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The remarkable story of Guillermo Gonzalez, a Mormon pioneer in Mexico

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 1 2015 12:16 a.m. MDT

David Richards attends a mission reunion in Sandy in 2009. He was a young missionary when he baptized the Gonzalezes in 1953. (August Miller) David Richards attends a mission reunion in Sandy in 2009. He was a young missionary when he baptized the Gonzalezes in 1953. (August Miller)

MONTERREY, Mexico — A serene, peaceful feeling filled the room as the sister missionary shared her tender testimony in Spanish to conclude the religious discussion.

The young husband and wife seated nearby looked at each other and shared a confirming smile. The message appealed to them and they definitely wanted to know more about this Mormon church.

Knowing it was the husband's day off, one of the sisters pulled out her date book and suggested they meet again in a week.

There was a pause as the couple made eye contact again, then stared back at the missionaries. Without warning the husband stood, moved across the room and locked the door.

"I'm sorry, patience has never been one of my virtues," the man said. "I can't wait another week to know what you will teach me about this church of apostles and prophets, so do you mind if we continue now, please?"

Guillermo and Gudelia Gonzales, right, were baptized in Monterrey, Mexico, in 1953 by Elder David K. Richards, center. Guillermo went on to become a great church leader in Northern Mexico. (Gonzalez Family Photo) Guillermo and Gudelia Gonzales, right, were baptized in Monterrey, Mexico, in 1953 by Elder David K. Richards, center. Guillermo went on to become a great church leader in Northern Mexico. (Gonzalez Family Photo)

What started out as a 60-minute visit continued for nine hours, including some meal and bathroom breaks. The tireless sisters taught the man and woman everything they could think of, including all seven lessons, the Articles of Faith and the Ten Commandments. When the spiritual marathon ended around 6 p.m., the sisters were shocked again when the husband demanded immediate baptism.

This time he would have to wait, at least a few days.

Despite the brief baptismal delay in May 1953, Guillermo and Gudelia Gonzalez had gained rock-solid testimonies of the gospel and would soon become great missionaries themselves, helping to convert thousands across Northern Mexico over the next three decades. Few know the story of these Hispanic pioneers.

Who is Guillermo Gonzalez?

David Richards recorded the baptism of Guillermo and Gudelia Gonzalez in his journal. (Richards Family Photo) David Richards recorded the baptism of Guillermo and Gudelia Gonzalez in his journal. (Richards Family Photo)

From 2000 to 2002, Dick Kenney served as executive secretary to Elder Lynn A. Mickelsen, then area president of Northern Mexico. Following a stake conference in La Paz, Mexico, Kenney said Elder Mickelsen dined with some converts who, "with great pride and bravado, stated they were baptized by Guillermo Gonzalez."

Elder Mickelsen, now an emeritus general authority, told his secretary this was the fourth or fifth time someone reported to be a convert of Gonzalez: "He declared that he had to learn more of this man," Kenney said in an email.

Gonzalez died in 1982, but his wife Gudelia still lived in Monterrey, Mexico, and a visit was arranged. They also spoke with Juan Alvaradejo, an assistant to President Gonzalez during the three years he presided over the Mexico Hermosillo Mission. Here are some details they learned:

As a young man, Gonzalez had Antonio-Banderas good looks with thick black hair, a well-groomed mustache and he looked sharp in suit and tie. Alvaradejo said he was very tall with hands like boxing gloves.

Socono Franco, left, Gudelia Gonzalez, Josefina Duray and Guillermo Gonzalez in May 1953. Duray was one of the sister missionaries who taught Guillermo and Gudelia the gospel. (Gonzalez Family Photo) Socono Franco, left, Gudelia Gonzalez, Josefina Duray and Guillermo Gonzalez in May 1953. Duray was one of the sister missionaries who taught Guillermo and Gudelia the gospel. (Gonzalez Family Photo)

"They were tremendously huge hands," Alvaradejo said.

Elder Robert E. Wells, who met Gonzalez in the 1970s, said he was a "big bear of a man with broad, muscular shoulders."

Gonzalez completed his obligatory military service in the Mexican Army and declined a commission. Instead, he started a career as a railroad worker for the Mexican government. He met, courted and married Gudelia in 1952.

Shortly after their marriage, the couple began to feel their spiritual needs were not being satisfied with their current church. They wanted to learn about other religions.

One night in January 1953, the couple conversed as they prepared to go to sleep. Randomly, Guillermo said, "One day two young ladies will bring us the true religion."

Guillermo and Gudelia Gonzalez at the completion of their service in the Hermosillo Mission in 1977. (Gonzalez Family Photo) Guillermo and Gudelia Gonzalez at the completion of their service in the Hermosillo Mission in 1977. (Gonzalez Family Photo)

"What?" she asked.

