“The Saints on Vancouver Island,” Ensign, Apr. 1976, 45
The Saints on Vancouver Island
On February 9, 1975, an idea dating back at least 130 years was at last fulfilled when a stake of Zion was organized on Vancouver Island. In the November 1, 1845, issue of the Times and Seasons President Brigham Young published a letter inviting the Saints throughout the world to gather to Nauvoo in preparation for the westward migration to an as yet undesignated spot. A postscript to the letter adds: “There are said to be many good locations for settlement on the Pacific, especially Vancouver’s Island near the mouth of the Columbia.” Rumors were widespread in Illinois that year that the persecuted Mormons “had chosen Vancouver Island as their future home, the metropolis to be situated at Nootka.” (Herbert Howe Bancroft, History of Utah, San Francisco, 1889, p. 238.)
The Saints in England liked the idea of an American Zion under the British flag, and the November 28, 1846, issue of the Millennial Star carried a petition to Queen Victoria and the members of the British Parliament for a grant of land and financial assistance to transport 20,000 British settlers to “Vancouver’s Island.” But the petition was apparently never directly acted upon, and in January 1849 a royal charter turned Vancouver Island over to the Hudson Bay Company, thus determining that any colonization on the island would be under the auspices of that company.
By this time, Utah had been designated as “the place,” and the Saints gave no further thought to Vancouver Island until the outbreak of the polygamy persecutions and the “Utah War.” Again rumors of Mormon interest in a Pacific coast location began to spread and reached the ears of the British government as well as the governor and directors of the Hudson Bay Company. These gentlemen were averse to any large scale Mormon migration to the island, and Sir James Douglas, the British governor of the island, received instructions from the Imperial Government early in 1858 that “no rights of occupation whatever” were to be granted to any group of Mormons. “If however individuals or families … should peacefully apply for admission into Vancouver’s Island the case is different.” Such immigrants were to be received, provided they agreed to “submit themselves entirely to the laws of England, as retained in the Colonial community over which you preside.” (Labouchere to Douglas, Great Britain, Public Record Office, CO 410/1, pp. 120–23.)
Nearly twenty years were to pass before a Mormon family appeared on Vancouver Island, and by that time there is no indication that anyone either knew or cared about their religion. The exact date has not been determined, but it was sometime in 1875 that William Francis Copley, his wife Maria Judson Copley, and their three small children arrived in Victoria from Fillmore, Utah, via the Nevada silver mines and San Francisco. Why they left Utah no one can now be certain—one son (born after the family was settled on Vancouver Island) thought that it was a vain search for gold, Victoria being an outfitting center for those seeking quick fortunes in the interior of British Columbia. Another son thought that Brigham Young’s interest in Vancouver Island had prompted his parents’ migration. But whatever the reason, they came and stayed to become the first, and for many years the only, Latter-day Saints on Vancouver Island.
About 1890 Sarah Jackson, a niece of Maria Copley, arrived to assist her aunt who by that time had a family of nine children. She had only intended a visit, but when she met and married John Raymond the “visit” stretched into a lifetime. The first LDS Sunday School in Victoria was held in this woman’s home many years later.
In the meantime the first conversion to Mormonism on Vancouver Island took place. How it happened remains a mystery, there having been as yet no missionaries sent to the island. But in the autumn of 1887 Anthony Maitland Stenhouse, member of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia for the Comox constituency, announced his intention to join the Mormons, resigned his seat in the legislature, and soon took up residence in the infant Mormon colony at Cardston in the Northwest Territories where he was baptized by Charles Ora Card and became a prominent citizen until 1891 when he apparently returned to Great Britain, his original home. This conversion and Stenhouse’s vigorous defense of polygamy gave great notoriety to Mormonism but did nothing to build up a Latter-day Saint community on the island.
Not until 1902 did something of significance with respect to the Church again happen on Vancouver Island. On March 15 of that year British Columbia was added to the Northwestern States Mission. Three months later the Utah Press Association, fifty-four members strong, visited Victoria and adjacent points and received the “red carpet” treatment from the Victoria Tourist Association. The Victoria Daily Times noted that “perhaps the most distinguished visitor is Charles William Penrose, editor of the Deseret News, which is the official organ of the Mormon church. … Its editor’s name is a household word in every Mormon family. He is beloved by all of the sect and his friends among the Gentiles run far into the thousands. … He is also a preacher of considerable note, and although he is seventy years old his voice is frequently heard in the great Mormon tabernacle in Salt Lake.” (June 16, 1902.)
