“Pioneers in Paraguay,” Ensign, Mar. 1994, 39
It is Sunday evening, and the home of Abilio and María Elena Samaniego in Asunción, Paraguay, is alive with the sounds of family. The three unmarried children are there, along with the three married children and their families. With dinner over, the adults visit while the grandchildren play. This morning was the homecoming of a missionary son, so this evening is a time of reminiscing, laughing, teasing.
It’s not surprising that the focus of the conversation tonight is on church and family; it was the Church’s emphasis on families that attracted Brother Samaniego twenty years ago. “I saw how much the missionaries loved my family,” he recalls. “They showed me how to love my children. My heart was softened, and I accepted their message.” The family was baptized in 1974. Brother Samaniego learned to be a patriarch in his home. Now he also serves as a stake patriarch.
Family members recall the years when they lived five kilometers from the nearest branch. “Since there were eight of us, it cost too much for bus fare,” remembers their oldest daughter, Yenny, who is now the mother of four children and the wife of stake president Gregorio Figueredo. “So we all had to walk—two hours each way. We made that trip every Saturday for Primary and Mutual. And because Sunday meetings were held both morning and afternoon, we would make the round trip twice—a total of twenty kilometers. When it was really hot, we would sometimes take our lunch and sit under a tree between meetings. From the day we were baptized, I don’t remember that we ever missed a meeting.” Now all six children and their families are active in the Church.
The boys remember getting dressed in white shirts and ties when they were as young as seven or eight and going out to teach with the full-time missionaries. Several family members, including daughters, have served stake missions. And all three Samaniego sons have completed full-time missions.
The girls recall their mother’s encouraging them to date members of the Church, even though there didn’t seem to be many young Latter-day Saint men around. “Surely there is a mother somewhere who is preparing a special young man for you,” their mother would tell them. Now all of the children who are married were married in the temple.
Someone pulls out a scrapbook with photographs showing the Samaniegos and other “pioneer families” building their chapel. And they talk about how the Church in Paraguay has become more respected because of the examples of members.
The hour is late, but no one wants to leave. Memories lead to more memories, and now several conversations are going on at once. “I am very fortunate,” says Brother Samaniego quietly. “My heart rejoices tonight as I see and listen to my children and their families. ‘Men are, that they might have joy.’ That is what I have felt today!”
The Church in Paraguay has been built on a solid foundation by many pioneers—people like the Samaniego family—who have been willing to sacrifice and to keep on giving, even during the years when progress seemed slow.
For years, Paraguay has seemed to take a quiet back seat to other areas in South America where Church growth has been more rapid. Paraguay was part of the mission headquartered in Montevideo, Uruguay, from 1949 until the mission was divided in 1977. The first stake in Paraguay was created in February 1979. The following year, in June 1980, the second stake was formed. The third stake was created in November 1992.
Currently there are fifteen thousand Latter-day Saints in Paraguay. Some have been members of the Church for decades, others for only a few days. They are all pioneers who are responding to the gospel.
Life couldn’t have been finer for Carlos Espínola in 1967. Baptized at age seventeen, he had served a mission in Uruguay and was now pursuing a degree at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He was also earning what he considered to be an enormous salary, writing and preparing materials for the Peace Corps on how to teach the Guaraní and Spanish languages, both of which are spoken in Paraguay.
To make the dream complete, Nelly, his fiancée from Uruguay, was ready to join him. They planned to marry in the Salt Lake Temple; then he would finish his degree, and they would settle down to a wonderful life in the United States.
But unexplainably, Carlos felt that something wasn’t quite right. Seeking spiritual direction, he asked for his patriarchal blessing. “My blessing said that I was to help my own people to know the Church,” he says. “When I received that blessing, I thought a lot about those words.”
He fasted and prayed to know how to interpret the blessing. Finally, “after receiving the confirmation of the Spirit, I felt that the United States was not the place for me. I felt that the Lord really needed me in South America. So I made the decision to return.”
Even though his visa was good for another year, he gave it up—along with his apartment, his furniture, his schooling, and his job—and went home. He and Nelly were married in Uruguay. There he continued his schooling and earned two degrees—one in business administration and another in construction. He got a job for less than a third of the salary he was making in the United States.
