“Saints at ‘the Pass’” Ensign, Dec. 1991, 67–68
El Paso, “the pass,” where the Rio Grande passes through the mountains, has been a historic landmark for more than four centuries. For a century and a half, it has been the gateway for travel in and out of Mexico and east and west along the southern border of the United States.
The first Latter-day Saint family to settle at the pass was probably that of Isaac Washington Pierce, who moved there from the LDS colonies in Mexico in 1898 and established a lumber yard in Ciudad Juarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso. The Pierce home became a stopping place for Latter-day Saints traveling through the gateway.
In 1912 the El Paso Branch was formed. In that same year, a mass exodus of members from the Mormon colonies reached El Paso, called back to the United States because of the Mexican Revolution. The refugees received a warm welcome from the hospitable people of El Paso—so warm that many of them decided to stay. With this impetus, the congregation continued to grow, and on 11 October 1918, the El Paso Ward was formed—the first ward in Texas. Meetings were held in members’ homes and other locations, and in 1920 land was purchased for a chapel. The new building, an architectural gem, further stimulated growth. In 1950, a second ward was created; two years later, the El Paso stake was organized. That original building still serves as home for the First and Third wards. In 1984, it was designated as a Texas historical landmark. Today, El Paso is home to thirteen wards, one branch, and two stakes.
For four generations, members of the Balderas family have been towers of strength in El Paso. Back in 1918, two Mormon missionaries walked into Apolinar Balderas’s barber shop for haircuts. Religious conversations followed, and he asked them if there were others of their faith in El Paso. Indeed there were. At the headquarters of the Spanish American mission, the eager Balderas got acquainted with mission president Rey L. Pratt, attended his first sacrament meeting, and asked to be baptized. He brought his entire family into the Church with him.
Apolinar’s son, Guillermo Balderas, served twenty-three years as a bishop and later as a patriarch. Guillermo and his wife, Porfiria, served four missions, with their special assignment being temple work. Guillermo passed away last May. Another of Apolinar Balderas’s sons, Eduardo, was the Church’s chief Spanish translator until his death in 1989. Guillermo, Jr., who served for years as a bishop, is now serving as a high councilor. Guillermo III is a ward mission leader, while Guillermo IV and others wait on the threshold.
Mexico, both the nation and the Mormon colonies, leaves its mark on the El Paso community of Latter-day Saints. Two wards and a branch here are Spanish speaking. Both President Emanuel G. Cardon of the El Paso stake and President Gerald M. Pratt of the Mount Franklin stake were born in the colonies.
Dr. Ellwyn R. Stoddard, executive secretary of the Mount Franklin stake, is a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at El Paso. A distinguished scholar of border affairs, he sees the pass as a place where “the first world and the third world meet, and a fourth world develops. The Church is a place where people of many races and cultures may meet, soul to soul, for their eternal progress.”
The blend of cultures is exemplified in the Heidenreich family. Of their eight children, six are adopted. One was born in Korea, two in Brazil, and three in the United States (one of whom is one-fourth American Indian). Two of their children are currently serving missions.
Surveying her family, Connie says, “We are all converts.” It began more than fifteen years ago when her husband, Richard, then in the air force in San Antonio, was influenced by two LDS airmen. One gave him a Book of Mormon and persuaded him to receive the missionaries. After the first discussion, Connie asked, “Can you come back day after tomorrow if we’ll feed you?” After the second missionary discussion, Richard was asked to pray. “It was during that prayer,” he says, “that the Holy Ghost told me I had found the truth.”
In El Paso, Richard is a supervisor of the Aaronic Priesthood. Connie’s leadership and musical talents are widely utilized.
Myrna Alger Rasmussen and her husband, Jay, are also active in youth leadership and music in El Paso. Myrna works as administrator of the Jewish synagogue, Temple Mount Sinai. She says, “Our relationship with the Jewish people is marvelous. We understand and appreciate our common feelings and our differences.” The president of the Jewish community adds, “And we understand and appreciate one another.”
The El Paso spirit of cross-cultural understanding is symbolized at the window of the Jewish synagogue, where a Latter-day Saint administrator looks out upon the statue of Christ on Mount Cristo Rey, a celebrated Catholic shrine. As further evidence of the religious cooperation at the pass, Ron McDaniel of the El Paso stake is chairman of the El Paso chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and Bishop Keven Jensen of the Fifth Ward, Mount Franklin stake, is president of the El Paso Interfaith Council.
Each school day of the past year, 222 LDS high school students have arisen in the darkness to attend seminary in the two El Paso stakes. Their seminary activity is widely known and admired, and their social lives enhanced. One seminary student remarked, “I have my class friends and my athletic friends, but my seminary friends are my friends everywhere and always.”
A weakened economy and the entrance of thousands of workers, legally and illegally, across the border has made unemployment a major problem in El Paso. The Church has a well-planned program for dealing with unemployment and, says Sister Emily Flores, employment specialist for the El Paso stake, “It really works if you follow the program.” She makes it clear that she is not an unemployment specialist, but an employment specialist.
There is much interchange of ideas among the two El Paso stakes and nearby stakes in New Mexico, strengthened by the fact that Emily’s husband, José, is the employment specialist for the El Paso region. Together, they are constantly involved in a training program for ward employment specialists. Through extensive contacts with El Paso industries, large and small, they have become known as a source of reliable employees.
What are the portents for the future? The two-stake population is nearing six thousand. Forty-three missionaries are in the field. They will return to enrich further the El Paso spirit. A new ward will soon be formed in the El Paso stake. Ground was broken this fall for a new Mount Franklin stake center. The goal is to go onward and upward in a happy land of sunshine, sand, and tortillas.