools did some work there, and raced back to the cabin. The green, lush jungle was beneath. I thought, 'Oh, nothing could happen to us because President Kimball and Elder McConkie were aboard." They made a safe emergency landing at Guatemala City airport and then continued on to Panama. ("Oral History Program: Interview by Ronald K. Esplin, p..43).

During the Central America tour, the group drove a car through the seven small countries and contacted government representatives. They received warm receptions and shared information about the Church and the Book of Mormon. During this trip, the brethren established the Central American Mission, with headquarters in Guatemala City. On November 16, 1952, Elder Spencer W. Kimball dedicated Central America for the preaching of the gospel. He prayed: "Today we ask thy special blessings upon the Lamanite cause and ask that the seed of Lehi in these Central American countries and the gentiles among them may see and hear and understand and have the courage and fortitude to accept and live the exalting program of thy divine gospel Let stony hearts be turned into hearts of flesh. Let repentance come in great measure. Let them accept the revealed word as parched and thirsty lands drink in the rains of heaven." He also prayed that the time might come when the Lamanites would be "converted 'a nation in a day' and . . . receive the promised blessings." (See "Unfolding of prophecy," by Ronald K. Esplin, Church News, January 13, 1979)

A testimony meeting was held in Guatemala City on the last Sunday of their tour. During the opening hymn a line formed consisting of members who desired to bear their testimony. As the meeting progressed, the line became longer and longer. The meeting lasted for five hours.

After their 30-day visit, Elders Kimball and McConkie left President Gordon M. Romney in charge of the mission. A small force of eleven elders, who transferred from the Mexican Mission, comprised the missionary force. President Romney soon called twelve native Guatemalans to be paired with the eleven missionaries. Financial help was raised in the States to support these native missionaries. In those days, before any Language Training Mission, when missionaries came from the states, they could not speak Spanish. These native elders helped with this problem and were put in charge of the branches. President Romney said, "We had a hard time that first year, but the Lord was good to us and we soon worked it out. The missionaries learned the language rapidly." Many more missionaries were sent from the states. They came out almost all together. There was a period when, out of about sixty missionaries, only forty could not communicate with the people. ("Oral History Program: Interview by Ronald K. Esplin).

At the time the mission was formed, there were about forty members in Guatemala City and about twenty in Quetzaltenango.

During 1953-54, a mission home and a large chapel were built in Guatemala City under the direction of mission president, Gordon M. Romney. In February 1954, President David O. McKay visited Guatemala City on the way back from a tour in South Africa and South America. A conference was held for the members, who were delighted to see the prophet. He inspected the chapel which was two-thirds complete. The members sat in the partly finished chapel and sang hymns in Spanish. President McKay later mentioned in April 1954 General Conference: "In Guatemala there is already being completed a chapel with its tile flooring and oak finish at such a reasonable cost as would make any ward in the Church envious." The new chapel made a big impact on missionary work. It began drawing twice as many investigators than members to the meetings.

After President McKay's visit, a revolution broke out in the country. Word came to President Romney that they should evacuate to Panama, but they could not because the airport was closed. Bullets flew and bombs fell. President Romney said: "From our own windows we saw many atrocities, we witnessed the bombing of the city and many nights of blackouts. Next door was a government building and they machine-gunned it. Each morning Sister Romney would go out to the patio and count the new bullet holes on the walls." ("Oral History Program: Interview by Ronald K. Esplin, p. 27). About forty-fifty missionaries were scattered throughout Guatemala, but they were safe during the conflict.

From 1952-1955, Guatemala City proved to be the most fruitful field in Central America. Several pairs of elders as well as sister missionaries were stationed there. During those early years, a sister missionary, Sister Alicia Arredondo, of Costa Rica, was the most successful missionary in Guatemala. Quetzaltenango, Guatemala soon was showing success. John F. O'Donnal and his family still lived in Guatemala, on their rubber plantation at Retaluleu. They were very helpful in the missionary effort.