“My friends told me I was crazy. But I said, ‘No, I am happy, because I want to do it.’ And I knew the reasons I was doing it. The blessings we have received by staying here have brought to pass many promises in my patriarchal blessing.”
In 1979, Carlos became the first stake president in Paraguay. Nearly ten years later, he became the second Paraguayan to serve as a mission president. (He opened the Chile Antofagasta Mission.) And he has been blessed professionally. For twenty years, he has worked for the Presiding Bishop’s Office in Uruguay and Paraguay. He is now regional manager for temporal affairs in Paraguay.
“We are very satisfied with our lives here,” says Sister Espínola. “For us, the brothers and sisters in the Church are like family. The Lord has greatly blessed us and our children spiritually.” She and Carlos were sealed in the temple and have four children: Alejandra, Alvaro, Ariel, and Arturo. They speak of rich experiences they’ve shared as a family, both on their mission and at home.
“Our children are our best inheritance,” says Carlos. “They are having experiences that are helping them gain their own testimonies.”
Deep in the Gran Chaco—the sparsely settled, arid wilderness that covers much of northwestern Paraguay—is Nivaclé Boquerón, a settlement of about forty Latter-day Saint families. These members, Nivaclé Indians, have nicknamed their village La Abundancia (“Bountiful”). Most speak only the Nivaclé language; some also speak a little Spanish. They have moved here from Mistolar, a larger, more remote settlement of Latter-day Saint Nivaclé Indians. Missionary couples have helped the group in La Abundancia dig a water hole at each end of the village. The missionary couples have also taught them to raise goats and to plant and harvest crops—enough to subsist on, and some extra to sell.
The branch meets in a one-room wooden chapel lit by kerosene lanterns. Almost every evening, there’s something going on there, usually a seminary class that turns into choir practice later on in the evening. Both youth and adults participate in the choir, singing the hymns in beautiful four-part harmony without a piano.
Outside the meetinghouse is a homemade baptismal font. There’s an area where the boys play fútbol. There’s also a garden, a few trees, and a small cemetery.
Buried in that cemetery is Ireneo Arenas, the baby son of Jorge Arenas and his wife Rosa. In August 1989, Jorge and Rosa left Mistolar with their three young children and accompanied two other families on the journey of over 2,100 kilometers by bus to the Buenos Aires Temple. “When we left Mistolar, the baby was sick with a cold,” says Jorge. “By the time we arrived in Buenos Aires, he was much worse. It was very cold. We went to the temple and were sealed as a family. The baby was still sick.”
When they returned to Paraguay, they decided to stay in La Abundancia, rather than travel several more hours to Mistolar. The baby continued to get worse. “There was nothing we could do for him,” says Jorge. Five days later, the baby died.
“As I held my son, I was thinking how grateful I was that we had just been sealed in the temple. I know that he is with our Heavenly Father and that we will be with him again someday. Now we are trying to keep all the commandments of our Heavenly Father, because we are thinking of our baby.”
Jorge and Rosa have settled in La Abundancia, and he has served as a branch president, choir director, and seminary teacher. They have three daughters: Dominga, Basílica, and Marivel.
“When the missionaries first taught me the gospel,” he says, “I felt something that I thought was the Holy Spirit. I have felt that spirit often, especially when I am reading the Book of Mormon. Jesus Christ came to our ancestors here in the Americas. For a time, they obeyed the commandments. But later, they rejected them. I want to serve wherever I am called in the Church, because I know that as we serve in the Church, the Lord will bless us.”
In the city of Coronel Oviedo, a native Paraguayan missionary, Elder Cristian Turrini, prayed that the Lord would help him and his companion, Elder Matthew Porter, find people who were prepared to listen to the gospel. After his prayer, they left their room and walked two blocks. A campesino (a poor rural farmer) came running up to them. Speaking in Guaraní, he asked, “Are you LDS missionaries? I came looking for you, because I know the Church is true and I want to be baptized!”
The farmer, Isabelino Giménez, and his wife, Estanislada, had heard the missionary discussions in a distant city a few years earlier, along with Estanislada’s family. But although her family joined the Church, Isabelino refused to be baptized or to let Estanislada be baptized. “I told her, ‘We’re going to leave this city and look for our future.’ But really, I was running from the gospel.”
