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Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Monica Ohene-Opare, right, gives Elise Peterson a lesson on cake decorating at Ohene-Opare's son's house in Saratoga Springs on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016.

The Africa West Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which covered Ghana and Nigeria, was organized on July 1, 1980, according to the 2013 LDS Church Almanac.

Around that time in Accra, Monica Ohene-Opare remembers reading a notice in a newspaper inviting the community to an open house sponsored by the new faith. Ohene-Opare, who was about 19 years old at the time, recognized the church's name because the Accra native had joined the previous year in another part of the world.

When Ohene-Opare and her fiancé arrived at the event, she recognized the black name tags of the full-time missionaries who were standing at the building's entrance and gleefully rushed forward to greet them. Her nonmember future husband looked on with concern.

"Do you know them?" he asked.

"No," she said. "But I know they are members of my church."

That night, close to 50 Latter-day Saints from various countries, including England, Italy, France, Spain and others, showed up after seeing the newspaper advertisement. There was an air of excitement as the members forged new friendships. They also became acquainted with the missionaries, who showed a film about the plan of salvation, Ohene-Opare said.

"That was the beginning of the church in Accra," Ohene-Opare said with a warm smile. "Eventually the church started to grow. Everybody was everybody's keeper. That's how it was, and I really miss that. It was special."

The personal account was one of several memories related to the growth of the LDS Church in Ghana that Ohene-Opare shared in a recent interview with the Deseret News. She was in Utah for most of 2016 while she received chemotherapy and other treatments for breast cancer at the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City.

Although she didn't feel great, Ohene-Opare, a wife and mother of five, was already in a mood to record her life story and didn't mind discussing some of her more interesting, church-related experiences, including her conversion story, the 1989 Ghana "freeze," the announcement of a temple in Accra and her efforts to serve others.

Two conversions

In 1979, Ohene-Opare traveled to New York as a foreign exchange student and ended up living with a Latter-day Saint family.

"I've always been amazed that of all the students and places I could go, I was put with an LDS family," she said.

She was wary of the LDS faith at first but softened after the missionaries explained the doctrine that children under age 8 are not accountable. Her mother had previously lost a newborn baby girl. In time, Ohene-Opare accepted the gospel and was baptized on Dec. 17, 1979, in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Ohene-Opare wrote about her new religious convictions in letters to friends. She said a few replied saying that she was "crazy" and asking "what happened to you?" But one friend, Emmanuel Ohene-Opare, surprised her with a marriage proposal. She had also been accepted at Ricks College, which is now BYU-Idaho, and contemplated going to Idaho.

Not sure which direction to go, Monica Ohene-Opare went to Pittsburgh to receive her patriarchal blessing. She was inspired by one line in the blessing that promised she would one day "marry someone who would be receptive to the gospel and together they would have great responsibilities in the church," she said.

After prayerful consideration, Monica opted to return to Ghana and marry Emmanuel Ohene-Opare. A week after they attended the open house in Accra, they became man and wife. In the months that followed, her husband met with the missionaries. If he was interested, it wasn't obvious, she said.

"I was embarrassed by the questions he was asking and at times I cried," Monica Ohene-Opare said. "I thought I had made a mistake. I had married the wrong guy."

Then one day, to her delight, Emmanuel Ohene-Opare accepted the invitation to be baptized. In a short time, he was called as a branch president. Years later, he became the first Area Seventy in Ghana. It turns out she had married the right guy after all, Monica Ohene-Opare said.

The freeze

In June 1989, the Ghanaian government acted on misinformation and essentially shut down the LDS Church in Ghana for about 18 months, according to an LDS.org video, "You Can't Close My Heart." The government ordered missionaries to leave the country. Chapel doors were locked and men with guns stood guard, although church members were still allowed to hold private services in their homes. This period became known as "the freeze," according to the 2013 LDS Church Almanac. "You Can't Close My Heart" gives more details about the freeze and its impact on the church in Ghana.

Monica Ohene-Opare remembers one family being arrested for singing church hymns.

