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BYU-Hawaii contingent helps celebrate Tonga LDS centennial

Mike Foley | University Advancement | 23 August 2007

BYUH prof Toluta'u dances in TongaA contingent of BYU-Hawaii faculty and students, along with about 40 others from the community, this past summer helped celebrate the centennial of the reintroduction of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints missionaries in the Kingdom of Tonga. (View a video montage )

BYU-Hawaii professors Viliami Toluta'u and Tevita Ka'ili — both university alumni originally from Tonga — co-chaired the Uho o Tonga Historical Society commemoration conference from June 13-24, 2007. Conference participants, including eight BYU-Hawaii students who presented historical research papers and about 40 descendants of the early missionaries, traveled from Vava'u in the northern part of the kingdom, through the Ha'apai island group to the main island of Tongatapu, putting on sessions, parades, and other events. The partially BYU-Hawaii-based Mormon Pacific Historical Society and the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation co-sponsored the conference. Former BYU-Hawaii President Eric B. Shumway delivered the keynote address.

Toluta'u, a sculptor, recalled when his statue of George Q. Cannon and Ionatana Napela, early Latter-day Saint missionary stalwarts in Hawaii, was unveiled at the BYU-Hawaii Cannon Activities Center during the 1997 Pioneers in the Pacific celebration. He said, "An old Hawaiian kupuna [elder] came up to me. She was short, so I had to lean over for her to put a lei around my neck, and as I did, she whispered, 'Thank you for doing this for my people.'"

Latter-day Saints dance for Tonga centennial "That statement really haunted me, because the Hawaiians have their history documented, but I came to realize that our [Tongan LDS] history is not really well put together." Toluta'u said he finally began about seven years ago to accumulate journals of early Latter-day Saint missionaries in Tonga, and two years ago helped form Uho o Tonga.

He explained that in the Tongan language uho means "the umbilical cord that connects the mother to the child; the part of the tree that connects the roots to the leaves, and the core or center of truth. We used the title for the conference because we are the uho who need to get information from our ancestors for our posterity. That's our major responsibility." The organization's web site indicates it also stands for "Uniting Heritage and Offspring."

Toluta'u pointed out the first Latter-day Saint missionaries came to Tonga from Samoa in 1891, but withdrew in 1897 after only six people joined the Church. The missionaries were permanently reintroduced in 1907.

"I now have over 30 different journals, some of them collected from the Church Archives and the BYU [Harold B. Lee] Library, but most of them come from homes where the people kept them all these years," he said. "For example, we have a picture of the hotel the missionaries stayed at in 1891. From another journal we found out there's one building in the center of Nuku'alofa [the capital] the elders rented in 1891. It's still there. I went in and stood on the balcony where they talked about [King] George Tupou I, who came around in his chariot, returning from parliament to his palace. Nobody today knew these elders lived there back in 1891."

BYUH student presents paper in Tonga Ka'ili, an International Cultural Studies (ICS) professor who teaches anthropology and Pacific studies, said the conference was a big success and "a spiritual feast for everyone." He described the student papers as "well-researched, and well-received by the people of Tonga. "In fact," he said, "there was a lot of history they didn't know." Putting the information together with family oral traditions "gave us a better, holistic picture of the historical accounts of what happened in the early days of the Church in Tonga," he said.

BYU-Hawaii history professor Isaiah Walker explained that his students, five of them Tongans (three of whom were raised in Tonga), "spent two semesters in a directed historical research class with me before going. They are incredibly talented and when they are engaged in research that is personal, they produce exciting stuff. Through this experience, several students caught on to the excitement of doing academic research. A number of these student projects will soon be published in one form or another. Several of them have been inspired to pursue post-graduate education through this experience as well."

"A lot of people also felt the spirit of Elijah," said Ka'ili. "They felt they needed to do more work on the roles their families played in helping the Church in Tonga. Some did not become members, but they fed the missionaries, or they took them in and introduced them to the chief. From the Uho o Tonga perspective, they are also pioneers — people who laid the foundation."

One such person was Ka'ili's great-grandfather, who "fed and housed the missionaries in 1896, and opened his home to the school in Neiafu, but he did not join the Church. He was a preacher in another church, who opened his heart to the missionaries. I'm sure that people were pressuring him. When the missionaries went there in 1891 it was very, very difficult."

But after the reintroduction, missionary work gained momentum. "In Tongatapu the first baptized member was someone from the royal family, Tupou Moheofo, the great-grandmother of the queen," Toluta'u said. "We dedicated a memorial to her, and five princesses came. They were excited to know that their great-grandma joined the Church in 1911. I believe she was a 'gate-opener' that led others to join."

"It was a spiritual experience for me to reconnect with my island, my history and my ancestors," said Ka'ili. He added Uho o Tonga will produce volumes of history and a video from approximately 70 hours of documentation, and they are also providing information for primarily Latter-day Saint family reunion groups.

LDS centennial 'parade,' Ha'apai, Tonga Toluta'u said the conference also changed him. "I'm amazed, as a sculptor, that I'm doing history; but I can only think of Moses who wondered: Why me? Why not Aaron? I've come to realize when the Lord leads the work, we just need to do it. We don't need to find excuses or claim our weaknesses." However, he added he also has several new sculpture projects in mind from the experience.

"Watching the descendants of the missionaries, I could tell they felt a totally different spirit," he continued, noting that Bruce Jensen, a banker from St. George, Utah, "told me what he learned and the spirit he felt in Tonga made him feel like a missionary like his grandfather."

"It's a miracle to see how the struggles of the early missionaries have developed," Toluta'u said. He pointed out that today over 52,000 members of the Church live in Tonga, which has a population of approximately 120,000, giving the kingdom the highest member to non-member ratio in the world. In addition, many students from Tonga have attended BYU-Hawaii and returned home to help build their families, nation, Church and other parts of the South Pacific.

 

 

— Photos by Leilani Miller, a senior ICS major from Laie: (Upper left) Viliami Toluta'u helps celebrate the centennial; (middle right): Tongan Saints join in the celebration; (middle left): a BYU-Hawaii student delivers his paper; (lower right): a water-borne parade in Ha'apai.

Other key participants included psychology professor 'Inoke Funaki, Tongatapu and Eua coordinator; Norman Harris, son of the late BYUH alum Bill Harris, Vava'u coordinator; PCC officer and alum Fifita Unga, Ha'apai Coordinator; Valu Pauni, bishop of the Hauula Tongan ward, memorial coordinator; Mark James, ELT professor and MPHS president; Nunia Ongoongotau, Tongan Language instructor; student videographer Albert Rosales; and Vernice Wineera and the Pacific Institute.