“‘Faithful, Good, Virtuous, True’: Pioneers in the Philippines,” Ensign, Aug. 1997, 56–63
By the time full-time missionaries commenced work in the Philippines in 1961, the seeds for the remarkable growth that followed had already been planted by Latter-day Saints living there. When the Manila Philippines Temple was dedicated in 1984, 23 years later, the Church had grown from a handful of Filipino members to nearly 100,000 Latter-day Saints, 15 stakes, and numerous districts, wards, and branches.
During that brief period the Church organized the seminary and institute programs, increased the number of missions to four, opened a local missionary training center to prepare missionaries not only from the Philippines but from other countries in Southeast Asia, and initiated the family history and welfare programs. Today the growth of the Church continues at a rapid pace, with the number of members approaching 400,000.
The earliest Church members in the Philippines were LDS servicemen who arrived during the Spanish-American War in 1898. Servicemen Willard Call and George Seaman from Utah were set apart as missionaries but had no convert baptisms.
During 1944 and 1945 several LDS servicemen moved through the islands with advancing allied forces. Servicemen’s groups held Church meetings in many locations. Numerous LDS servicemen were still in the Philippines when World War II ended.
The Korean War again drew Latter-day Saint military people to the Philippines. Clark Air Force Base, near Manila, was home to hundreds of Church members over the years, becoming a permanent part of the American presence in that part of the world. At Clark Air Force Base, President Joseph Fielding Smith dedicated the Philippines for the preaching of the gospel on 21 August 1955. Because of visa problems, full-time missionaries were not able to enter the country until 1961.
Among the hundreds of foreign Latter-day Saints who lived or served in the Philippines, the pioneer efforts of Maxine Tate Grimm are especially noteworthy. In 1945 Maxine Tate entered the Philippines along with thousands of other Americans. As a Red Cross worker her role was to support, encourage, and help; over the years she never abandoned those roles.
Following the war she married E. M. “Pete” Grimm, a U.S. Army colonel and long-time resident of Manila, where they made their home. As years passed, Sister Grimm constantly encouraged the growth of the Church in that part of the world. Although Pete did not join the Church until 1967, he used his means and influence to open doors for the Church not only in the Philippines but also in Indonesia, Hong Kong, and other nations of Southeast Asia.
Sister Grimm was present at almost every important occasion that led to the opening of missionary work. Her home was the center of Church activity; most of the first 2,000 baptisms in Manila were performed in the Grimm swimming pool. Sister Grimm played her portable pump organ, which she had transported throughout the war, at many Church meetings and special occasions.
“I cannot praise her efforts too highly,” President Gordon B. Hinckley said. “She was a genuine pioneer in the work in that island nation where we have now a very substantial Church membership.”1
Until 1961 Sister Grimm and her two children carried on Church activities by themselves or with other LDS families. Exceptions occurred when they attended conferences with military members at Clark Air Force Base or at Subic Bay Naval Station. In 1961 this began to change.
American servicemen, their families, and others living there loved the Filipinos and in 1960 pleaded with Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, then an Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles assigned to supervise the Church in Asia, to open the Philippines to missionary work.2
On his first visit to the Philippines in 1960, Elder Hinckley realized the potential the Philippines offered as a mission field. Legal challenges slowed the granting of official recognition for the Church, but Elder Hinckley and Robert S. Taylor, president of the Southern Far East Mission, believed permission for missionary visas would soon be granted. With authorization from the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, they scheduled a meeting at the American War Memorial Cemetery on 28 April 1961 to initiate missionary work.
At 6:30 A.M., while quiet peace shrouded that hallowed place, some 100 members of the Church—mostly servicemen and their families, but including David Lagman, a lone Filipino member—met near the small memorial chapel. At the conclusion of a brief meeting, Elder Hinckley offered a prayer in which he expressed gratitude for the Republic of the Philippines, “for the great price which has been paid by many to bring freedom of conscience, freedom of worship, and freedom of assembly here to this land.”