"They said we were CIA spies, fighting for America," Monica Ohene-Opare said. "We could not go to church."

Each day for about a year, the Ohene-Opares drove past their chapel and saw the guards. On one occasion, Emmanuel Ohene-Opare stopped the car at the church and he and his wife approached the guard. The man pointed his weapon at the couple and demanded to know what they wanted. Emmanuel Ohene-Opare said he only wanted to say hello, his wife said.

After a tense moment or two, they struck up a friendly conversation. The guard, a Muslim, confessed that he didn't know why he was there. He had not witnessed anything to suggest Mormons were bad people. When they learned the man hadn't eaten anything that day, Monica Ohene-Opare's "Relief Society skills" kicked in and she brought him a plate of food, cementing the friendship, she said.

As more church members demonstrated loyalty and good citizenship, the government lifted the ban in November 1990. Less than six months later, two stakes were organized, with Emmanuel Ohene-Opare called to preside over the Accra Ghana Stake.

A temple

In February 1998, LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley became the first prophet to visit West Africa. During the trip, President Hinckley spoke to a gathering of 6,000 members and announced the first temple in West Africa would be built in Ghana. Monica Ohene-Opare was there. Deep down, she felt a temple would have a tremendous impact on their corner of the world, she said.

"It was very exciting. No one was expecting it. We had been waiting and hoping for a temple," said Monica Ohene-Opare, who before that time had attended the temple in South Africa. "Honestly, as members of the church, we thought the temple would change the country, as well as the surrounding countries. Ghana was the most peaceful, friendly country, with good people. The other countries all look to Ghana, so Ghana getting a temple was like creating a light to shine on the surrounding countries. To us, it was a blessing and a dream come true."

Teacher, cook, mother of many

In addition to serving in the church over the years, Monica Ohene-Opare has made a difference in many lives through her passion for education, cooking and charity towards others, regardless of religious affiliation.

Elise Peterson of Layton became an adopted daughter of the family when she stayed with the family as an exchange student in 2004. Since then, she has maintained a close friendship with Ohene-Opare and the family and can attest to the woman's many accomplishments.

"She dreams of making life better for people, then makes it happen," Peterson said. "She sees a need and finds a way to meet that need. She is not afraid to try things that God has placed in her heart."

Ohene-Opare realized children needed more educational opportunities, so she found the resources to open a school. She has helped many adults acquire the skills for a job and independent living. She started a nursing school. She and her husband founded a university that was recently accredited. She has also started a restaurant and operates a catering business that specializes in wedding cakes and decorations, Peterson said.

In addition to raising her own children, Ohene-Opare has opened her arms to dozens of children on the street, raised them, educated them and sent some on LDS missions. One notable name is Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah, who now plays for the Detroit Lions. From the time he was in third grade, the future defensive lineman was constantly at their house. Sometimes they had to remind him to go home, as mentioned in a 2013 Deseret News article. The family helped Ansah get to Brigham Young University, where he eventually ended up on the football team, Ohene-Opare said.

"Ezekiel is my adopted son, part of the family," she said. "He is one of several I raised. My heart goes out to the little ones, and I do what I can to help. I don't know why I do that, except maybe that is part of what God wants me to do."

Cancer and blessings

For now, Ohene-Opare is home in Accra with her family and grateful to be feeling better. Soon enough, she will get back to doing what she does best — making a difference in others' lives.

"The fact that the Lord found a way for me to get the help to be able to battle this cancer and still be alive today tells me that I have not finished my work on the Earth," she said. "I have also learned to love more than ever before during this period and have resolved to reciprocate that love wherever I find myself."

'You Can't Close My Heart'

On June 14, 1989, the government of Ghana announced a ban on all meetings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Meetinghouses were locked, and foreign missionaries were given one week to leave the country. LDS Church leaders authorized members in Ghana to hold sacrament meetings in their homes. The "freeze," as this ban came to be called, tested the resolve of Latter-day Saints in Ghana.