Saints in Kuriva, Papua New Guinea
April 1990

“Saints in Kuriva, Papua New Guinea,” Ensign, Apr. 1990, 76–77

Saints in Kuriva, Papua New Guinea

The Kuriva village in Papua New Guinea held a celebration on 27 December 1986, the day twenty-nine villagers were baptized in the Vemauri River. We were present, having been missionaries to the Kurivans for four months. President Robert G. and Sister Carol West of the Australia Brisbane Mission joined us for the event. They were greeted at the village by youth lining the pathways, singing and clapping to welcome the visitors. Several older villagers dressed in tribal costumes for the occasion. The future members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had even constructed a small chapel with a coconut-leaf roof.

The people of Kuriva had waited eagerly for this day. In 1980, missionaries from the Australia Brisbane Mission began proselyting on a consistent basis in Papua New Guinea, a country consisting of six hundred islands. Most of the population lives on the eastern part of the large island of New Guinea. (The western part of the island is the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya.) Papua New Guinea has been an independent nation from Australia since 1975 and links Southeast Asia, Australia, and the South Pacific.

Unlike Papua New Guinea’s city residents, who are struggling to catch up to the twentieth century, its villagers have changed little over the years. Instead, they have developed their own culture and exist in hundreds of small ethnic groups, using seven hundred languages.

The Kuriva Village is no exception. Located about sixty-five kilometers from Papua New Guinea’s capital city of Port Moresby, its main language is Toroipi. The Kurivans are gardeners, raising crops up and down the mountainside to sell in Port Moresby. They fish, each family sharing their take with those who didn’t catch anything during the day. When someone in the village needs a loaf of bread, other Kurivans split their loaf in half and share it.

Like most Papua New Guineans, the Kurivans are accustomed to having some form of shelter—huts on stilts with thatched roofs—but no appliances or furniture. Few of them own a car. Their possessions consist of a billum or two—woven bags made by the women to hold babies, wood, or garden produce. And they sleep on homemade mats which they set down after sweeping the floors with a handmade coconut-straw broom. Their reverence, generosity, simplicity, and dedication to hard work and living within their means prepared them well for the gospel of Jesus Christ.

While several branches of the Church existed in the Port Moresby area as well as in surrounding villages, no one in Kuriva had heard of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints until September 1986, when unusual circumstances brought them into contact with the Church.

One of the villagers, John Oii, a member of the Church then living in Port Moresby, returned to Kuriva after the death of his son Simon. He wanted to have Simon buried in the village cemetery and received permission to do so from Oroa Kakare, one of the village leaders.

The funeral took place in the Port Moresby Gabutu chapel, and Kurivan villagers attended. Seminary students and missionaries participated in the service, and afterward a transport truck took everyone to Kuriva for the burial. John Oii remained in the village, where he told the people about Joseph Smith and the angel Moroni. The villagers wanted to know more. They asked John Oii if the missionary couple who spoke at the funeral could teach them the gospel. We were that couple.

On 16 September 1986, a group of about sixty people sat waiting for us to begin the missionary discussions. With John Oii translating into the village language, they nodded approval of the principles explained in the first discussion. We left several copies of the Book of Mormon and promised to return the following Tuesday.

An even larger group awaited our arrival on the second visit. The villagers had met together every night since the last discussion to study the Book of Mormon as a group. They had even composed a song in the village language about Joseph Smith and the angel Moroni. After discussing Jesus Christ and some of the gospel principles, the Kurivans wanted to pay fast offerings and tithing. We left more copies of the Book of Mormon.

Now the villagers wanted Sunday services to take place in Kuriva. We started holding Sunday School for a group that grew each week. The following month, October 1986, President and Sister West came to Papua New Guinea for a second bimonthly tour and visited Kuriva village. At a meeting held with the villagers, President West was impressed with the spirit and love of the people and, upon his return to Brisbane, gave permission to prepare the people of Kuriva for baptism into the Church. The Kurivans began constructing their own chapel.

After the festivities of greeting President and Sister West ended on 27 December, the Kurivans convened in their chapel for baptismal services. At the meeting’s conclusion, everyone was transported four kilometers to the river, and the first twenty-nine members of the Church in Kuriva were baptized and confirmed. Fourteen men were then sustained and ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood. The day concluded with a feast, and President and Sister West returned to Port Moresby.

Another momentous occasion occurred soon afterward. In March 1987, Elder James E. Faust of the Quorum of the Twelve and his wife, Ruth, along with Area President Elder John Sonnenberg and his wife, Joyce, visited Papua New Guinea. They came to Kuriva with several missionaries.

Again, a gala celebration was held, replete with singing, clapping, dancing, and rejoicing. As the group entered the chapel, Elder Faust was told that the Kurivans would like to have their chapel dedicated. He responded that, although he had dedicated Church buildings all over the world, he had never dedicated one constructed through such high participation from the local members and such little assistance from Church headquarters. At the conclusion of his talk to the Kurivans, Elder Faust said, “I will now dedicate this building to the service of the Lord.”

The following Sunday, 15 March 1987, the Kuriva Branch was organized, with John Oii as president and Francis Puaka and Oroa Kakare as counselors. From that point on, the small branch of forty members functioned ably, eventually sending three of the original group of twenty-nine members to join a growing number of full-time Papua New Guinean missionaries.

Today, Kuriva has a growing, enthusiastic branch where members sing hymns accompanied by a keyboard organ, give talks in their native language and in English, and help each other throughout the lessons to read and understand the scriptures.

The Kuriva Branch now has seventy-five members. They still share among themselves and with the other villagers; in fact, several non-LDS villagers contributed to buy shoes for a young man preparing for a mission. The members form a part of a growing Church membership in Papua New Guinea, now about 2,300 strong, who hope to someday have a stake, a mission, and a temple of their own.

  • Varsel and Minnie Warwood Jenks served their first mission in the Australia Brisbane Mission from December 1985 to May 1987, and their second from February 1988 to June 1989. They are members of the Perry First Ward, Willard Utah Stake, where they serve as Cub Scout leaders.

Photos by Varsel and Minnie Warwood Jenks

Clockwise, from top left: Peter Oroa, a young member of Kuriva. Kuriva investigators built their own chapel before their baptism. Young men from Papua New Guinea, ready to leave on missions (left to right): Steven Morola, Peter Hasu, and Jimmy Kaire, with Elder Olie, a missionary from South Australia. Couple missionaries help construct canoes villagers use for fishing and transport.

Sister Minnie Jenks (second from left) enjoys a welcome from sisters in Kuriva upon her return to the village. Papua New Guineans enjoy dressing in traditional costumes for special events and celebrations.