Further, he invoked blessings “upon the people of this land, that they shall be friendly and hospitable, and kind and gracious to those who shall come here, and that many, yea Lord, we pray that there shall be many thousands who shall receive this message and be blessed thereby. … We pray that there shall be many men, faithful, good, virtuous, true men who shall join the Church.”3
Since that time, his prayer that many “faithful, good, virtuous, true men” would join the Church has been answered manyfold. Soon visas for full-time missionaries were approved, and on 5 June 1961 the first four missionaries were transferred from Hong Kong to Manila. Probably because the people were curious about them, the elders were invited into every home they visited that day.
Although non-Filipinos did much to help with the early development of the Church in the Philippines, most of the pioneering, the building, and the nurturing of the young Church was done by Filipino members. Despite major economic problems and natural disasters that have constantly challenged the Filipino Saints, they have forged ahead in building the kingdom of God.
Ruben Gapiz and Nenita Reyes were among the earliest Filipinos to join the Church. Nenita, who was baptized on 25 November 1961, was the fifth person to join the Church after missionary work commenced. She was a college graduate when her brother-in-law sent the missionaries to her home to teach the restored gospel. Her response and the response of several family members was immediate and positive.
Nenita was soon called to lead the music for the growing group of members in the Manila-Sangley area. As her gospel knowledge grew, so did the number of her Church callings. She has served in the presidencies of the Young Women, Relief Society, and Primary.
Ruben Gapiz was interested in Nenita before he was interested in the Church. A talented guitar player, he was recruited to accompany Church members for an evening of Christmas caroling. He had expected to be paid for his services and was about to leave when he saw Nenita leading the singing. He stayed, eventually listened to the missionary discussions, and was baptized a year after Nenita.
Two years later Ruben and Nenita became the first Filipino Latter-day Saint couple to marry. Almost everyone in the branch attended their ceremony and the celebration afterward. The Gapiz family was eventually blessed with four daughters.
Ruben accepted a number of callings in the Church, but he served with less eagerness than Sister Gapiz, although his testimony continued to grow. In 1975, however, “the Lord tapped him on the shoulders and woke him up.”4 Ruben was diagnosed with cancer of the nasopharynx. He became quite ill and was not expected to live more than a few years. Nenita and Ruben’s oldest child was only 10 years old when the cancer was discovered; Ruben wanted badly to live and raise his family.
“In August 1978,” he said, “I received my patriarchal blessing from patriarch F. Briton McConkie. My wife was in the room with me. … [The patriarch] did not have any prior knowledge of my affliction. Toward the end of the blessing he pronounced these words, which really struck me and brought tears to my eyes and caused me and my wife to sob softly: ‘You will live your life to the fullest and will be called to serve in many leadership positions.’
“After the blessing was over, [the] patriarch … asked me the reason for my tears. I told him that I had been diagnosed with cancer and that I only had two years to live and that the blessing he pronounced was almost too good to hope for. He assured me that it was the Lord’s blessing and he was only a conduit. … I knew that day that the Lord had answered my prayers.”5
The blessing awakened his dedication to the gospel. “He became a different man after that,” Sister Gapiz said.
Since then he has worked tirelessly to build up and strengthen the Church in the Philippines. Through the years he has served as bishop, stake president, mission president, and regional representative. He also served as chair of the committee that translated the Book of Mormon into Tagalog, the predominant native language. He is currently serving as an Area Authority Seventy in the Philippines/Micronesia Area and is director of the Church Welfare Services area office in Manila. The high number of natural disasters and economic challenges Church members face in the Philippines makes his work demanding, but Brother Gapiz finds joy and fulfillment in helping others.
With steadiness, dedication, courage, and faith, Ruben and Nenita Gapiz have been, and continue to be, pioneers in the Philippines.
Unlike other Asian countries, where Christians are greatly outnumbered, the Philippines were converted to Roman Catholicism by the Spanish, beginning in the 16th century. Because 90 percent of Filipinos are Christians, many readily listen to and embrace the message of the Restoration.
Augusto and Myrna Lim were such a couple. When they were baptized in October 1964, they had no idea how much the Lord would ask of them in building up the Church during the next 30-plus years.
Brother Lim had graduated with a law degree and by 1964 had established himself well in that profession. He understood organizations, and he spoke well in public. He had also made time for spiritual pursuits, having studied the Bible throughout his life.
