On April 28, 1961, President Gordon B. Hinckley, then of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, gathered with a small group of local servicemen, American residents and one Filipino Latter-day Saint at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in the Philippines to offer a prayer for the country.
“This is an occasion you will never forget,” he told the small group. “What we will begin here will affect the lives of thousands and thousands of people in this island republic, and its effect will go on from generation to generation for great and everlasting good.”
Years later, while speaking in a satellite conference broadcast to the Philippines on April 24, 2005, President Hinckley reflected on the day he stood in the Philippines so many years earlier.
“I believe that prayer was prophetic,” he said. “I see its fulfillment.”
Indeed, Latter-day Saints in the Philippines today — some 53 years after that prayer — are living proof that the small group of Church members at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial witnessed something unforgettable.
There are 701,223 Church members, 902 Latter-day Saint chapels (733 of which are owned by the Church, 169 of which are rented), 21 missions and two temples (one in Manila, the other in Cebu) in the Philippines. A third temple has been announced and will be constructed in Urdaneta.
“The gospel has truly rolled forth in these islands of the Philippines, and it is gaining strength every day,” said Elder Larry J. Echo Hawk of the Seventy and second counselor in the Philippines Area Presidency.
He noted that there are more than 7,000 islands in the Philippines. “The people are spread out. It is amazing in a short period of time how the Church has grown.”
Elder Echo Hawk called members in the Philippines kind, loving and friendly. “They are wonderful people,” he said. “They are very spiritual people.”
Many struggle daily with poverty, he explained. “It is a challenge for them to attend meetings and perform callings.”
Elder Brent H. Nielsen of the Seventy, who served as president of the Church’s Philippines Area until July 1, said Church members in the Philippines are some of the best in the world. “They are committed — devoted — to the Church,” he said. “They are well educated. They understand the doctrine. They are converted to the gospel.”
Ruel E. Lacanienta, Philippines Area Executive Secretary, joined the Church when he was 10 years old. His father was introduced to the gospel in 1963 — just two years after President Hinckley prayed for the country and the people. “He knew right away that there was something special about this Church,” Elder Lacanienta said.
Elder Lacanienta attended a small branch in Manila. He would later serve in the Philippines Mission. “When I was a missionary, I could already tell that the country was ready. It was ripe, ready to harvest.”
The construction of temples in the country also helped the work move forward, he said. President Hinckley dedicated the Manila Philippines Temple in 1984; President Thomas S. Monson dedicated the Cebu Philippines Temple in 2010.
“It is good to be part of the hastening of the work [in the Philippines],” said Elder Lacanienta. “It is good to see what it was in the past and what it is now.”
Elder Augusto Lim, the first Filipino stake president and the Church’s first General Authority from the Philippines, witnessed much of that growth.
In 1964, two missionaries knocked on the Lims’ door. After meeting with the missionaries, Elder Lim, an attorney, realized that what the missionaries were teaching “was what I believed in the first place. I just knew this was it; this was something I could understand.”
In 1973, when President Ezra Taft Benson organized the first stake in the country, Elder Lim was called to serve as its president. He did not have a car and accomplished the great majority of his Church work on public transportation. He remembers when Church leaders found and purchased the site for the temple in Manila and when the temple was dedicated.
Elder Lim credits much of the growth in the Philippines to the fact that the majority of the people in the nation were already Christian before being introduced to the gospel. And, he said, missionaries could teach discussions in English because many Filipinos speak the language.
Church leaders and missionaries, he said, focused on “real growth” — on converting members who would stay in the Church.
As a result, he said, the Church in the Philippines “is moving forward.”
Mary Cone M. Cabahug is the only member of the Church in her family. Last year when she was diagnosed with cancer, her bishop promised, “We will be there for you.”
Each day, Sister Cabahug writes in her journal as a way to share her testimony with her children; she wants to record for her family the blessings of being a Latter-day Saint in the Philippines.
Renaldo and Rosario Lasa both sang in the choir at the dedication of the Manila temple in 1984 and participated in the 50th jubilee cultural celebration.
They recall, during their 46 years of Church membership, seeing more and more LDS chapels in the Philippines.
Some of those chapels provided refuge for Latter-day Saints and others in the country on Nov. 8, 2013, when Typhoon Haiyan struck the central Philippines, destroying more than 1.1 million homes. The deadliest typhoon on record in the country, the storm left more than 6,100 people dead, injured 28,000 and displaced 4.1 million.
The Church helped the members in the devastated area rebuild.
Working with the local Self Reliance Center and with the Perpetual Education Fund, local members entered a Church-sponsored vocational program training them as carpenters.
The Church also helped them obtain basic tools. Each trainee built his or her own house — about 12 feet by 12 feet in dimension — and nine more homes. They received a trade certificate that leaders hope will help them qualify for the some of the 250,000 construction jobs available in the area.
Elder Ian S. Ardern of the Seventy and president of the Church’s Philippines Area said in the weeks and months after the storm, the Church attended to not only the physical needs of the people, but also to the spiritual ones. “I see an increase of faith rising out of this tragedy,” he said.
Elder Echo Hawk agreed. “Morale is very high,” he said. Members of the Philippines “know how to bounce back.”
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company