Church History
Pioneers in Guatemala

“Pioneers in Guatemala,” Global Histories: Guatemala (2018)

“Pioneers in Guatemala,” Global Histories: Guatemala

Pioneers in Guatemala

One evening in the fall of 1942, Carmen Galvez and her friends were playing table tennis at a club in Retalhuleu. “Hey, Carmen, come here. This gringo wants to meet you,” a friend told her, indicating John F. O’Donnal, a young American whose work had recently brought him to Guatemala.

“Why in the world does a woman have to go to the man?” she curtly replied in Spanish, thinking O’Donnal would not understand. “If he’s a gentleman,” she said, “he can come and meet me.”

O’Donnal surprised her by walking across the room and replying in perfect Spanish, “Where in the world have you been?” After this introduction, the two saw each other occasionally. After some time, they began dating and soon found themselves undeniably in love. But because John was a Latter-day Saint rather than Catholic, Carmen’s friends and family were opposed to her desire to marry him. Despite their objections, John and Carmen were married June 19, 1943, at the club where they first met.

Carmen was impressed by her new husband’s devotion to his faith. As they traveled throughout Guatemala, John frequently told Carmen that one day the native tribes in the area would have the restored gospel preached to them. “They have to know, because they are a chosen people!” he would exclaim. He worked tirelessly to bring the Church to Guatemala. While visiting Salt Lake City, he personally asked President George Albert Smith to send missionaries. Shortly after, missionaries moved into an upstairs room of the O’Donnal family home.

Carmen wanted desperately to understand her husband’s dedication to the Church. She read the Book of Mormon but found it difficult to understand. “It doesn’t mean anything to me,” she complained to her husband. John patiently asked her to continue, encouraging her to pray for understanding.

One evening while John was away, Carmen continued to pray and read the Book of Mormon. As she prayed, a dark presence surrounded her. “For some reason,” she thought, “Satan is trying to destroy me in this.” She ran to the missionaries’ room and begged for their help. The missionaries gave her a priesthood blessing and helped calm her fears. Afterward, she knew she needed to be baptized.

On November 13, 1948, Carmen de O’Donnal was baptized. In December, she was called as president of the Relief Society in Guatemala City and began teaching simplified lessons on gospel principles to new members and investigators.

The baptism of Carmen de O’Donnal

The baptism of Carmen de O’Donnal, November 13, 1948.

In 1976 John F. and Carmen O’Donnal were called to preside over the mission in Guatemala City and then over the Guatemala Quetzaltenango Mission. In Quetzaltenango, they instituted a program to train missionaries in four Mayan languages so they could reach indigenous Guatemalans. As they considered local needs, they also developed programs that would have an impact on the worldwide Church: they proposed a consolidated, three-hour meeting schedule to reduce the amount of travel required for members coming long distances; developed a series of simplified Sunday School lessons for new members that became the basis for the Church’s Gospel Essentials class (now called Gospel Principles); and oversaw the construction of small, less-expensive local meetinghouses. John F. O’Donnal was also instrumental in acquiring the property where the Guatemala City Guatemala Temple was later built. He and Carmen later served as the first president and matron when the temple was dedicated in 1984.