On the Pacific Frontier: The Church in the Gilbert Islands

“On the Pacific Frontier: The Church in the Gilbert Islands,” Ensign, Oct. 1981, 28

On the Pacific Frontier:

The Church in the Gilbert Islands

To many people the name Gilbert Islands means little more than a few vaguely remembered dots in the South Pacific where thousands of men lost their lives during World War II.

Today, however, the Gilberts’ principal island group—Tarawa—serves as the administrative center for the new Republic of Kiribati, which is composed of the Line Islands, Phoenix Islands, and the Gilbert Islands. Until 12 July 1979, the Gilbert Islands were a British Crown Colony. Today, fifty-six thousand people reside in the entire republic. This far-flung island nation includes over six-million square miles of ocean, yet only enough land if it were all put together to make a six-mile-wide strip about forty miles long. Tarawa, with its population of fifteen or twenty thousand, is itself only a series of coral islets that make a forty-mile chain around a triangular shaped lagoon. The highest point on the atoll is fifteen feet above sea level.

But it is the gospel story in which we are interested, and during the last nine years the Gilbert Islands have played a stirring role in the development of the Fiji Suva Mission, and more recently of the Guam-Micronesia Mission. The statistics are revealing, yet tell only part of the story: in 1972 there were no Latter-day Saints in the Gilbert Islands; today there are over five-hundred baptized members, a branch, and a Church secondary school.

The other part of the story is the people. In 1978, Brother Richard M. and Sister Adeline Pratt, a couple serving an education mission in the Gilberts, described what life is like on Tarawa. “The island,” they wrote, “is thickly covered with coconut trees. They are the staff of life. Without the coconut tree, life would cease to exist here, literally. They eat it, wear it, drink it, build their huts from it, and burn the rest to cook their rice and fish. Our [five] acre campus, leased for 99 years by the Church, spreads from the ocean on the south to the road on the north next to the lagoon. …

“Our buildings consist of 12–15 buildings completely made of coconut [and pandamus], except the two teachers’ homes have … concrete floors. … There are no glass windows, no doors that can be locked. The upper half of the walls are open to allow free passage of air. The often-blowing trade winds make the heat bearable. …

“The center of the campus is dominated by the main building, some 30 by 40 feet in size, and called ‘maneaba.’ [Maneaba means “speak house” or holy place.] Its steep roof, supported on 12 coconut posts, is gracefully designed and resembles a bird in flight. This covered area is the chapel, assembly hall, and center of all campus and branch activities. The graveled floor is covered with thin coconutleaf mats. These are picked up and stored after each Sunday service. About 120 persons sit on the thin mats, no chairs, sing without accompaniment, and rejoice in the gospel from 9 until 1:30.”1

Amid such peaceful surroundings is a people who desire education for their young people. In fact, it is this desire for schooling that created the opportunity for the Church to enter the Gilbert Islands.

It all began in 1972, when officials in Church Schools Tonga began receiving letters from Waitea Abiuta, the headmaster of a small, private secondary school on Tarawa, asking Church education leaders to allow their children to attend Liahona High School in Tonga. These requests were considered seriously by Tongan, Fiji Suva Mission, and Church Educational System leaders, and in September 1972 President Ebbie L. Davis, Fiji Suva Mission president, visited Tarawa.

In his survey, President Davis learned that only six to seven percent of all children ages twelve through seventeen were offered educational opportunities. Consequently, President Davis decided to recommend that the request for schooling be granted and that twelve Gilbertese students be enrolled in Liahona High School on a trial basis. This recommendation was accepted, and in late 1972 George Puckett, superintendent of Church Schools Tonga, and one of his associates went to Tarawa and selected twelve students. The following year twelve additional students were accepted. Nearly two years later, the Gilbertese minister of education told President Davis that he favored the expansion of secondary education and welcomed Latter-day Saint efforts in this field.2

Thus, by the end of 1976, sixty Gilbertese students had been enrolled at Liahona High School. And, amazingly, although these students were nonmembers when they arrived in Tonga, all but three or four eventually joined the Church. When President Davis first surveyed the Gilberts, he saw conditions as an opportunity to introduce the Church in the Gilbert Islands. Upon further investigation, however, he found that the department of immigration had a policy that “when a church has 50 adult members it will be officially recognized and will be allowed to bring foreign proselyting missionaries into the Gilbert Islands.”3 Obviously, such a policy made it almost impossible to introduce a new church.

But the conversion of Gilbertese students at Liahona High School began to open the door.