Half of the members of the delegation were reported to be Mormons, and these included: D. P. Felt, Juvenile Instructor; Mrs. Annie Morton, Zion’s Young People; Miss Estella Neff and Mrs. E. Goddard, Young Woman’s Journal; Miss May Anderson, Children’s Friend; Miss Annie Campbell, Women’s Exponent; as well as editors of newspapers in several smaller Utah communities. Whether any of these visitors had anything to do with the arrival of the first Mormon missionaries to labor on the island is not known, but it seems at least possible that after the pleasant reception they received in Victoria, Brother Penrose and/or other members of the press association urged the Brethren to send missionaries to what looked like a possible fruitful field of labor. In any event, the elders arrived on the steamer “Majestic” from Puget Sound on Wednesday, May 13, 1903, nearly a year after the visit of the press association.
The following day, President Nephi Pratt of the Northwestern States Mission organized the “Victoria Conference” with Elder W. M. Swan of Salt Lake City as the president. The missionaries reported that “several Latter-day Saints were found there.” On June 10 and 11, 1903, the Victoria Daily Times and the Daily Colonist, respectively, carried the news item that “Elders B. H. Telford and W. M. Swan of the ‘Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ of Utah and Idaho, together with five other elders are in the city, and are addressing meetings on the corner of Yates and Government streets on Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday evenings each week. … They preach the Mormon faith, and this is their first visit to the city.” The Colonist of June 12 noted that “quite a number of Victorians have … expressed keen disapproval of the presence in the city of a number of preachers of the Mormon faith, who … [are] spreading doctrines of a sort few in the city would like to see generally followed.” Thus began Mormon missionary work on Vancouver Island.
It is difficult to ascertain what success these early missionaries had, but it appears to have been minimal. George V. Copley, a younger son of William and Maria, tells of hearing the elders preaching on the street corner, deciding that they must be Mormons, and telling his mother about them on his next trip home to Shawnigan, some thirty miles from the city. “She went back with me that night and fell on them with rapture.” This led to the first baptisms on the island of which any record has been found. During the summer of 1904 first Maria Judson Copley and her eldest daughter, Clara, were baptized at Shawnigan Lake; then Merian, the seventh son, and William Francis, the father. Mary Graham Copley, wife of the eldest son, may also have been baptized that summer. For the elder Copleys, who had been baptized years earlier, this represented a renewal of covenants; the others were converts. What other successes the missionaries may have had the records do not reveal, but these were apparently minimal, and the elders were probably withdrawn from the island in 1905—the available records reveal no trace of them after the early part of that year.
In February 1910 missionaries arrived on the island again, this time under the direction of President Melvin J. Ballard of the Northwestern States Mission. Progress was painfully slow, but finally in the summer of 1917 there were more baptisms. By the end of that year the elders could report that “after years of almost discouraging opposition, it seems that the Gospel is finally making an impression in Victoria. A few good investigators have been found, and already a number have signified their intention of accepting the Gospel.” By the summer of 1918 there were five families, making twenty-one members in Victoria. On the basis of this strength, the first Latter-day Saint Sunday School on Vancouver Island was organized with George V. Copley as an early superintendent. When proselyting success was not sustained, the missionaries were withdrawn from the island in 1923. They were sent again to Victoria and to Nanaimo in the summer of 1924, but after three months of unfruitful labor they were again withdrawn, and the Victoria Sunday School was left to its own resources. It lost vitality as members of the Church moved away, and the few that remained lacked the strength to carry on. They lost contact with the Church except for brief and unconnected periods of missionary activity.
The Great Depression saw very little missionary activity on the island, with no missionaries assigned for most of the time from 1930 to 1937. But the latter year witnessed the birth of the Sunday School that was to provide continuity for the Church organization on Vancouver Island. This Sunday School was organized when Melvin Oxspring, president of the Vancouver British Columbia Branch of the Northwestern States Mission, moved with his family to Victoria. He sought out the handful of members of the Church residing in the city and sent a request to the mission president for missionaries to be once more sent to the island. The elders came with authority to organize a Sunday School, and on October 17, 1937, a Latter-day Saint Sunday School was organized at the Oxspring residence. There were ten adults, including two missionaries, and seven children present at that organizational meeting. Brother Oxspring’s employment soon took him away from Victoria, but the Sunday School survived, due largely to the efforts of a tireless sister who was set apart as second counselor in the Sunday School superintendency. As the years went by Sister Una K. Hillier, who had moved to Victoria from Saskatchewan two years previously, provided continuity in the organization. Superintendents came and went, but she remained as second counselor in the Victoria Sunday School superintendency for eight years, and then served as superintendent for over two years, from mid-1945 to the latter part of 1947.
Meanwhile World War II had brought sufficient members of the Church to the island in the armed services and war-related industry to justify the organization of a dependent branch of the Church in 1942. In 1946 the status was changed to an independent branch.
While the Victoria Branch was slowly growing, members of the Church were also moving into the Nanaimo area, and they too felt the need for Church activity. In the latter part of 1946, two missionaries of the Northwestern States Mission organized a Sunday School in the Samuel Dyson home with twenty-three present. The Nanaimo Branch was organized on May 5, 1948. In the meantime, the island was transferred to the new Western Canadian Mission near the end of 1947.