President Romney described the daily routine of the Elders and Sisters working in Guatemala City: "After having breakfast at the apartment, we met six days a week at the chapel. This was from seven a.m. to 8 a.m. Here we studied the discussions, scriptures, language and shared our testimonies. All sisters and elders would meet together. Then at 8:00 they would begin tracting." Tracting during the day was not very effective because the fathers were not at home. The missionaries started to tract in the evenings for an hour before the dinner hour (usually at 8 or 9 p.m.) and found some wonderful families. (Oral History, 46)

When San Marcos was opened for missionary work, President Romney and a group of missionaries drove from the mission home early in the morning. They desired to hold a meeting at a school and sought out a school teacher. President Romney found her at a stream, washing her hair. He related: "I told her of the meeting we planned to hold and she said she had dreamed about it and was preparing herself." At the meeting that night, there were about 225 people present. The school teacher later joined the Church.

Obtaining Church material in Spanish was difficult. The missionaries had a few tracts and taught about eight or nine standard platicas (discussions). But material for the auxiliaries in the Church were hard to come by. The Relief Society had no lessons translated. Sister Romney recalled: "I scrambled for anything available or an elder or sister who could help me. We studied about the great poets of that country because the hermanas said, 'Why can't we study about our own great people?' . . . I even resorted to good articles from selections of the 'Reader's Digest.'" With the help of a sick elder in the mission home, Sister Romney translated a little manual for the girls in MIA call the "Alondras" (Larks). In March or April, 1953, Sister Romney started a mission periodical called "La Voz" (The Voice). This publication had a long life and continued for many years in Guatemala. (Oral History, 52-52)

The early missionaries caught many diseases, including dysentery, yellow jaundice, hepatitis, and even polio. In Quetzaltenango were stationed two sister missionaries and four elders. One by one, they all became ill with flu-like symptoms. When the last elder, Larry Elison, of Blackfoot, Idaho became ill, it was discovered that the illness was polio. This discovery was made shortly after President and Sister Romney left for General Conference. Five days later, they had the heartbreaking experience of seeing Elder Elison at the Salt Lake airport in a wheelchair. Elder Elison eventually learned to walk again without braces.

In early 1955, Elder Ezra Taft Benson toured eleven Latin American countries. Guatemala was not on the agenda, but because of plane trouble, he landed in Guatemala for a short visit. "We had the opportunity during seven hours there, to view the lovely new mission home and chapel and to have a long visit with the ambassador, and to hear him speak in praise about our people." (Conference Report, April 1955)

Elder LeGrand Richards visited Guatemala in May or June of 1955. He spent three weeks in Central America. As was typical during that time, visitors would become ill from the food or water. The same was true with Elder Richards. He mentioned to President Romney, "You should have heard my stomach in the night, you would have thought it was the rushing of mighty waters!" (See Isaiah 17:12).

When President and Sister Romney left Guatemala in 1955, the Central American mission was averaging one baptism per day.

By 1956 three branches existed in Guatemala with about 250 members. During this year, John O'Donnal was in a serious accident and taken to the hospital for major surgery. He was in critical condition. During this time he had a remarkable experience. He later related that the Lord showed him that a temple would one day be built in Guatemala. "Also, I was informed by a power beyond the power of man that my life would be spared but that my life would not be my own." Brother O'Donnal recovered and did continue to serve faithfully among the people in Guatemala. ("Giving Ourselves to the Service of the Lord," Gordon B. Hinckley, Ensign, March 1987)

During about 1956, a group of ninety-five Saints from Guatemala and El Salvador traveled more than three thousand miles by bus to attend the Mesa Arizona Temple. Many were ill at the beginning of the journey, but were healed priesthood blessings so they could continue the journey. After a total of six days, they reached Mesa, Arizona. "They spontaneously burst into singing 'We Thank Thee O God for a Prophet.' Tears of joy and thanksgiving filled the eyes of those who had traveled so far to enter the Arizona Temple." ("The Arizona Temple and the Lamanites," by Richard O. Cowan)

By 1960 the members in Guatemala had reached over 1,800. On July 31, 1965, the Central American Mission was divided, and the Guatemala-El Salvador Mission was created. Terrence L. Hansen continued as president.

In November, 1966, the Church received official recognition in Guatemala. At that time there were 8,000 members. Permission had been given to construct branch chapels in each village where there missionaries were teaching. Missionary work was accelerating.

