When I read fairly recently that the South Pacific island kingdom of Tonga had the highest percentage of Latter-day Saints in the world (63,392 members as of 2016, or approximately 60 percent), I didn't have any idea that I would have the great privilege soon of meeting one of the faithful Tongan members.
Wish I could have gone to Tonga to meet Sister Ana Pututau, but meeting her in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building where she fills her family history mission responsibilities was second best. My friends Paul and Joyce Hanks, who volunteer in the same mission, told me about her and her exceptional devotion to genealogy and arranged for the meeting.
She tells a wonderful conversion story. In 1952, she met missionaries in her native Tonga. She was 16 years old when she was converted and has given her life to living the precepts and contributing to the growth of the church and to doing as much as possible to find her deceased ancestors and perform temple work for them.
Her parents were very unhappy when she became a Latter-day Saint, and they never followed her into the church, although some other family members have since joined. The rift caused by her converting against her parents' wishes has long been healed and she enjoys a nice relationship with her family, she said.
Her own family is amazing. She and her husband, Keleti (Telitue) had 15 children — nine boys and six girls— all but one of whom have served missions and been to the temple. Her husband joined the church in 1953, a year after she was baptized. The young Pututaus were immediately immersed in church service. They were serving a mission on another one of the Tongan islands when their first child was born.
One of her children has a different sort of story to tell, Ana Pututau said. It came about when as a young couple in the early days of parenting, she and her husband had a great desire to go to a temple to have their family sealed for time and eternity. But money was very short, and a good piece of the Pacific Ocean ebbed and swelled between them and the closest temple in New Zealand.
"Then, one day, a man came from the mission office and knocked on our door," she said. "He told us we were 'a lucky couple.' An anonymous donation had been made that would pay our way to the temple. We still don't know who gave us that money." (The Nuku'alofa Tonga Temple was dedicated in August of 1983.)
But to get back to the story, the Pututaus went to New Zealand and were sealed.
"On the boat going home, I had a baby, a little boy," the first born in the covenant, she said. Now, she has 65 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren (and no doubt more to come) whom she hopes will carry on the church traditions.
She has had a church calling virtually since she was baptized. She was a stake Primary president for eight years and has taught in the church auxiliary organizations, including the gospel doctrine class in Sunday School.
In 2015, her husband died and she was ready to undertake a new assignment "to pass the time." She was called to serve as a missionary in the Family History Human Resources Zone.
Now her weekdays are spent on the fifth floor of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, pulling pieces of important data from statistical records to be added to the church's extensive genealogical resources. On the day we visited, she was working with records from South Carolina.
Quiet and soft-spoken, her speech reflecting its island origins, she is one of the many faithful service missionaries who "just sits down and goes right to work every day," according to her zone leader, Elder Rick Petersen.
That alone would merit our applause, but it isn't all of Sister Pututau's story. After putting in her shift at the Joseph Smith Building, she heads across Temple Square to the Family History Library and works with a nephew to seek out names and prepare them for temple work.
So then she is ready to go home for the night, right? Not Sister Pututau.
"Most days," she said, armed with her names, she goes back across Temple Square to the temple to complete the cycle by attending to as much of the necessary proxy work as possible for those who have passed on. Only then can she return to a daughter's home in the downtown Salt Lake area to refresh and renew for the next day's work.
Genealogy and temple work are not new concepts. She said this part of the church mission is important in Tonga, and faithful church members most often arrive at the Nuku'alofa Tonga Temple with names they have gleaned from the records of their families. The Tongan government has long kept vital data that helps them in their searches, she said.
The chance that I will ever cross paths with Sister Pututau again are slim. She began her service mission in January of this year, and some day she''ll likely return to Tonga. But when she crosses my mind, I'll know what she is doing — adding to the long list of church services she undertook when she was baptized in 1952.