"What did I say?" he said. He told her he had no idea why he said that.

Four months later, Gonzalez was out of town when two sister missionaries knocked on the door. Gudelia had never heard of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, so she declined the visit, but accepted a pamphlet with contact information. Later a neighbor dropped by and warned her to stay away from those Mormons and called them "Satan's missionaries."

A few days later, she told her husband about the missionaries and how she felt compelled to invite them back. They tracked the sisters down and an appointment was set for the following day at 8 a.m.

It was the only appointment Guillermo needed.

At the end of that long-lasting day, the sisters turned the Gonzalez family over to zone leader Elder David K. Richards, the son of Elder Franklin D. Richards of the First Quorum of the Seventy. David Richards was worried that if baptized too soon, Guillermo would go inactive. He insisted on teaching the couple the discussions a second time and invited them to church meetings. Guillermo, the golden contact, tried to be patient. He accepted every doctrine and teaching without hesitation. Fine, fine, he said, but I want to be baptized.

Seeing Gonzalez's determination, Richards wrote his father in Salt Lake and explained the situation. His father replied that "if he had a testimony and wanted to be baptized, for heaven sakes, that's what we're there for," recounted Elder Wells.

Finally on May 30, 1953, Elder David Richards recorded in his journal that he baptized Guillermo and Gudelia Gonzalez. The sister missionaries who taught the couple, whose identities are currently unknown, attended the service.

"Knowing his conversion story is essential to understanding him," Elder Wells said. "He thought anyone who really was the elect, anyone who was spiritually in tune, would react the same way he did, and missionaries ought to be looking for people who are ready to be baptized the first day."

Joyful reunions

Roughly 10 years later, Richards and his wife, Sharon, returned to Monterrey and attended church. During a meeting, Sharon Richards noticed a man staring at her husband. She asked him if he knew the man.

"Oh, my, do I ever!" Richards replied.

It was Gonzalez, the same man Richards feared would go inactive because he baptized him too soon.

Gonzalez, then the Monterrey district president, invited Richards to stand next to him while he told the story of his conversion.

"It was quite a reunion," Sister Richards said. "When you are in the mission field and you baptize people, then go back and see they are active and doing good, the joy is so strong. It's almost overwhelming."

In 1970, Elder Delbert L. Stapley of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles organized the first stake in Monterrey. He called Guillermo Gonzalez as president.

In 1974, the Gonzalezes were called to preside over the Mexico Hermosillo Mission. When they attended the mission president seminar, President Gonzalez bumped into the newly called president of the Bogota Colombia Mission: President David Richards.

Once again, hugs and tears were shared.

"I cannot tell you the love that passed between these two men," said Sharon Richards, whose husband died last March at age 79. "To have the missionary and convert going out as mission presidents at the same time was overwhelming to David."

A great harvest

The field was white in Northern Mexico during the mid-1970s, but the Hermosillo missionaries struggled to find converts.

Two months into his mission, President Gonzalez called his young leaders together and told them "they didn't have the least idea on how to bring people into the waters of baptism," Kenney said.

The president formed a zone of young missionaries and zones of experienced missionaries. He said he expected the "green" missionaries would baptize more people over the next month.

One zone leader, Elder Juan Alvaradejo, accepted the challenge. The next month, his zone of experienced missionaries led the mission in baptisms.

Alvaradejo loved and admired his president. One thing he learned from President Gonzalez was how to listen and follow the promptings of the Holy Ghost.

This ability was demonstrated once when President Gonzalez met the missionaries one day in a town plaza and challenged them to find a family to baptize before the end of the day.

A few hours later he returned to discover that the missionaries had found some investigators, but nothing more.

"Follow me," the president said.

They hadn't walked very far when they met a family of four. The missionaries watched with wide eyes as their president shared a powerful spiritual message and fearlessly challenged the whole family to be baptized. They were. Alvaradejo said the family remained active.

"It was a great experience. That is how he taught us to do it," said Alvaradejo, who later served as a stake president and is now the director of LDS Church public affairs in Mexico City. "Find the people who are prepared."

Companionships took his message to heart. From 1974-77, the Hermosillo mission saw 30,000 people join the church, Kenney said.

"Many have criticized his accomplishments, saying less than half stayed active," Kenney said. "But if you think about it, if half stay active, that's still 15,000 active members."

President Gonzalez passed away in December 1982, but not before leaving his mark on the church in Northern Mexico.

"Did Guillermo do a good job? You bet he did," said Elder Wells, now emeritus. "He was a dynamic leader with vision and confidence in people who were ready to be baptized like he was. Of the wards and branches he presided over as a stake president, each unit is a now a stake."

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