Church History in the Virgin Islands
The U.S. Virgin Islands are located seventy miles east of Puerto Rico. They consist of the islands of St. Thomas (32 square miles), St. John (20 square miles), St. Croix (84 square miles), and many tiny islands. In 1917, the U.S. bought the islands from Denmark. In 1927 the residents were granted U.S. citizenship. A total of 1,767,299 tourists visited the islands in 1995. The British Virgin islands lie to the north east. See a tourist page for the islands at: http://www.usvi.net/
In February 1955, Elder Ezra Taft Benson, of the Quorum of Twelve, and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture visited the Virgin Islands. He was a member of the Virgin Islands Corporation Board. He was surprised to meet a member of the Church, an electrical engineer, who was working on the islands.
In 1969, Earl and Celia Keele moved to St. Thomas from Nevada with their two children. They held Sunday School in their home, and received leadership from the branch in Puerto Rico. The Keeles traveled to Puerto Rico for district conferences and other important meetings. In 1970, James and Carolyn Boykin also moved into the island, expanding the little group of Saints. Debra Rybacki met with the family and was the first person baptized in the Virgin Islands. She was baptized in Brewer's Bay in January 1976. Other families soon arrived and the St. Thomas Branch was created on December 13, 1977. (1997-98 Church Almanac, 405).
The first full-time missionaries were assigned to work on St. Thomas by President Richard Millett of the Florida Ft. Lauderdale Mission. The first two missionaries were Elders John Sorenson and Dean Blomquist, who had served as assistants to the president. They began working among the predominantly black population in Charlotte Amalie. Meetings were first held in the member homes and soon several families were baptized. Missionary couples also served on the island.
In October 1979, President Millett visited St. Thomas. While there, he met with a recent convert Aubrey Nelthrop, who owned a business in Charlotte Amalie. He was enthusiastic about the gospel, but his wife had wavered in her faith, and returned to her former religion. President Millett recorded in his journal:
Elders [Steven B.] Wooley and Gleue met us at the airport in St. Thomas along with President Keele, who drove us over to the small branch that was located in a rented facility just east of the harbor. I was invited to speak to the members, which was a surprise to me, but it was an enjoyable experience.On January 28, 1981, The first missionaries arrived on St. Croix. They were Elders Thomas Williams, Eric Leach, Gregory Collier, and Kurtis Gibbons. Meetings were held in the home of a member, Jack Cluett, with fifteen people in attendance at first. A branch was organized on February 8, 1981. Stephen L. Whitmer was the first branch president. Several converts were baptized during 1981. A meetinghouse was later built on the island.
I interviewed Aubrey Nelthrop to be an elder and found him worthy. He is excited about the Church but is concerned about his wife's return to her previous religion. I counseled him to set a good example for her, to hold family prayer and to study the scriptures together in order that he might encourage her to grow in the Gospel. She has been baptized but continues to attend the Catholic Church.
Brother Earl Keele was interviewed and called to be the branch president. Up to this time he had served as the Presiding Elder because there were times when there were only one or two members in addition to the Keeles.
We had a lovely Sunday School service in St. Thomas. There were several investigator families present including the Williams who were new converts. The Keele's sister-in-law is very interested in the Gospel, and the missionaries are starting to teach her.
I visited with Brother and Sister Nelthrop. I was very straight forward in my discussion with Sister Nelthrop, telling her of the importance of supporting her husband, the significance of him receiving the Melchizedek Priesthood and how it could bless their lives. I pointed out to her that other Christian religions do many wonderful things but can only prepare people for the terrestrial and telestial kingdoms, and that we may only obtain exaltation and eternal life through the Kingdom of our Father. I also explained to her that it is the only way that she can have her husband and family for eternity. I challenged her to prepare to go to the temple with her husband by reading the Book of Mormon together each day for at least 15 minutes. (From History submitted to LDS-Gems by Richard Millett).
In September 1989, Hurricane Hugo hit St. Croix, destroying homes of many members. Ninety-five percent of all homes on St. Croix lost their roofs. Food was sent from the U.S., and the branch meetinghouse was used as an emergency shelter. In 1995, there were about 300 members in the Virgin Islands, in two branches.