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Jason Swensen, Deseret News
Scenic entrance to the Mexico City Missionary Training Center. The "B" found on the mountain on the background is a reminder of the center's history as the Benemerito de las Americas school.

SAN ANTONIO — In October 2012, President Thomas S. Monson made the groundbreaking announcement of lowered minimum age requirements for missionary service.

One change resulting from this revelation that many outside of Mexico may be unaware of is the transition of Benemerito de las Americas in Mexico City from a large LDS school into a new missionary training center. Barbara E. Morgan, assistant professor of LDS Church history at Brigham Young University, recounted the history of the school at the Mormon History Association meeting June 7.

“Since its groundbreaking ceremony on Nov. 4, 1963, to its final graduating class of June of 2013, Benemerito de las Americas has played a critical role in and has been greatly affected by the history of the church," Morgan said.

After President David O. McKay noted in 1957 that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Mexico needed better educational opportunities, around 40 church schools were constructed. Benemerito de las Americas was the flagship school with over 2,000 students at its height. Both native Mexicans and American ecclesiastical and governmental leaders made up the advisory board.

At first, Benemerito de las Americas educated elementary students, junior high students, high school students and teacher prep students. It was later transitioned to a high school only.

Students would live on campus in dormitories so they could have family like experiences such as “prayer, scripture study, chores, other family activities to provide the youth with personal attention and mentoring from active Latter-day Saint couples,” explained Morgan.

The school got its name from Benito Juarez, a celebrated Mexican hero and politician: "By adopting his name they were showing appreciation for a great ancestry and common heritage," Morgan said.

It also differentiated the school from other private schools often named after Catholic saints.

Morgan explained how students came from all over Mexico, many from the poorer neighborhoods, and participated in seminary, music, civic and academic classes and clubs. This continued through many years as the school grew and changed as needed and directed by church officials.

Over 23,000 students attended Benemerito de las Americas throughout the years. In January 2013, it was announced that the school would become a new MTC.

Interestingly, then-Elder Marion G. Romney said back in 1963, as quoted by Morgan: “This school, for which we are breaking ground today is destined to become a great Spanish-speaking cultural center. Its influence will reach far beyond the valley of Mexico. Hundreds of thousands of people will come here and the nation will be edified in its education, it its culture, in its spirituality.”

Emily W. Jensen covered the LDS online world for five years. She continues to track online developments and discussions. Email: [email protected]