WEST VALLEY CITY — The congregation of the Tongan United Methodist Church here accomplished something so impressive recently, the Queen Mother of Tonga herself came all the way to Utah to celebrate with them.
In less than a year, the nearly 500 member congregation raised about $500,000 — enough to pay off the building where they have worshiped for seven years.
The money didn't come from fancy banquets or fundraising galas. It came through car washes and community dinners and dances and bake sales and donations from members who desired a house of worship that was truly theirs.
"It is very, very significant because land is free at home in Tonga and to have this piece of land owned free of mortgage, it becomes another piece of Tonga," said Taniela Lavulo, a retired captain in the U.S. Army who arranged for security for the queen and her party.
It wasn't the first time Queen Mother Halaevalu Mata'aho spent time with her transplanted people in West Valley City. She was here in 2004 with her late husband to dedicate their new church at 1553 W. Crystal Ave (2590 South) after the old building located at 870 W. 400 South was destroyed by arson in 2000.
Seven years to the day after her previous visit, the queen mother was back to celebrate with her people.
"The queen did not want to miss the chance of the thanksgiving celebration," Lavulo said. "I think she's taking every chance she can to be with her people both at home and overseas for as long as she possibly can."
The 85-year-old queen mother addressed the congregation during a prayer and rededicatory service in the building's chapel. Men and women in traditional dress sang and played instruments during the 90-minute service conducted entirely in Tongan.
After the rededication, the 300-plus member crowd took the festivities outside, where youth danced and sang and the congregation feasted at tables lined with roasted pigs and elaborate fruit displays.
The queen mother received a key to the city on Wednesday from West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder and met with Gov. Gary Herbert on Thursday. She plans to stay in Utah for about two weeks.
"We're blessed that she wants to come here," said Sandy Taiese, a youth leader at the church. The adolescents she works with were tasked with raising $15,000, but ultimately came up with $20,000.
The queen mother's husband, King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV died in 2006. Their son, George Tupou V is the current king.
Lavulo said the queen mother's visit shows the American Tongan people just how much she cares about them.
"She's very fond of her people and loves them dearly," he said.