Isabelino and Estanislada moved to a remote area in the Paraguayan jungle. “We walked a long, long way through the jungle,” he says. “We arrived without anything. We didn’t have more clothes than what we were wearing. We slept on the floor and barely had enough to eat.” He cleared some land and worked hard to grow crops. But then he developed an infected sore on his foot, and one of his sons got a similar sore. A local doctor was unable to give them any relief. “I was very discouraged and unhappy. I wanted to change my life.”
Estanislada’s family moved from the city to be near them. Even though moving to this remote place caused them to lose contact with the Church, they continued to live their religion. “My brother-in-law was always reading the scriptures,” says Isabelino. “One day I told him I couldn’t sleep at night because of the pain I had in my foot. He told me I needed to pray to Heavenly Father. I asked him, ‘How should I pray?’ And he began to teach me about prayer. He told me I had to give myself to the Lord.
“That day, I knelt down and prayed to Heavenly Father and asked forgiveness. I asked him to heal my son and me of our sores. I told him I needed to work for my family. When I told my wife that I had given myself to the Lord, she smiled because she was very happy.
“My wife’s parents started teaching me about the Church. We read the Book of Mormon and Gospel Principles. They taught me to pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Our sores were healed.”
Now he and Estanislada wanted to be baptized, but they didn’t know how to proceed. They didn’t have the means to travel back to the city where the missionaries had originally taught them. Finally, four years after being cured of the sore, Isabelino made the four-hour trip on foot and by bus to Coronel Oviedo—the nearest city—hoping the Church was there and that he would be able to find the missionaries.
“I got off the bus at the terminal and asked a boy on a bicycle if he knew where The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was; he told me it was very far away. I walked about four blocks toward the center of town and asked a man; he said he didn’t know. I began praying to Heavenly Father to help me, so I wouldn’t lose hope.
“On a corner, I asked a woman. She said, ‘Wait here. I know the missionaries. They will pass by here soon.’ I waited about twenty minutes, and the woman said, ‘Here come the missionaries.’ When I saw them, I ran toward them. I wanted to talk to them so much.”
The missionaries were eager to teach the Giménez family. First they received permission from their mission president to travel to the remote jungle location. Then they left at six o’clock one morning and rode a couple of hours on a bus from Coronel Oviedo to a neighboring town. There they met Isabelino and rode with him on another bus for thirty minutes. Then they walked another hour and a half through the jungle, arriving at the Giménez home at 10:00 A.M. “I don’t think I had ever walked that far,” says Elder Turrini. “I had never been in the jungle like that, even though I’m from Paraguay. We saw lots of wild animals, snakes, and birds. When we got to their home, the family treated us like we were angels. The kids jumped all over us, and the adults were in tears. They had been praying for our safety and had lunch ready for us.”
That day, the missionaries taught three discussions to a group of about thirty people. Some of them were Estanislada’s family—members of the Church—who had almost lost hope of ever finding the Church again. Others were interested neighbors. After three hours of teaching, the missionaries returned home.
The next day, the Giménez family made the journey into Coronel Oviedo. It was raining, and since they were traveling with small children, the trip took seven hours. The elders taught them the last three discussions, and the following day—Sunday, September 8, 1991—Isabelino and Estanislada were baptized, along with two of their children, Aníbal and Diana; a foster daughter; and Estanislada’s younger brother and sister. They also have two younger children, Derlis and Emanuel.
“When I went down in the water,” says Isabelino, “I don’t know how it happened, but I felt that I was dead for one second. As I arose from the water, I felt so happy that I cried for joy. When the missionaries confirmed me, I felt a beautiful feeling. Then I arose to bear my testimony and couldn’t finish because of the great happiness I felt. Since then, I have shared my testimony with all my friends and neighbors. I want them to feel the joy I feel.”
For years, Gladys and Dionisio Aguilera of Asunción had seen Latter-day Saint missionaries around town and had wondered who they were and what they were doing. “They never knocked on our door,” Gladys says, “but we wished they would.”
“I told my wife we should help them, because they were very hardworking and were sacrificing for the people of our country,” says Dionisio, an auto mechanic. “Finally, we went after them; they didn’t come after us!”
