Australia: Coming Out of Obscurity Down Under
December 1998

“Australia: Coming Out of Obscurity Down Under,” Ensign, Dec. 1998, 35


Coming Out of Obscurity Down Under

As membership in Australia reaches 100,000, the community outreach efforts of Latter-day Saints are helping others learn what the Church stands for.

When Ralph Orth of Brisbane was approached last year by the Australian government about accepting the prestigious Order of Australia award for outstanding service, he was reluctant. “I wasn’t anxious to be recognized when I know so many others aren’t recognized who have done a lot more than I have,” says Brother Orth, a second-generation Church member.

Brother Orth’s award was unusual because it was given for his community service as a bishop and stake president. In his 27 years of continuous leadership, he estimates he’s held more than 15,000 interviews with members, helping them consider options and make good choices. One newspaper profile about him was titled “Helping People Cope with Life’s Traumas.”

That attitude of focusing on service for the benefit of others reflects a key area of excitement and progress among Australian members. “It’s good to be known for public service,” says Brother Orth. “That plays an important part in the growth of the kingdom, as long as we don’t take our focus off the commission the Lord has given us to preach the Restoration.”

This year, the Church reached 100,000 members in Australia. Elder P. Bruce Mitchell, an Area Authority Seventy serving as Second Counselor in the Australia/New Zealand Area Presidency, reports that the Church is baptizing enough members to form two stakes per year in Australia, with about a third of those new converts resulting from member referrals. “A Sydney newspaper recently reported that the Church is 17th in size among churches in Australia,” says Elder Mitchell, an Australian native. “But our growth rate was the highest, at 18 percent. The next-highest growth rate was about 10 percent.”

Elder Bruce C. Hafen of the Seventy, First Counselor in the Australia/New Zealand Area Presidency, has been in Sydney for about two years. “There’s a genuineness about the people here,” Elder Hafen says. “There’s no pretense, no facade. Among Church members we’ve found an endearing earnestness and straightforwardness about their Church commitments. They have really caught the vision of sincerely reaching out to each other in honest concern. This includes those who are less active or members of other faiths. There’s something warm and contagious about this attitude, and it is bringing growth in all the best senses, not just numerically but in maturity and in strength of leadership.”

Importance of Public Affairs

“The focus on public affairs has been a pivotal changing point for the Church in Australia,” says Raymond Page, former national director of public affairs for the Church in Australia and now a Gospel Doctrine teacher in Melbourne, Australia’s second-largest and southernmost mainland city. “The members’ image of what they can do as a people and how they are seen in society has changed. We don’t see ourselves being viewed by others as that funny little sect anymore. Pioneering work has been done in public affairs in the last decade in Australia, and now we’re moving ahead with momentum.”

In Perth, a city of 1.5 million located in the “back of beyond” on Australia’s western coast, an LDS-organized roundtable of community leaders is making a significant impact. Started in 1994 by Roy Webb after a suggestion by the Area Presidency, the roundtable is still going strong as a platform for improving family values in the community and making friends for the Church.

A Perth newspaper described the roundtable as “a group of civic, business, and religious leaders concerned with the disintegration of the family and supporting legislative action encouraging strong family values.” Roundtable convener and interfaith specialist Philip Baker says, “We bring a group of community leaders together every two months for lunch and a guest speaker. The speakers are as topical and of high a caliber as possible to stimulate these heads of organizations. We send them away from the roundtable with good news and ideas about keeping families united.”

The experience of Bill Budiselik, a senior executive in Western Australia’s office of Family and Children’s Services, illustrates the warming of public feeling toward the Church and its members in Australia. As Western Australia prepared to celebrate the international year of the family some time ago, Mr. Budiselik was offered the Church’s assistance by John Grinceri, former Western Australia public affairs director and now an Area Authority Seventy in the Australia/New Zealand Area.

“I was a little bit taken aback, which I guess reveals my prejudice,” Mr. Budiselik recalls. “I didn’t really want to be associated with something involving proselytization. My perception of Church members at that time was of missionaries embarking on a program of door knocking and preaching. John Grinceri explained to me that while the Church does do some of that, they also have their community service work. Church members are quite happy to work quietly without necessarily feeling the need to convert others, which I must admit I hadn’t realized. It made me aware that there are Church members working very effectively in our community. I now view Latter-day Saints and the Church as part of the social fabric.”