Only a week before the missionaries visited his home, his three-year-old daughter asked why the family never attended a church on Sundays like other families. While Myrna had been reared a Roman Catholic, Augusto had been reared by Protestant parents. Moved by his daughter’s question, he knelt and prayed, “I feel guilty about what has happened. If you want me to work full time in the church as a minister or do anything for you, just let me know.”6
Soon the full-time missionaries were knocking on the door. Augusto’s studies had prepared him to accept the missionaries’ message. He said, “The doctrine of the Church was what I actually believed in—even before the missionaries visited me—about God the Father, for example, and about revelation. Those are things that even when I was in high school and college I believed in. … The missionaries were teaching me something that I felt I knew.”7 Augusto later recalled that he felt he had been brought up in a home that prepared him to accept the Church.
But commitment to gospel truths was difficult because Augusto passed through a challenging period while investigating the Church. Nine months passed, and several sets of missionaries came and went before he finally asked the Lord seriously whether the restored gospel was true. “For the first time in my life, I prayed real hard,” he recalls. His prayer was answered, and the next morning he awoke ready to commit to baptism.
At his baptism in October 1964, Augusto silently made a special covenant with his Heavenly Father: “I will be active and I’ll do everything that I can to help.” Explaining these words, he said, “Here was this church that came along where I would not have to give up my profession and yet I could be of service.”
The following week he was called as second counselor in the Sunday School. And before his first year in the Church ended, he had successively served as branch financial clerk, assistant district clerk, district clerk, and first counselor in the branch presidency in Quezon City, a suburb of Manila. In this last calling he served for two years under American serviceman Montie Keller, who taught him “the proper way of running the Church. … I was taught by a great Church leader.”8
Brother Lim’s intensive period of apprenticeship continued when he was called as second counselor in the Luzon district presidency. Nine months later, on 22 August 1967, the Church organized the Philippines Mission with Paul H. Rose as president. Brother Lim was called as first counselor in the mission presidency, a position he held for six years. Simultaneous with his calling in the mission presidency, and successively, he served as president of the Santa Mesa, Santa Mesa Second, Quezon City Second, and Quezon City First Branches. President DeWitt C. Smith, who followed President Rose, often called upon Brother Lim as a trainer.
When the Church organized its first stake in the Philippines, Elder Ezra Taft Benson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles called Augusto A. Lim as stake president. The Manila Philippines Stake was organized on 20 May 1973, only 12 years after missionary work began in Manila and only 9 years after President Lim joined the Church. As the Manila Stake grew and was divided, President Lim was called twice to preside over the new stakes that were organized.
In the years that followed, President Lim served next as a regional representative and mission president of the Philippines Naga Mission. In early June 1992, a few weeks before his release as mission president, President Lim received a call to serve in the Second Quorum of the Seventy, the first Filipino to serve as a General Authority. His call was a pioneering call. He was to continue his profession as a lawyer but also serve in the Area Presidency just as Area Authorities do today.9
In the summer of 1996, Elder and Sister Lim were called as president and matron of the Manila Philippines Temple. They were the first Filipino couple to lead the work at that temple.
Their years of service have been exemplary, influencing many to good works, including their eight children. Their sons have served missions, and their daughters have married returned missionaries in the temple. As pioneers before them in other parts of the world, the Lims have endured, obeyed, and carried on in faith.
For Filipinos, 1972 was a year of economic and political crisis. Political corruption was rampant, and the economy was in chaos. Remus Villarete was out of college and he had a good job, but he was concerned about growing economic disparities among his people. Hoping to help the poor, Remus began organizing antigovernment rallies. One of his close friends, Yvonne L. Cawit, was a recently graduated nurse who helped treat people injured in street demonstrations.
In September 1972, the country’s leader, President Ferdinand Marcos, declared martial law. His government considered protesters like Remus and Yvonne enemies of the state. When the government published its list of most-wanted agitators, Remus Villarete was listed as the second-most-wanted person in his area; Yvonne also appeared on the list.