They invited two North American sister missionaries to their home—and were baptized a few weeks later, in July 1991. Within another couple of weeks, Dionisio and Gladys were the Young Men and Young Women presidents in the Anahí Branch.
“We had been married twelve years and were happy,” Gladys says. “But we always felt we were missing something. After we were baptized, we started seeing new things in our lives, things we had never seen before.” For example, they remember the awe they felt the first time they fasted—and tasted a spirit they had never known before. And they tell of a blessing that healed one of their sons.
“Now our happiness feels complete,” says Sister Aguilera. They are preparing their sons, Eduardo and David, to serve missions. A new LDS meetinghouse has been built just a block from their home. “I’m not content with the testimony I had at my baptism,” she says. “I am seeing it grow every day.”
His regal bearing is not at all overbearing. He treats people like a beloved grandfather would—with kindness, lots of love, and not the slightest hint of superiority. Yet, as a retired colonel of the Paraguayan army, he seems to be just as comfortable mingling with the country’s top government and military leaders as he is with his family and friends or while serving in his Church assignments. Held in highest esteem by members and nonmembers alike, he is often referred to respectfully as “mi coronel.”
Thirty-one years ago, in 1963, Luis A. Ramírez was serving as a young major in the Paraguayan army. One day he found a copy of the Book of Mormon on the table in his home in Asunción. He had never seen it before and didn’t know where it had come from. But he opened it and began looking through the pages. “It said it was ‘the word of God,’” he remembers. “That phrase—’the word of God’—penetrated my mind profoundly. So I began to read. And a great interest was awakened within me.”
The timing was perfect. “For about three months, I had felt the need to get closer to God,” he says. He wasn’t satisfied with his own religion but had begun to attend his church every Sunday anyway, hoping to find some answers. “And I began to pray to God—not the kind of prayers I had been taught to pray, but very similar to what the missionaries later taught me. This continued for three months. Then I found the book.”
“Who brought this book?” he asked his family. A fifteen-year-old relative said that two missionaries had given it to him a couple of days earlier at a friend’s house. “I continued reading it, and it interested me even more. So I said to the boy, ‘When you see the missionaries again, invite them to come here.’”
When the missionaries came a few days later, Luis had just about finished reading the Book of Mormon, and he had lots of questions. For the next three weeks, the missionaries taught two discussions every week to Luis and his wife, Hortensia. The Saturday following the third visit, they were both baptized. As a result, friends and relatives also became interested in the gospel and were baptized. Soon “the major” became “the president”—of the Moroni Branch in Asunción.
In 1969, six years after his baptism, Brother Ramírez was advanced to the rank of colonel. He taught in the military college until his retirement in 1975, never hiding the fact that he was a Latter-day Saint. Over the years, some of his students became interested in the Church and were baptized because of his example.
After he retired from the military, Brother and Sister Ramírez took their family to Utah for five years, where he earned a degree at Brigham Young University. Soon after returning to Paraguay, he was called as the first Paraguayan to serve as a mission president. His mission field was his native country.
Since his release in 1984, Colonel Ramírez has continued to serve as a counselor to mission and stake presidents, strengthening members and helping to establish the Church in outlying districts and branches. In addition, he has continued to serve as an adviser to the Church in its relations with the Paraguayan government, opening doors that possibly no one else could have opened. With characteristic humility, he downplays his role in that regard: “Perhaps I’ve been able to help a little,” he says. But those who have served with him know of his great ability to make friends for the Church and to be an ambassador of good will among national leaders.
“Sometimes I’ll see my students who are now majors or colonels, and they will stop and ask me, ‘How’s the Church coming?’ I tell them it’s coming along very well.”
Indeed, the Church in Paraguay is “coming along very well.” And the history of the Church in Paraguay is still being written—by second- and third-generation Latter-day Saints, as well as by new converts. With the organization of the third stake in Paraguay, optimism is great. “We have lived in Paraguay since the Church had only two branches,” says Brother Carlos Espínola. “I feel that the day is much closer now when there is going to be great growth in the Church here. When President Ezra Taft Benson dedicated this land for the preaching of the gospel, he said there would be many stakes in Paraguay. I can see that day coming.”