In 1967, the first stake in Central America was created in Guatemala City. At that time there were 10,000 members in the country. The first stake president was Udine Falabella.

The stake was divided in 1972, and in 1976 Guatemala received its own mission.

On February 4, 1976, a terrible earthquake shook Guatemala. It was said to be the largest earthquake in Central America in modern history. The epicenter was near the Honduras border and was felt for hundreds of miles. The towns of Patzicia and Chimaltenango were hit the hardest. More than 22,000 people were killed, including 24 members of the Church. Thousands more were injured. Hundreds of thousands were left homeless. More than 700 aftershocks were felt including another large quake four days later.

President Robert B. Arnold of the Guatemala City Mission related: "The quake struck at 3 a.m. and we were awakened by the mission home being violently shaken, the sound of glass shattering, other buildings crumbling, and the ground shifting. As soon as the quake ceased, my wife and I calmed our four children and we went outside. When we were assured that the building was safe, we made telephone contact with some of the zone leaders in the city and found that the damage was not too severe in some areas and no serious injuries were were suspected. Other areas of the city were inaccessible by telephone and I had to drive around to the zone leaders and asked them to make a report on the well-being of the Saints as soon as possible." President Arnold contacted the leaders in the two Guatemala City stakes and within a few hours made an initial report to Salt Lake City. ("Massive Task of Reconstruction Faces Saints in Guatemala." Ensign, April, 1976)

News soon started coming in that Patzicia and Chimaltenango were devastated. Elder Randall Ellsworth had been sleeping in the Patzicia chapel and was pinned for a time by a beam that crushed his back. He was seriously injured. His legs were paralyzed and he had kidney damage. But if he and his companion had instead been sleeping in the small house that they had been using, they would have been killed. The chapel was a complete loss, but was the only Church building destroyed. Elder Ellsworth returned to the United States for treatment. His recovery was miraculous -- a story that has been told and retold in General Conferences by Thomas S. Monson and others. Elder Randall Ellsworth later returned to his mission in Guatemala.

Fast offering funds were used to help the homeless Saints in Guatemala to purchase food and plastic sheeting for temporary shelter. Doctors were sent from Salt Lake City. Health missionary worked with the Saints, providing instructions on boiling water, sanitation, and conducting vaccination programs. President Arnold reported: "Our 230 proselyting missionaries were organized to help the Saints to clear rubble, provide care for the injured, and assist in the distribution of food, clothing, blankets, and other supplies." Tremendous help was received from surrounding stakes and missions. After two months President Arnold said: "Our pressing need is no longer food, clothing, or bandages, it is the reconstruction of our homes and of our lives." (Ensign, April, 1976)

In February, 1977, President Spencer W. Kimball presided at an area conference in Guatemala City. During a priesthood session, he testified: "I know that the Lord called me to this position. I know that there are greater prophets, perhaps, than I, but I wish to do all I can to carry forward the work of the Lord as he wants it done. Every night and morning I kneel and pray with deep sincerity that the Lord will inspire me and reveal to me the direction I should go and what I should tell the people of this Church." (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p.468)

In 1977, the Guatemala Quezaltenango Mission was created. The first mission president was Guatemalan church pioneer John F. O'Donnal. Membership in Guatemala approached 17,000.

In 1981, a temple was announced for Guatemala City. It was to be constructed in a hilly area of the city known as Vista Hermosa. On September 12, 1982, ground was broken for the temple. Elder Richard G. Scott presided at the ceremony. Prior to this time, a group of men, women, and children worked all day clearing bushes, undergrowth, and garbage from the temple site. When heavy machinery moved onto the site the next morning to clear tree roots and logs, they discovered that the land was heavily infested with poisonous snakes. It was a miracle that not one person had been bitten the previous day. ("Rejoice in Christ," Ted E. Brewerton, Ensign, December, 1994)

On December 14-16, 1984, the Guatemala City Temple was dedicated. President Gordon B. Hinckley presided. Included in the dedicatory prayer was: "Bless our land, O Father, this nation of Guatemala where stands they holy house. May those who govern do so in righteousness. Bless them as they act to preserve the liberties and enhance the prosperity of the people. May there be peace in the land. May it be preserved from revolution and war. May there be freedom and equity under the law. May there be education and opportunity for all. May the forces of oppression and darkness be stayed by thy power, and may the light of truth shine over this Republic." John F. O'Donnal was called to serve as the president of the Guatemala City Temple.