As their struggle for a better life brought Remus and Yvonne closer, they began to discuss their future. Remus believed Yvonne would be better off surrendering to the military. Yvonne’s father also asked her to give herself up to the authorities. Three days after the declaration of martial law she surrendered. Remus, however, considered going into the mountains to become a guerilla fighter. But at the urging of his father and some relatives who had influence on government officials, Remus also surrendered. After spending more than three months in a stockade he was released. Family members had arranged his release on condition that he marry Yvonne; his family and the military believed marriage would keep Remus from going to the mountains and continuing his fight against the government. They were right. After Remus and Yvonne married 10 days later on 21 January 1973, they set their lives in a different direction while peacefully continuing to fight injustice.
Life was difficult at first, especially because they had trouble finding jobs. Eventually both found work in their respective hometowns: Yvonne in Cadiz and Remus in Bacolod, 65 kilometers away. While staying with Yvonne’s parents in Cadiz, they met the full-time missionaries. The gospel changed the lives of everyone in the household.
Carmelino Cawit, Yvonne’s father, was a religious man who enjoyed listening to the elders. Only a few months passed before he, his wife, and two daughters entered the waters of baptism. Brother Cawit became the president of the Cadiz Branch, and was later called as a bishop, stake president, and patriarch.
Remus and Yvonne also appreciated the message of the restored gospel, but Remus was distracted by his social relationships and his friends who did not live the Word of Wisdom. Because he had not been reading the Book of Mormon, Remus was not ready for baptism when the time came for his baptismal interview. He said later that the experience helped him appreciate the importance of gospel commitments.
“Once I join a certain organization, I am committed to the work,” Remus said years later. He told the elders he wanted to practice what they were teaching before he was baptized. So he began attending Church, paying tithing, fasting, contributing to the missionary fund, and reading the Book of Mormon carefully and prayerfully. By doing the will of his Heavenly Father, Remus soon came to “know of the doctrine” (John 7:17) for himself. He and Yvonne were baptized in May 1975.
Three months later the first Philippines Area Conference was held in Araneta Coliseum in Quezon City, with President Spencer W. Kimball scheduled to speak. Remus was determined to see and hear a Church President.
“I was less than three months in the Church. … [But] I wanted to go to Manila to see the prophet. It really strengthened my testimony because … when I saw the prophet I really felt that he was a prophet of God!
“Then, immediately after the conference, I returned to Bacolod. I went home straight and I told my wife, we have to follow the prophet. She said, ‘Why, what did the prophet say?’ The prophet said, ‘Families are forever and it is important that families should be together.’ We should be together.”
Remus had been staying in Bacolod from Monday through Friday, returning to Cadiz on the weekends. Following President Kimball’s admonition, Yvonne quit her job in Cadiz and the family moved to Bacolod to be with their father. Opportunities for gospel growth soon came to the family as the Villaretes were called to many leadership positions. When the Bacolod Stake was created in 1981 by Elder Marion D. Hanks of the Seventy, Brother Villarete was sustained as its first president. He served in that position until 1987, when he was asked to move to Cebu to become a regional real estate manager for the Church.
President Villarete then served as a regional representative from 1988 until 1991, when he was called as president of the Philippines Cagayan de Oro Mission, on the island of Mindanao. He and Sister Villarete remained on Mindanao until he was released in June 1995. A few days later, Brother Villarete was called as an Area Authority in the Philippines/Micronesia Area. He is now serving as an Area Authority Seventy.
Once Remus and Yvonne found the right cause, they gave themselves to it with all their hearts, keeping the commandments and following the President of the Church. Their dedication to the gospel has never faltered, and their efforts to build the kingdom of God in the Philippines have made them true pioneers.
From the beginning of missionary work in 1961, special people who have proven faithful, good, virtuous, and true over the years have come into the Church in the Philippines. The Lord has raised up, nurtured, and strengthened many Filipino pioneers—men and women who have served well.
In every branch and ward pioneers are still forging the way and giving their best to serve the Lord and their fellow members. These few stories do not begin to tell of the many hours that thousands of Filipino pioneers have spent serving in the Church. Nor do these stories detail the numerous deeds of kindness and love that are common among Filipino Church members. But the stories of these pioneers exemplify the strength and humility of many who accept the truth throughout the Philippines.
Today, more than 1,000 wards and branches dot the islands, and the pioneering spirit truly lives on as Filipinos continue joining the Church in large numbers. Most of them are forging new paths for their families as they break with old traditions and move into a new era emblazoned with the gospel’s full light.