Another milestone was reached on June 2, 1951, when sod was turned for the first Latter-day Saint building on Vancouver Island—the Nanaimo Branch meetinghouse. The completed building was dedicated May 27, 1953, by Elder John Longden, Assistant to the Council of the Twelve, to become the center of Latter-day Saint activities on Vancouver Island.
While these developments were taking place in Nanaimo, missionary work in other parts of the island had increased in momentum, leading to the organization of Sunday Schools and then branches in other communities. Sufficient progress had been made by August 2, 1959, to create the Victoria District from part of the Vancouver District of the Western Canadian Mission and place it under local priesthood leadership. In 1960 it became part of the new Alaska-Canadian Mission.
As the branches of the Church multiplied and grew, additional buildings were erected or purchased. In Victoria a first stage building was in use in 1960 and the fully completed building was dedicated by President N. Eldon Tanner in 1969. The Port Alberni meetinghouse was begun in 1963, completed three years later, and dedicated by William J. Critchlow, Jr. At about the same time the Duncan Branch solved its housing problem by purchasing and renovating a Roman Catholic building.
Then on February 9, 1975, in a theater just two blocks from the corner where those first missionaries held their street meetings back in 1903, Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Council of the Twelve Apostles explained to a conference of the Victoria District of the Canada Vancouver Mission the symbolism of the term “Stake of Zion.” He pointed out that the word “stake” was taken from the stakes that were driven into the ground to give stability to the tabernacle of ancient Israel. He went on to say that the reason for his visit to Victoria was figuratively to drive a stake into the soil of Vancouver Island, symbolizing the stability and permanence of the Church on the island. He then proposed that a stake of Zion consisting of the Nanaimo, Victoria Colwood, Victoria First, and Victoria Second wards; and the Courtenay, Duncan, Port Alberni, Powell River, and Sidney branches be established. The vote to sustain this proposal was unanimous. Appropriately, a great-grandson of one of the earliest missionaries to labor in the area was sustained as the first president of the new stake. President Howard L. Biddulph knew nothing of his great-grandfather’s 1905 mission to the Northwestern States Mission (and Vancouver Island) until just a few days before the conference at which the stake was organized. A chance glance at a list of missionary names compiled from an old autograph album revealed a familiar name: George W. Quibel. Some hurried research in family records confirmed that this was indeed the ancestor of the man who, in a few days, was to become the stake president.
The Victoria British Columbia Stake is located on the largest island off the west coast of North America. Vancouver Island is approximately three hundred miles long and ninety-five miles wide, and is separated from the mainland by Georgia Strait and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The crossing to the mainland takes about twenty minutes by air or one hour and forty minutes by ferry boat.
The population of the island is approximately four hundred thousand, three-fifths of which reside in Victoria and its immediate vicinity. Another one-eighth of the population lives in Nanaimo, the island’s second largest city.
Victoria is the capital city of the Canadian province of British Columbia, and is thus the home of the provincial legislature. The city is situated on the extreme southern tip of the island, a position that combines with other geographical features to give it the most moderate climate in Canada. Summer days are warm but seldom really hot, and winters are comparatively moderate. Annual precipitation is only half the amount received in neighboring mainland communities, and yet Victoria is justly titled “the city of flowers,” truly one of North America’s garden spots.
The whole island is heavily forested, and though most of the real forest giants have long since been harvested they have been replaced by new growth that gives the appearance from the air of a gigantic carpet of green, liberally dotted with emerald lakes and streams. To drive the island’s highways at any season is to enjoy a seemingly endless panorama of stately giant Douglas firs, gnarled oaks, and red-barked arbutus trees, interspersed with magnificent mountains and seacoasts. In the spring the flowering dogwoods, wild broom, and rhododendrons add dashes of eye-catching color to the restful tones of green. It is easy to see why the island is a favorite haunt for tourists; and tourism is an industry that ranks second to the wood and wood products industry in the island’s economy.
In some ways this stake—the Church’s 679th—is much like every other stake in the Church. It has devoted leaders and faithful members. It also has members who have allowed their testimonies to wither. It has youth who seem indifferent and out of harmony with the teachings of the gospel. It has other youth who are active, eager for adventure, and valiant in their efforts to live according to gospel principles.
This “island” stake has other characteristics that it shares only with those units on the “frontier” of the Church: scarcity of Melchizedek Priesthood holders, “impossible” distances to travel to leadership meetings and stake conferences, some home teaching assignments of as many as fifteen families per pair of home teachers and some home teaching routes that spread over as much as one hundred miles, families living in remote locations that are accessible only by sea or air, youths who are the one and only Latter-day Saint in the schools they attend, and numerous members who live in part-member families.
