“The Lost Island of Saints,” Ensign, June 1986, 39
The Lost Island of Saints
Out of contact with the Church for fifteen years, members on tiny Taenga continued to live the gospel faithfully.
The month of February 1976 had great significance for the Saints of Tahiti and its surrounding islands. For most of them, that month afforded their first opportunity to meet a prophet of the Lord. President Spencer W. Kimball had announced plans to travel to French Polynesia for an area conference, accompanied by several other General Authorities, including some members of the Quorum of the Twelve.
Anyone familiar with Polynesian hospitality can well understand the extensive preparation and sacrifice that a visit from the Lord’s prophet entailed. Numerous gifts were painstakingly and lovingly crafted. Programs of Tahitian music and dance were rehearsed to perfection. Many members spent hours preparing traditional Tahitian feasts.
Saints from a number of neighboring islands set aside their daily activities to make the sometimes long and difficult journey to the main island of Tahiti. Some were able to go by plane, but most were required to use the only means of transportation available, traveling by boat for days on the open sea. The week of the conference arrived, and never before had there been such a gathering of Saints in this part of the world.
Just a few days before the first conference session, a group of people numbering more than fifty showed up at the Tahiti Papeete Mission office. Mission president Raymond Baudin had become familiar with the Saints from the various island groups of French Polynesia, but he did not know any of these people. He assumed that they were a group of nonmembers interested in attending the conference.
They introduced themselves, however, as inhabitants of the little island of Taenga, located in the Tuamotu Archipelago, and said they were Latter-day Saints. The mission president couldn’t believe it! Church leaders in Papeete had been unaware that there were any Church members on the island. But President Baudin was told that nearly the entire population of Taenga was Latter-day Saint, and that every single Taengan had made the three-day voyage to Tahiti by schooner to see the prophet of the Lord!
In these days of efficiently kept Church membership records, mass transportation, and instantaneous communication, how could it have been possible to “lose” an entire island, and how did the Taengans learn of President Kimball’s visit?
Taenga is a coral atoll located some four hundred miles due east of Tahiti. It was brought to the attention of the rest of the world at the relatively late date of 1820 by a Russian sea captain named Bellingshausen, and less than thirty years later an LDS missionary proselyted the area. Though the details of the first Taengan contact with the Church remain sketchy, it is known that in 1844 several missionaries sent by the Prophet Joseph Smith to the Sandwich Islands found themselves instead in the islands now known as French Polynesia, making this area the first foreign-speaking mission of the Church. The missionaries separated, and it was Benjamin Grouard who first went to the Tuamotus, landing on Anaa, a neighboring island of Taenga, on 1 May 1845. Elder Grouard had great success, baptizing some 620 persons and organizing several branches within a five-month period.
From 1845 to 1850, LDS missionary work in the Tuamotus was very limited, mostly conducted by Elder Grouard; then, in 1852, the French government forbade missionaries to proselyte in this newly acquired protectorate. That ban lasted for twenty years, and it was another twenty years before elders returned to the area. Although earlier native converts had no contact with the Church during this period, they continued spreading the gospel on their own. They proselyted on practically all the atolls in the western sector of the archipelago and succeeded in converting a considerable number of the islands’ inhabitants.
Through the years, Saints remaining on Taenga had sporadic and limited contact with Church leaders in Tahiti. Communication in the islands is difficult at best. French Polynesia has 110 islands, and the islands in the present Tahiti Papeete Mission are scattered over an area of more than a million square miles.
A small twenty- by thirty-foot (six- by nine-meter) chapel was constructed in 1931 on a piece of ground measuring only forty by fifty-five feet (twelve by sixteen meters) which the Church had managed to acquire. It remains the only chapel in use on the island today. Faithful members recall that the last visit made to them by a mission president before their 1976 voyage was in the late 1950s by President Joseph R. Reeder; then somehow, over the next fifteen years, the mission leaders lost track of Taenga.
Though the branch finally was no longer officially functioning and meetings were being held on an informal basis only, the members retained their faith. “We always lived the gospel as best we could,” says Sister Teuruhai Buchin, now a worker in the Tahiti Temple. Kaheke Temanu, the man who would later be called as branch president, had faith that one day the little island would be visited by the mission president. He built a small residence on the island, reserved for the sole purpose of housing this hoped-for visitor. Thus, it was not so surprising that when these steadfast members somehow learned by word of mouth that a prophet of the Lord was coming to Tahiti, they were moved to make the difficult journey, bringing along beautiful handcrafted tokens of their love and respect to offer President Kimball.