Elder Grinceri comments that public affairs success “is good for the members because it helps them feel they can stand tall. In the past some have probably felt a little bit embarrassed to say they were members because of the way the Church was viewed in Australian society. But now we are seen in a better light.”

Unexpectedly Favorable Responses

Near Brisbane, Queensland’s subtropical capital of about two million people on the eastern shoreline, Jo Hunter has spearheaded several community-outreach efforts. She helped organize more than 25 shopping mall displays in which Church members ran booths stocked with information about family-oriented subjects such as emergency preparedness, nutrition, and family history research. “The public loved it,” Sister Hunter says. “They met lovely Latter-day Saints. The name of the Church was visible, but we didn’t go out and tap people on the shoulder or do any overt proselyting. But the next time missionaries knocked on their doors, many said, ‘You’re the lot who have those mall displays.’”

Sister Hunter was also involved in a project to transport fruit and vegetables to drought-stricken areas of Queensland. “We told local farmers what we wanted to do,” she says. “Most were dyed-in-the-wool members of other faiths and really didn’t like Latter-day Saints, but they cooperated because our cause was good. One farmer let missionaries cut cabbages on his land before sunrise. In all we gathered 42 tons of produce and transported it on two big trucks and a little airplane. Besides alleviating suffering, this project helped people see that Latter-day Saints help their neighbors. It’s amazing how relationships can unfold and blossom in the community.”

Alan Wakeley, Australia/New Zealand Area director of public affairs, has focused on helping Australian members lift their sights in their public affairs efforts. “Certainly we need to continue with service projects and other activities that are broad-based and important to any ward or stake’s involvement with the community,” Brother Wakeley says. “But we are also trying to reach the most influential members of the community, the opinion leaders who influence other people’s attitudes. The principal purpose is to work with these people to help them better the community. A natural consequence, however, is that they gain an improved understanding of our beliefs and come to regard the Church as a respected and credible organization.”

Brother Wakeley points to a recent event that illustrates how attitudes toward the Church are changing. “We are delighted that there is now an exhibit at the Australian National Maritime Museum about the 1855 shipwreck in Tahiti involving Australian Latter-day Saints sailing to America,” he says. “The Julia Ann exhibit was opened by New South Wales premier Bob Carr, and we had national media there as well as other community leaders. Formerly such leaders would have had no great interest in the Church and as recently as two years ago probably wouldn’t have participated in such an opening.” Brother Wakeley says that last year’s pioneer sesquicentennial activities and the visit of President Gordon B. Hinckley to Australia dramatically increased positive media coverage of the Church.

In Perth, Southern River stake public affairs director Bruce Bibby has emphasized establishing relationships with prominent community leaders. “When the family proclamation came out, we did the rounds of all the politicians in the area,” Brother Bibby says. “We expected those events to be nothing more than cordial, professional meetings. But in fact a number of them turned out to be quite spiritual. Before we went to the appointments, the bishop and I would meet at the chapel and pray. We had some in-depth conversations with community leaders about the Church’s growth and beliefs, and we got some unexpectedly favorable responses. One federal politician liked the Church’s materials about families so well that she requested more copies for her front office.”

Scouting and Family History

Australian Church members involved in Scouting and family history often find opportunities to interface with people in the community in positive ways.

Arthur Maurer of Brisbane has served for many years in Scouting leadership positions and has been successful as a liaison between Scouting and the Church. “At a recent international Scout jamboree, I chaired a religious observance committee made up of people from eight other religious denominations,” Brother Maurer reports. “They all accepted me quite well. We wanted to have two missionaries come out to the jamboree to work. I went to the chaplain in charge of that area and said, ‘The missionaries will not preach the gospel while they’re here. They will assist us with the youth and encourage them to be good Christians.’ He said, ‘Arthur, if they’re OK with you, go ahead.’ I think that tells us something about how other churches are accepting us now.”