But many members of the stake are willing and eager to rise to the challenge that these opportunities for growth present. For example, Michelle Vensel, one of a dozen Latter-day Saint students among the 750 pupils at S. J. Willis Junior Secondary School in Victoria, has been elected as student body president this year. Her campaign manager was Robin Smith, another Latter-day Saint young woman who missed becoming treasurer by only a few votes. Tracey Williams, a third Latter-day Saint, is serving as student body secretary. These and other eager students have accepted the challenge of gaining and strengthening their testimonies by giving up an hour of sleep each morning to fill the early-morning seminary classes to capacity.
Many stake members are sacrificing time and means to meet the challenge of distance. One counselor in the stake presidency makes a round trip of seventy-five miles to attend his weekly stake presidency meetings. Two members of the stake high council travel 140 miles to attend weekly stake priesthood executive committee meetings. Another high councilor travels 240 miles twice monthly to visit the branch he is assigned to advise. The president of the Powell River Branch, because of distance and ferry schedules, must make a two-day trip in order to attend monthly leadership meetings, but he does it regularly. At stake conference time and when stake-wide Aaronic Priesthood and Young Women dances are held it becomes necessary for members of the host ward or branch to open their homes to the Saints from distant areas. This presents a fine opportunity to become better acquainted.
Stake members planning temple marriages or other temple work are faced with a trip of more than eight hundred miles. Yet temple attendance is increasing, and a new genealogy and temple program has been launched. The announcement of plans to build a temple in Seattle has understandably been joyfully received in the stake.
Since the organization of a stake on Vancouver Island, there has been a concerted effort to respond positively to the challenge issued by Elder Packer at the organizational meeting: to function like a mature stake. One immediate objective has been to have a minimum of one percent of the stake population on full-time missions. In the first seven months of operation the number of members of the stake so serving was increased more than three times, from eight to twenty-six. This means that virtually every worthy young man of appropriate age and priesthood is presently serving as a missionary. The goal of thirty-six full-time missionaries (or 1 1/2 percent of stake membership) has been set for 1976, and forty-eight (2 percent) for 1977.
The Port Alberni Branch has set a brisk pace for the rest of the stake in supplying these additional missionaries. When the stake was organized, that branch had no missionaries in the field, but its leaders accepted a challenge to find and prepare candidates for missions. The results are overwhelming. The president of the Port Alberni elders quorum and his wife accepted mission calls and are serving as full-time missionaries, as are four other elders and one other sister. The branch is supplying approximately 25 percent of the stake’s full-time missionaries, although it has fewer than 8 percent of the Melchizedek Priesthood holders in the stake. Fully one-third of the active Melchizedek Priesthood holders of the branch are on missions, a real leadership sacrifice and an act of faith on the part of members of the branch.
Stake missionary work has also received emphasis and some people holding key leadership positions have been released from those positions to serve as stake missionaries.
Another objective of the new stake has been to acquire funds for a stake center and other badly needed physical facilities. Between April 30 and August 31, 1975, in response to an appeal from the stake presidency, $58,000 was contributed to a fund for the purchase of building sites. An additional $150,000 is being raised between September 1, 1975, and August 31, 1976, to provide starting funds for the needed facilities, a formidable undertaking for a stake of 2,400 members. And, of course, the proposed Seattle Temple will require an additional contribution—one these Saints will gladly share. Stake members have had another challenge presented to them by President Biddulph: that every active family arrange at least one teaching situation each month for the missionaries. They are to do this by placing copies of the Book of Mormon in the hands of nonmembers, challenging them to read and pray about certain underlined passages, and bearing testimony of the truthfulness of the book and its effect in their own lives. It is expected that this will provide the contacts necessary for the new missionary “group teaching program,” which in turn will enable the stake to meet President Kimball’s challenge to increase convert baptisms six fold this year.
There are also many Church members who need to be brought back into activity. Some success in this area has already been enjoyed, and priesthood leaders have accepted the challenge to reactivate an additional thirty-six inactive elders or prospective elders and their families this year.
And so after 130 years of struggle, heartache, and disappointment, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is finally firmly established on Vancouver Island in the form of the Victoria British Columbia Stake. There is no metropolis at Nootka, but President Brigham Young was right: Vancouver Island is a good place to settle!
Providing information that helped the author in his research for this article were Dr. James E. Hendrickson and Dr. Patricia E. Roy of the University of Victoria; Elda Mason, granddaughter of William and Maria Copley; George V. Copley; David W. Evans, who was present at the 1917 Vancouver baptisms as a missionary; Una K. Hillier; Millie Dyson; Beatrice Alexander; Melvin Oxspring; Eldon C. Ellis; Donald W. Douglas; and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher of the Church Historical Department.