Since 1976, little has changed in Taenga. The island remains fairly isolated from the others of French Polynesia and does not boast an airstrip as do many of its neighbors. The easiest way to get to Taenga is to fly to nearby Makemo on a twelve-passenger plane, then travel by motor boat on the open sea for some three hours. If the weather is bad, however, this three-hour trip is doubled.
This isolation encourages a simple lifestyle, unencumbered by the pressures and complexities of modern society and largely unchanged from what it was decades ago. The crushed coral soil sustains very little in crops or gardens, and the islanders’ diet remains traditional, consisting largely of fish and coconut, supplemented by occasional shipments of goods from Tahiti. The only income-producing activity on the island is the production of copra—dried coconut meat from which oil is obtained.
One thing that has changed in Taenga is the increased Church activity among these Saints who for so many years did not have the opportunity to practice their faith as they desired. Shortly after their voyage to Tahiti in 1976, the Taengans received that long-awaited visit from the mission president, President Baudin, who officially organized again a branch on the island and called Kaheke Temanu as branch president. President Temanu was born on Taenga but had moved to Tahiti. In 1969, he and his family moved back to Taenga, and he was appointed as the local police officer by the French government.
After he was called as branch president in 1976 and the branch began to function officially again, members returned to the meetings and ten nonmembers were baptized. Of the seventy-six inhabitants of Taenga, only seven are non-LDS. President Temanu says that not only are all the members active, but even the nonmembers regularly attend and participate in Church meetings. He is especially happy that several couples from his island have been sealed in the Tahiti temple since its completion in 1983.
The members in Taenga feel that the Lord has blessed them in many ways because of their faith. This faith is put to the test every time they make the voyage to Makemo. Though Polynesians traditionally have been known for their navigational skills, it is rare to see these skills still used as they are in Taenga. To appreciate the difficulty of the trip to Makemo, it must be remembered that the flat coral atolls in this area of the world are not easily seen from a distance and that thousands of square miles of open sea separate them. Yet the trip is made without compass or other navigational instruments but, as explained by President Temanu, “by the stars, instinct, and trust in the Lord’s inspiration and guidance.”
For every Church leader who visits Taenga, this voyage remains memorable, and all have been impressed by the faith exhibited by President Temanu, the boat’s pilot. Before leaving Taenga’s lagoon, he stands in the boat (a ten-foot motorboat holding a maximum of six passengers) and offers a prayer for direction, then never forgets to offer one of gratitude upon arrival.
President Baudin describes his second voyage to Taenga as one of the most unforgettable experiences of his mission. President Temanu had come to get him, and soon after they left Makemo, stormy weather set in, with the wind and waves seemingly taking turns in buffeting the boat through the waters and altering its course. “Imagine my concern,” relates President Baudin, “when after six hours there was still no land in sight.
“Suddenly, President Temanu stood and pointed with his finger and calmly stated that the island was in that direction. Almost immediately, the wind died and the sea became calm, and as if they had come to greet us and guide us to the pass in the reef, dozens of dolphins appeared, leaping out of the water in front of the boat. As if this weren’t impressive enough, we also saw a whale some thirty meters to the side, spouting water and unhurriedly keeping pace with our forward movement.”
Taengan members believe Heaven has tempered the elements on their island. In recent years, five major cyclones have swept across their area, and though surrounding islands were seriously affected, Taenga was not touched by even one of these devastating storms.
Likewise, Taengans are quick to point out how the Lord has blessed them in providing sufficient water for their needs. Since there are no mountains, rivers, or springs in the Tuamotu atolls, all drinking water must be collected in rain barrels and water tanks; during the dry season, most islands are plagued with constant water problems and periods of serious rationing. Taengans have not faced those difficulties. And, somewhat ironically, in one aspect of modern living Taengans can boast a higher standard of living than Tahiti, which is not yet entirely served by electrical power. In Taenga, every household enjoys solar-generated electricity.
Several Church leaders from Tahiti who recently visited Taenga were impressed by the strong feeling of security on the island and the overwhelming spirituality which exists among the entire population. “This is what paradise is all about,” commented Georges Bonnet, the Church’s regional manager for temporal affairs.
He was awakened one morning by an unusual sound. When he got up and looked out, he discovered the sisters of the Relief Society sweeping away the leaves that had fallen onto the village road during the night. “I’ve never seen such cleanliness,” he observed. “The entire village is spotless, and it is obvious that the people take great pride in their island.”
President G. Wayne Mack and President C. Jay Larson, who followed President Baudin as mission presidents in Tahiti, also have special feelings for the island. Interestingly, during their first missions, both served on Taenga. President Larson, who returned from Tahiti in July 1984, says, “Taenga has always impressed me as being perhaps the most spiritual and the most closely-knit branch in the mission. This was true when I served on that island as a missionary thirty-four years ago, and it is true today.”