Several Mormonad posters from the Church’s New Era youth magazine were included in the jamboree’s religious displays. “I suggested we paste a piece of tape over the word Mormonad at the bottom so people didn’t think we were trying to advertise the Church,” Brother Maurer says. “A minister of another faith said, ‘Look, if you can get anyone interested in your church through reading that, we’d love you to do it. We need more Christians, not fewer.’”

Before Janet Reakes of Hervey Bay, Queensland, was baptized in 1972, she traced horse-racing and dog-racing pedigrees. After she joined the Church, she turned her skills toward family history work and became nationally prominent in Australia as a genealogy expert. “I tell my background in classes and whenever I’m interviewed by TV, radio, or newspaper reporters,” says Sister Reakes. “The story opens up many doors for people to ask about the Church.”

Sister Reakes appeared as a genealogist for six years on a top Australian daytime TV show and continues to teach and write about family history throughout Australia. “Whenever I can, I say, ‘You can get such-and-such at the Church,’ or ‘The Church can help you here,’ or ‘The Church has brought out such-and-such a program,’” she says. “I live my life with my headlights on in regards to the Church. I look for every opportunity to introduce the fact that I’m a member of the Church.”

An announcer on a Christian radio station once asked Janet to avoid mentioning the LDS Church during an on-air interview about genealogy. “I said, ‘I can’t talk about genealogy unless I mention the Church, because genealogy is all wrapped around the Church,’” Sister Reakes recalls. “‘It’s the Church that set up the libraries, and it’s the Church that microfilmed the records.’ When she understood I wasn’t coming on to preach, we had a wonderful interview.”

In classes and lectures, if someone asks Sister Reakes why Latter-day Saints do so much family history, she uses the opportunity to share the gospel. “I’ll usually give them a very brief answer,” she says, “and then say to them, ‘After class if you want further information I’ll explain to you a bit more, and anybody else who wants to listen can come and join in.’”

An Opportunity for Greater Service

“When I joined the Church in 1955, most members were laborers and tradesmen,” recalls Melbourne member Ray Page. “There was really no one in leadership or management positions out in the community. There were barely enough resources to run a local branch.”

Brother Page contrasts the situation some 40 years ago with today’s prosperity and strength among Australian members. “Our young people particularly have started to assume responsible positions in business and the community,” he says. “The talent in the Church per capita is enormous. Our members are more willing and have better techniques, and they’re not so scared to become involved in politics, clubs, and societies and quietly introduce themselves as members of the Church. I’m certain that as we continue to move out into the community and raise our image, people will become more likely to make a positive contact with the Church.”

Elder Henry B. Eyring of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles encouraged all Church members earlier this year “to see the bounties which God pours upon us not only as a mark of His favor but an opportunity to join with those around us in greater service.” Further, Elder Eyring urged members to “unite with those who do not accept our doctrine but share our desire to bless the children of our Heavenly Father” (“That We May Be One,” Ensign, May 1998, 68). With motives to improve society and help fellow citizens, Australian members are finding powerful blessings serving in the community.

Isolated but Not Alone

Margaret Lawson is the only active Latter-day Saint in the small town of Kununurra, Western Australia, about 800 kilometers from Darwin and 3,000 kilometers from Perth. “I love this community, but Church-wise it gets very lonely,” she says. “I weep with frustration sometimes that I can’t have sisters and priesthood holders in town.”

But Margaret finds ways to overcome her challenging situation. “On Sunday mornings I have a little worship service to meself, sort of study the lesson and do me best,” she says. “I’m grateful for the Ensign, New Era, Friend, and Church News. If a priesthood holder passes through town and there’s an opportunity, I’ll ask him to give me the sacrament.” Most years she is able to fly to district or branch conference in Darwin, to the Sydney temple, and to Perth to spend several weeks among Church friends.

Sister Lawson suffers from arthritis and a lung problem. “If I’m really feeling in pain and agony, I’ll ring up my branch president in Darwin and say, ‘Please, I need a blessing,’” she says. “He’ll take a few minutes to prepare himself and then ring me back and say words of comfort and counsel over the phone. The feeling of comfort and healing is right there.”