In late 1974, President Davis and Elder John H. Groberg, then Regional Representative for the area, talked with President Tonga Toutai Paletu’a of the Tonga Nuku’alofa Mission about using Gilbertese converts from Liahona High School as missionaries in their native islands. President Toutai supported the proposal, and by October 1975 six Gilbertese students had been ordained elders and were prepared to serve missions.

President Kenneth M. Palmer, the new mission president in Fiji, flew to Tarawa with the missionaries on 19 October 1975. The following day the little group met in a cemetery on Betio, Tarawa, and President Palmer dedicated the Gilbert Islands to the preaching of the gospel. Within a few months, a sizable number of persons had joined the Church including Waitea Abiuta, the headmaster who had requested educational assistance in the first place, two board members, two teachers, and thirteen students.

But as is frequently the case when the Church moves into new areas, opposition arose from local religious groups, and when the community school opened at Tarawa in early 1976, only seventeen students enrolled; of those, almost all were students converted after the six Gilbertese missionaries returned to the country. The other students had withdrawn because of indirect association between the Church and the school.

The sudden drop in enrollment caused a financial crisis for the private school; so, in order to save it, the Church Educational System (CES) provided a modest amount of financial assistance. CES also decided to send a professional teacher, Grant Howlett, and his wife, Pat, to Tarawa from Liahona High School. They and their five children arrived in the Gilberts in August 1976. Brother Howlett became headmaster of the school and established excellent relations with the ministry of education. Through his guidance the school remained open and its enrollment increased from seventeen to seventy-three students by early 1977.

Eventually, the local government withdrew the school from official registration and made it necessary for Church Educational System to either take over the school or allow it to be closed down. Church leaders struggled with the decision—supporting the school would represent the kind of commitment the Church makes only in rare and unusual circumstances. But after prayer and deliberation, it was decided CES would assume responsibility for the school, lease the property on which it stood, change its name to the Moroni Community School, and—in time—build a chapel that would also serve as a school.

On 1 January 1978, George and Ana Moleni from Liahona High School and their five children arrived in Tarawa. The Molenis, who both held college degrees and were experienced teachers, were called to assist Brother and Sister Howlett in the school and in the branch. Nine months later, the Pratts arrived to begin their two years as education missionaries. Through the service of these early laborers, the student body of Moroni Community High School grew to 210 by September 1980. The student body today is as large as present facilities can accommodate.

The Moroni Community School is roughly equivalent to an American junior high school. The average student is older than in the United States—from fourteen to twenty years of age—and English is the official language of instruction. Students usually sit on the floor, although some benches are used. Because books and paper are in short supply, students do a great deal of memorizing.

The curriculum of the school is basic. The “three Rs” are emphasized, but considerable attention has been devoted to matters of sanitation, hygiene, and basic homemaking skills.

During their mission, Brother and Sister Pratt supervised construction of nearly twenty thousand square feet of new building space. Between 1978 and 1980, they saw the addition of two dormitories (80 of the 210 students come from distant islands), a kitchen-dining hall, a shop building, three houses for teachers (there are ten on the staff), and a number of native-style buildings with concrete floors. The amount of concrete required about 1,000 tons of gravel and sand. All of this material was carried one-fourth to one-half mile by the school boys, who transported the coral rock and sand in rice sacks. The new buildings required close to ten thousand concrete blocks, all fashioned by Brother Pratt and his “boys.”

The construction of these facilities in the Gilbert Islands has been matched by the emergence of people of faith and intelligence to build up the Church. Buren Ratieta is a good example. In the Spring of 1980 Elder Pratt visited Brother Ratieta, who had been baptized earlier but who had not come to church meetings. Elder Pratt explained to Brother Ratieta that he had further obligations to the Church and that he was needed. A man of unusual training and talents, Brother Ratieta had attended Trinity College in England when he was younger. Later, he passed a bar examination to practice law in the Pacific islands. His brother was a government official, and together they knew many leaders. After listening carefully to Elder Pratt, Brother Ratieta promised to attend church. He came the next Sunday and has been a great stalwart since.

Today, Brother Ratieta serves the school as legal advisor, financial manager, and general facilitator, and he currently serves as first counselor to President William Scholes in the Tarawa Branch.

With the wholehearted commitment of local leaders and dedicated members, education missionaries, and others who have helped to establish the Church there, the Lord’s work will continue to flourish in the Gilbert Islands. After nearly a decade of careful preparation, sharing the gospel with the Gilbertese people is now well under way.4

Photography courtesy James Pinegar and Richard M. and Adeline Pratt

A Gilbert Islander walks the beach at Betio; guns in the background are grim reminders of the heavy losses here during World War II. Far left: Brother Richard M. and Sister Adeline Pratt, who served an education mission to the Islands. Left: A baptismal service at the ocean.

A group of students at the Moroni Community School.