“Unified Diversity in Providence Rhode Island Stake,” Ensign, Oct. 1993, 77–79
Providence, Rhode Island, is steeped in early American history. The city’s name was taken from a declaration made by Rhode Island’s founder, Roger Williams. He referred to “God’s merciful Providence to me in my distress” when he and a small group of colonists settled in the area after being banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636 for their religious beliefs.
As more settlers arrived to worship freely, the area built a reputation for individualism and diversity that remains today. Providence Latter-day Saints mirror that diversity in the variety of peoples represented in the Church there: Hispanics, Laotians, Cambodians, and others besides native New Englanders.
Almost three thousand members make up the Providence Rhode Island Stake, which includes nine wards and branches and covers approximately 2,500 square miles of Rhode Island and part of neighboring Connecticut.
The Providence Branch was established in 1908 by the father of a present ward member, Leonard Stonely. The elder Brother Stonely immigrated to Providence from Nottingham, England, to work in the textile mills. The early branch grew to about twenty-four members, who met in various buildings until the 1930s, when they bought an old library for a meetinghouse. In 1962 the Church bought the land that the Providence Ward meetinghouse is built on today.
Present-day members Charles Borders and his wife, Margery, both grew up in New England and are converts. Brother Borders joined the Church when the Providence Ward was still a branch. Sister Borders knew the Church was true as soon as the missionaries explained to her that Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost were indeed three separate beings. After her conversion, she met with several other sisters nearby because no formal services were organized in her Massachusetts area.
“We had Sunday School but no sacrament because there were no priesthood leaders,” Sister Borders says. Missionaries from Rhode Island often drove to Massachusetts to pass the sacrament to them. Charles and Margery met when Brother Borders accompanied the missionaries to pass the sacrament to the group of women. After their marriage, the couple moved to Foster, Rhode Island. They now attend the Scituate Ward.
Similar expansion of the Church in Rhode Island has occurred in northeastern Connecticut. The New London Branch began in the 1920s when members stationed at the submarine base in Groton began meeting in a member’s home. The branch was organized in 1925, but with the outbreak of World War II, priesthood leaders were called away and formal functions of the branch ceased.
In 1950 Elder C. E. McCombs returned to New London to serve a second mission and reorganize the branch. Ramon Brown and his wife, Rose, were the branch’s first converts, baptized on 25 August 1951.
“That was a Saturday,” Brother Brown recalls. “The next day at church I was called to be the branch clerk, teacher of the adult priesthood, and chairman of the fireside committee.” Brother Brown was recently released after serving as bishop of the Waterford Ward for six years.
As membership grew in the Norwich, Connecticut, area a ward was established covering the east-central section of Connecticut. Another ward, the Scituate Ward, was created when the Providence Ward was divided in 1982. It now covers the forested hills and factory towns of northern Rhode Island. And the stake continues to grow—a new building is being constructed for the Ashford Ward. The Connecticut Hartford Mission’s outreach program to the Cambodian and Laotian members of the community has helped create a Cambodian unit and a Laotian group, which meet in the Providence Ward building. The Spanish branch also meets in that building.
Sharing the Gospel
With a population of two to three million living within the boundaries of the Providence stake, the 2,900 Latter-day Saints have before them a major missionary task. Service is a great way for the Saints to acquaint their neighbors with the gospel.
Michael Schwendiman, a high school senior, has had many opportunities to serve in his calling as a stake missionary. “We do projects like baking cookies for people and doing yard work for them,” he said. Because of his experiences, his testimony of service has grown: “Now I do service because I want to. It’s my choice.”
Many members volunteer with organizations such as the Salvation Army, food banks, interfaith councils, and homeless shelters. Since Church members are a minority, being an example helps acquaint people with the Church.
Leah Randall said guest speakers at youth activities have helped to keep her strong. “They tell us about experiences in their lives and how they overcame challenges. It makes me think, if they can do it, I can do it.”
A Missionary Training Ground
Missionary work is an integral part of the Providence stake. Stake president Stanford Demars says both adults and youth are encouraged to be regularly involved in missionary work. The priests and Laurels are asked to have two missionary experiences each month, such as going on splits with full-time missionaries and taking a friend to church or other activities. The program gives them a spiritual boost, President Demars says.
“I like being with the missionaries because they give me a spiritual high. I’ve always wanted to go on a mission, so I was happy to be a stake missionary,” says Melissa Hales, age eighteen.
The program draws families to missionary work. “We also encourage adults to go on a missionary split once a month,” President Demars adds.
The Warwick (Spanish) Branch is composed of members from many Central and South American countries and cultures. In their International Day each year, they celebrate different cultures with displays, art, clothing, food, and dancing, says Cindy Flores, Relief Society president. Sharing their different cultures has helped close the cultural gap between stake members.
The Cambodian unit and Laotian group, who meet at the same time as the Providence Ward, consist of about twenty families each. The three groups hold separate sacrament meetings in their individual languages. For Sunday School the children and youth join the other ward members. The Asian adults attend a Sunday School class in which basic gospel principles are taught in rudimentary English. The adult groups again split for Relief Society and priesthood meetings.
Ties between members are strong in the Providence stake. This is especially true for those who are new to LDS and American culture. “Asian families are not only learning the gospel, but are trying to learn a new language and a new culture as well. It is very difficult,” says Chloe Tilden, former stake Relief Society president. Inviting new families into members’ homes and visiting them help acquaint them with the new cultures.
Diversity and individuality are appreciated today as much in the Providence Rhode Island Stake as they were by the founders of Providence. And members here continue to bond together and reap the blessings of “God’s merciful Providence.”