Margaret has not let her spiritual isolation stop her from making friends and sharing her Christian beliefs in the community. Once, some friends of hers demanded that an anti-Mormon film be turned off because it didn’t square with what they knew of Margaret. Last year she received a Rotary award (pictured at left) for her service in the community as a hospital worker, theater actress and producer, and member of the local arts council, historical society, and Girl Guides. Today she is the liaison officer for a senior citizens club and community coordinator for a children’s reading group.

“I used to be desperately shy,” she says. “But after I joined the Church in 1970 and learned I was a child of God and that when we serve our fellow man we are in the service of our God, I overcame my shyness.” Never married, Sister Lawson has a picture of the Savior hanging on her living-room wall with the caption “You are never alone.”

A Force for Good

Third-generation Church member John Bailey of the Dural Ward, Sydney Greenwich stake, owns a tax consultancy business with 250 offices throughout Australia. He says that positive media coverage about his business success has helped change religious perceptions. He imagines readers and listeners thinking, If a prominent businessman is also an active religious man, there must be something to look into.

Brother Bailey tells journalists, “I am very much a product of my upbringing as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which teaches strongly the principles of hard work and self-reliance. Success comes from the sweat of the brow, not from reliance on governments or anyone except the Lord. My priority is my responsibility to my Maker, and I’ve always felt that if I did all I was able in that regard, my business would be blessed.”

In addition to his business efforts, Brother Bailey has been heavily involved in politics. Once, at a large political dinner, a high-ranking government official with whom he’d had some association asked him to say a prayer. “In front of all those people with only a minute or two notice, I thought, I’ll get up and give a standard Latter-day Saint prayer of thanks. But I felt words come out, words such as ‘We thank Thee for the trust that Thou hast given to us, that this is a great land, a freeland, a protected land. We acknowledge we are mere custodians to institute Thy will for the benefit of all.’ Those were words I never anticipated would come, and the prayer was referred to several times that night.”

Australian Church History


First known Latter-day Saint arrives


First branch organized


First full-time missionaries arrive


Organ for Old Tabernacle transported from Australia to Salt Lake City by Joseph Ridges


Australian mission organized


300 members


First chapel built


2,000 members


First Church President to visit Australia (David O. McKay)


First stakes organized in Sydney and Melbourne


7,000 members


25,000 members


40,000 members


Sydney temple dedicated


76,000 members

Australia Today



18.3 million


2,970,000 square miles
(about size of continental U.S.)

Church membership

(about 0.5 percent of population)


Sydney; Brisbane (announced)













Family history centers


Photography by Richard M. Romney, except as noted

Right: Members of the Rigby family of the Normanhurst Ward, Sydney Australia Greenwich Stake. Background: A ferry passes under the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Upper righthand corner: The Sydney temple was dedicated in 1984. (Photo of Sydney Temple courtesy of Australia/New Zealand Public Affairs Office.)

Background: Youth from Alice Springs, Northern Territory, tour a dry riverbed in the outback. The truck is rigged with ropes and supports for safety. (Photo by Christopher K. Bigelow.) Middle: Brisbane interfaith specialist John Glass (left) with Lutheran leader John Vitale. Lower: Queensland youth David Gibson at bat in Australia’s popular sport of cricket. Upper righthand corner: Nicole Davie of Brisbane’s Eight Mile Plains Ward. Left: Photo courtesy of Margaret Lawson.

Upper lefthand corner: Janiia and Gemma Pilkington, sisters from the Modbury Ward, Adelaide Australia Modbury Stake. Lower left: Perth interfaith specialist Philip Baker (right) examines a Hebraic text with Rabbi Shalom Coleman. (Photo by Christopher K. Bigelow.) Background: A view of the Swan River near Perth. (Photo by Christopher K. Bigelow.) Top: Queensland member Jo Hunter with books she helped gather for literacy assistance to Papua New Guinea. (Photo © Queensland Newspapers PTY LTD.) Middle: Members of the Law family of the Fitzroy Branch in Queensland. Bottom: Lotu Kimiia and her daughter, also named Lotu, are from Mount Isa, Queensland.