President Hinckley later said, "In ten dedicatory session, thousands of wonderful people joined in presenting this sacred house to God our Eternal Father and His Beloved Son Jesus Christ. Those familiar with the people estimated that more than 75 percent of those who were there were descendants of Father Lehi. . . . Hundreds of those who came to the dedicatory services lived in the mountains and jungles of Guatemala and other areas of Central America." (Ensign, March, 1987) Between temple dedication session, President Hinckley walked out a rear exit to get some fresh air. There he found a group of Saints, some of them bearfoot, who had traveled hundreds of miles to attend the dedication. He could not hold back the tears as he thought about their humble circumstances and the sacrifices they had made to come to Guatemala City. (Dew, God Forward With Faith, 419)

With a temple in Guatemala, great blessings were experienced by the members. In 1985, President Gary E. Elliot of the Guatemala City mission said: "The most gratifying thing about the influence of the temple has been the reactivation of many members." ("Guatemala: where Church comes of age." Church News, June 30, 1985.) In 1985, membership reached 40,000 in eight stakes and thirteen districts.

During December 1987, the Guatemala Quetzaltenango Mission baptized more than twice their usual number of converts. This placed the mission among the highest baptizing missions in the Church that month. Elder Sergio Arnado said: "We missionaries also sacrified and dedicated ourselves a little more. The whole mission pulled together." (Church News, February 13, 1988).

In 1987, Gordon W. Romney [my uncle!] was called to serve as the President of the Guatemala City mission. He was the son of Gordon M. Romney, the first mission president of the Central America Mission. As a ten-year-old, he had traveled to Guatemala with his father and mother on their mission. In 1988, President Romney became the first president of the newly created Guatemala City North Mission, the third mission in the country. In 1989, the Church News reported great successes experienced in the mission. Full-time missionaries were being paired with home teachers to make visits. About 10,000 visits to nearly 5,000 families were made in a two-month period. During those months, every missionary companionship had a baptism and Church attendance increase by 40 percent in some areas. President Romney said, "The members here are really getting excited about home teaching. When they see the results, they realize what an impact someone's testimony and love can have." President Romney credited the growth of the Church stemming from these visits to "persistence, love, and retention." Elder Reyes C. Velasquez of San Marcos, Guatemala, said, "I'm so excited about seeing families return to activity! When I return home from my mission, I'll be the best home teacher ever. I make this commitment to the Lord." ("Visits Harvest Baptisms and Reactivate Members." Church News, September 16, 1989).

In April, 1989, Carlos H. Amado was called to serve in the Second Quorum of the Seventy. He became the first Guatemalan General Authority. He was the area director of the Church Education System in Guatemala City.

On January 3, 1990, two missionaries were drowned when the boat they were passengers in, capsized on Guatemala's Lake Atitlan. They were Elders Adam Leach, of Laguna Beach, California, and Brian Bartholomew, of Modesto, California. They were returning from across the lake on an errand to pick up documents for a baptism. A strong wind caused the boat to capsize. A third missionary swam ashore to safety. ("Two Missionaries Thought Drowned in Guatemala." Church News, January 13, 1990)

The Central America Area was created from the Mexico/Central America Area on October 1, 1990. The headquarters were established in Guatemala City under the leadership of Elder Ted E. Brewerton. Elder Brewerton said about the Saints in Momostenago, west of Guatemala City: "It is a common practice for members to walk three hours to attend Sunday meetings, and they do it willingly." ("Central America: Work is Booming as Members Eagerly Share Their Testimonies With Friends." Church News, February 16, 1991).

In 1990, membership reached 125,000.

In October, 1991, the country of Guatemala was formally dedicated by Elder Marvin J. Ashton. Elder Russell M. Nelson spoke at the gathering and said: "We have seen remarkable things happen in Eastern European countries following apostolic prayers of dedication. Where once there was no welcome and no established Church in those countries, following dedicatory prayers, missions have been established, recognition has been given to the work, and now it is underway. In the country of Guatemala the challenges are different. But just as certainly following this prayer of dedication the country and its people will be blessed in a real way." ("Book of Mormon Land, Guatemala, is Dedicated.", Church News, November 2, 1991).

