Pioneers, former Mormon missionaries celebrate first stake, growth of LDS Church in Jamaica

Published: Thursday, July 17 2014 8:10 p.m. MDT

Paul Schmeil, left, with Verna and Victor Nugent at the first stake conference in Jamaica last month. Schmeil introduced the Nugents to the gospel in 1974.

Provided by Victor Nugent

Between 1976 and 1978, the membership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Jamaica consisted of three individuals: Victor E. Nugent, his wife, Verna, and their son, Peter.

In 1974, the Nugents became the first native Jamaican LDS converts. Unfortunately, economic and political upheaval forced the small branch’s priesthood leaders and their families to depart from the Caribbean island, leaving the Nugents all alone. The Florida Fort Lauderdale Mission was their closest LDS neighbor.

Determined to remain faithful, the Nugents held church meetings in their home. Victor Nugent didn’t hold the priesthood, so sacrament meeting wasn’t an option, but they could have Sunday school, Relief Society and Primary. They sang hymns, offered prayers and took turns giving talks. They even introduced the gospel to another family.

“It was a special time for us. We studied and learned,” Victor Nugent said in an interview with the Deseret News. “I think we learned more about the gospel during those two years than any other time in our lives.”

Nearly four decades later, the Nugents contrasted that sweet memory with witnessing the organization of Jamaica’s first stake.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve presided over the historic event that filled the chapel with more than 800 members June 8.

The Kingston Jamaica Stake is the second to be organized in the Caribbean after the Port of Spain Trinidad Stake was created in 2009, according to the LDS Church News.

It was a thrilling experience, Verna Nugent said.

“After so many years, to see the church grow from just our family to over 5,700 members,” she said with a tender smile. “When I saw the number of people there, the excitement, the Spirit was so strong. I knew they were ready and the work would continue to grow and be very strong in Jamaica.”

The Nugents, along with other Jamaican pioneers and former missionaries, are continuing to celebrate the growth of the church by sharing their memories and experiences of serving on the island.

‘No unhallowed hand’

It was on the picturesque morning of Dec. 5, 1978, that Elder M. Russell Ballard, then of the Seventy, visited Jamaica and dedicated the Caribbean island for missionary work. The Nugents were there and remember it well.

“We will never forget it. I can’t even describe the feeling we had,” Victor Nugent said. “Just about everybody who was there got up and bore fervent, sweet testimony that the church of Jesus Christ had been established on the Earth and Jamaica was about to become a significant part of it.”

Elder Ballard prayed that although few in numbers, the Jamaican members would be strong and spread the gospel throughout the island, Nugent said. The Jamaican pioneer saw Elder Ballard’s blessing fulfilled in many ways.

Nugent was the first native elder and first Jamaican branch and district president, according to the 2013 Church News Almanac. One of his duties was to work with the government to get work permits approved for incoming missionaries. After the first six missionaries were granted permits, other religions protested and the LDS Church was generally bashed in the media, Nugent said. As a result, the Kingston ministry of labor became wary of the church and forced all but two Mormon missionaries to leave the island.

Nugent went into the Kingston ministry of labor to plead on behalf of the church and a long argument ensued, he said. Finally, the woman in charge told Nugent that as long as she was there the church would not be granted any more work permits.

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