Last April, the senior missionary couple of Fritzner A. Joseph and his wife, Gina, were watching the Sunday morning session of general conference with fellow Latter-day Saints in Haiti when LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson announced a temple would be built in Port-au-Prince.
Some shouted for joy, while others wept happy tears. In that emotional moment, Joseph, an early Haitian convert, flashed back 32 years to the day when President Monson, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, dedicated Haiti for the preaching of the gospel.
“To relive that moment was special for me and my wife. I had the same sweet feeling when he announced the temple as I had that day (in 1983),” Joseph said. “We’ve had some dark days and challenges in our country. But after that, the light will come. That’s what happened when he announced the temple. Oh, what a blessing.”
At the same time in Boston, Antoine Joseph, another early Haitian convert, was absorbing the news with his wife, Marielle, a former Haitian missionary. For them, the temple announcement was equally sublime.
“It was so marvelous,” said Antoine Joseph, who works in the Boston Massachusetts Temple. “We were so excited."
Fritzner Joseph, 58, and Antoine Joseph, 67, related only in gospel brotherhood, were both baptized on the same day in 1979. Since then, both men and their families have labored diligently to help The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints grow in Haiti, despite difficult economic times, political turmoil and the devastating earthquake of 2010.
In commemoration of the temple announcement, Fritzner and Antoine reflected on their conversions, the growth of the church in Haiti and other special memories.
Alexandre Mourra, a prominent Haitian businessman, was the first member of the LDS Church in Haiti, according to the 2013 LDS Church Almanac. Mourra learned about the church through a family member who had met missionaries in Miami, and he wrote a letter to Richard L. Millett, president of the Florida Fort Lauderdale Mission, requesting a copy of the Book of Mormon.
Millett, now an 81-year-old Provo resident, sent Mourra copies in French and English.
Mourra came to Miami and was baptized on June 30, 1977. He returned to Haiti and began sharing the gospel with his family, friends and neighbors.
President Spencer W. Kimball’s 1978 revelation that extended the priesthood to every worthy male ignited missionary work in Haiti. That year, Mourra helped to teach and prepare 22 souls for baptism.
Mourra received unexpected help in spreading the gospel that September when J. Frederic Templeman came to work at the Canadian consulate in Port-au-Prince. Templeman was a returned Mormon missionary who spoke French. He met Antoine Joseph and Fritzner Joseph through mutual friends and invited them all to his home for dinner. Among many topics, Templeman discussed his faith, which led to weekly gospel discussions for the next six months.
“It was the first time I heard about Mormonism,” Antoine Joseph said. “He taught us and I felt it was true. I knew this was what I was looking for.”
A memorable service
Antoine and Fritzner accepted the invitation to be baptized, and President Millett traveled to Haiti for the service on May 25, 1979.
Antoine Joseph came on time and was baptized. Fritzner Joseph was tied up in school and arrived as everyone was preparing to leave. President Millett said they would have to plan another service for another day. With tears in his eyes, Fritzner Joseph begged them to stay and baptize him. President Millett consented, and a second service started around 11 p.m., Fritzner said.
The first baptism had taken place in a neighbor’s pool. Because it was late, their only option for another service was Bro. Templeman's pool, which had a broken filter and was only half full of water. It also contained a small crocodile about two feet long that had been caught by the Templeman children. Millett said a few men tried to “corral the crocodile in the corner” as Mourra took Fritzner into the pool, but it got loose just as the ordinance was about to take place.
“I have never seen anyone come out of a swimming pool so fast as these two did,” Millett recorded in his journal.
When the miniature crocodile swam back across the pool, the men re-entered the water and Fritzner Joseph was swiftly baptized.
Even with the crocodile, Fritzner Joseph felt the Holy Spirit during his baptism and was fully committed to the gospel. In the years that followed, he became the first native Haitian to serve a full-time mission. He later served as president of the Haitian Mission (1991-1996), and he has worked for the Church Educational System.
Antoine Joseph also served in many leadership positions, including district president and stake patriarch.
The first full-time missionaries came to Haiti in 1980, and a branch was soon organized.
In April 1983, Elder Monson became the first apostle to visit Haiti and Jamaica. While in Haiti, he dedicated the island nation for the preaching of the gospel. He also dedicated the site for the first meetinghouse.
Fritzner Joseph and Antoine Joseph were both invited to join Elder Monson and a group of Latter-day Saints on Mount Boutillier, a scenic mountain site above Port-au-Prince.
Fritzner Joseph had just gotten back from his mission in Puerto Rico. "It was a beautiful day," he said. They could see the city for a few minutes before dark clouds shrouded the landscape. Elder Monson then started the dedicatory prayer.
With heads bowed in reverence, the future president of the church testified that the Lord had preserved Haiti through challenging economic and political times “for this day that Thy work might expand,” according to a 2013 LDS Church News article. He petitioned blessings for the missionaries and all who would share the gospel. He asked the Lord to bless Haitian families.
“Bless our members in their homes that happiness may there prevail, that thy gospel may be taught in family home evenings, and that thy children may walk in light and truth,” Elder Monson prayed. “Bless them with health and with strength. Let thy Spirit shine upon (Haiti) and bless the membership of the church particularly.”
When the prayer was over, Fritzner Joseph said, the dark clouds were gone.
“When we opened our eyes, we could see the city,” he said. “It was bright again. It was a very special experience that day.”
Someone pulled out a camera and took photos. One photo captured Elder Monson with a group of Primary children. Antoine Joseph is next to the apostle with his son Eli in his arms. Years later, Eli Joseph would serve a mission in Haiti.
“It was a great day, to have an apostle come dedicate the land,” Antoine Joseph said. “Now, 32 years later, we have four stakes and two districts with more than 20,000 members all over this country.”
Adversity and blessings
A military coup forced foreign missionaries out of Haiti in 1991. For the next five years, local and member missionaries kept the work going. Their efforts were rewarded when the first Haitian stake was organized in September 1997. Nationwide uprisings and violence forced the missionaries to be relocated in 2004, according to the LDS Church News.
In January 2010, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake killed more than 300,000 people, including many Latter-day Saints. Although many buildings collapsed, most if not all LDS chapels remained standing with little damage. These meetinghouses became a place of refuge for survivors, Antoine Joseph said.
“The earthquake was tragic, but since then so many people have learned about the church,” Antoine Joseph said. “The church saved a lot of lives. They understand better what kind of church we are. Before, they didn’t know.”
‘Grow and strengthen’
In 2013, Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and other church leaders visited Haiti, commemorating the dedication of the country by President Monson 30 years earlier. According to the LDS Church News, a large group went with church leaders to the site of the dedication, where a commemorative plaque was unveiled. The members also watched a special prerecorded televised message from President Monson.
Elder Andersen spoke of the event and celebrated the temple announcement last April in his general conference message, “Thy Kingdom Come.”
“With faithful members and a courageous band of missionaries made up almost exclusively of Haitians, the church in this island nation has continued to grow and strengthen,” Elder Andersen said. “It lifts my faith to visualize these righteous Saints of God, clothed in white, having the power of the holy priesthood to direct and perform the sacred ordinances in the Lord’s house.”
Fritzner Joseph agreed.
“With the challenge to get ready for a temple, I am so grateful to be part of this work. I’m so grateful to be here right now as a missionary with my wife. We are here to work hard and give the best we can,” he said. “The gospel can change people. It can change a country, too.”
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