In 1992, ground was broken for a new building to house the MTC in Guatemala. Elder Ted E. Brewerton reflected on the progress of the Church in the country: "From a humble group of six men in Guatemala forty years ago, we have grown to more than 260,000 members in Central America. Although we have seen much, we will see more. There will be many millions throughout Central America." (New MTC in Guatemala", Ensign, October, 1992)

In July, 1993, the Guatemala Guatemala City Central Mission was created. It was the fourth mission in the country. It also included the country of Belize. President Julio Alvarado of the Guatemala Quetzaltenango Mission said: "Frequently in the past our missionaries met people who were interested in having the lessons, but were unable to hear the gospel because we did not have enough missionaries. Now we will have enough missionaries to carry the gospel to many more places to those people who are waiting for the gospel." He said there were pure Lamanites living in the mountains who "are very special in accepting the gospel. Their activity rate is higher than 75 percent, and the young people are very strong at living the teachings of the gospel." ("Eight New Missions Announced." Church News, March 6, 1993).

On November 22, 1993, President Jose M. Jimenez, president of the Guatemala Guatemala City North Mission, and one of his counselors, Julio Afre, died when their plane crashed into the side of a mountain during a storm. All thirteen people aboard the plane were killed. President Jimenez was returning from a conference in the Flores District. He was a native of Puerto Rico. His counselor, President Afre was a native of Guatemala. Hundreds of people attended memorial services for the two Church leaders. ("Members of Mission Presidency Die in Plane Crash," Ensign, February, 1994)

On January 22, 1994, Elder Boyd K. Packer dedicated the new missionary training center and temple patron housing in Guatemala City. The facility would accommodate 102 missionaries, about 112 temple patrons, and seven temple missionary couples. Elder Packer, accompanied by his wife, Donna, also presided over a regional conference attended by 6,000 members. In the dedicatory prayer, Elder Packer asked a blessing upon all those who would be trained at the MTC. He also prayed that the nation and peoples of Guatemala would have the necessities of life. ("Guatemala Training Center Dedicated." Church News, February 12, 1994).

In 1995, Church membership in Guatemala reached 148,000, in 30 stakes and 30 districts. There were 171 wards and 118 branches. The Central America Area Presidency reported to the Ensign magazine: "Church growth has accelerated [in Guatemala] since completion of the Guatemala City Temple in 1984. When the temple was dedicated, we had only ten stakes in the whole country; now we have twenty-four. It has been a blessing that Guatemala, even with its challenges, has not had the missionaries pulled out as has happened in some of the other countries of Central America. Many Guatemalans are descendants of father Lehi. We believe the temple was built in Guatemala because of the promises Heavenly Father made to Lehi. We have had all sorts of political instability in Guatemala, but our members have maintained their religious stability." By 1996 there were over 180,000 members. Five new stakes were added during the year.

In January, 1997, Guatemalan Saints were thrilled by a visit from President Gordon B. Hinckley at a regional conference in Guatemala City. President Hinckley spoke to 35,000 members, in two sessions. He also spoke at a priesthood leadership meeting attended by more than 1,000 leaders from 12 stakes, and to a gathering of 700 missionaries. The general sessions were held at the La Pedrera soccer stadium. Sixty buses came from the city of Quetzaltenango, about a 4 1/2-hour ride. President Hinckley thanked members for their sacrifice in coming. "I am pleased to see so many of the sons and daughters of Father Lehi. I think if he could look down on this vast audience, there would be great tears in his eyes of gratitude. . . . I am grateful, my brothers and sisters, to see us return to the way of the Lord." (Church News, February 1, 1997).

In the second session, President Hinckley added: "There is much of poverty in this land. I do not know how it can be cured without the aid of a higher power, and it is my testimony that the answer to the problems of Guatemala and the poverty of her people lies in the revealed word of the Lord: Tithing. If there is anyone here today who is not paying his or her tithing, I challenge you to deal with the Lord and earn His blessings."