CARACAS, Venezuela — Just weeks after being baptized, Neville Cornwell was assigned to find a small building that he and a handful of other members from his tiny branch could rent for Sunday services near their homes in the Caracas suburb of California Norte.
It was the late 1960s and the Church was young in the Venezuelan capital. The full-time missionaries were making progress — but for most Caracans the restored gospel was a mystery. When Brother Cornwell and the rest of the branch began the first sacrament service in their newly rented "chapel" their songs and prayers hung on the heavy air outside.
"People walked by our building, stopped and began asking 'Que estan haciendo alla?' — 'What are they doing in there?' " Brother Cornwell recalled. The Caracas members overheard their queries, invited them in and taught them about the Church.
Now another clarion call has been sounded. With the Aug. 20 dedication of the Caracas Venezuela Temple, the Church's message of families and eternal life is reaching all of Venezuela — and again people are asking: "Que estan haciendo alla?'
"More than 28,000 people attended the temple open house, including many who had never heard of the Church," said Caracas Venezuela Urdaneta Stake President Jorge Alberto Ruiz. "Many left the temple in tears; one woman walked out and asked 'What next? How can I be a part of this Church?"
President Gordon B. Hinckley presided over the dedication of the Church's 96th temple. The prophet's presence, counsel and spirit touched thousands who had traveled from points throughout the South American country. After attending one of the four sessions inside the temple or at a neighboring chapel, members lingered outside in hopes of catching a glimpse of President Hinckley, Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve who accompanied him, Elder Robert J. Whetten of the Seventy, president of the South America North Area, and other visiting authorities.
When President Hinckley, his wife, Marjorie, and the others climbed into cars and drove from the temple grounds, the procession was saluted by thousands of Venezuelan saints waving white handkerchiefs. Many sang "We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet" in Spanish and snapped photos as the entourage passed. Families and friends embraced. Many wept.
President Hinckley, his face beaming, returned their waves and seemed moved by the demonstration of love. During his visit, he reminded the members that they are witnesses to a remarkable period in Church history. Prolific temple building is allowing more and more people to enjoy some of the Lord's most happy blessings. Never let a day pass without holding a current temple recommend, he counseled during his visit.
The two-storied marbled temple is efficiently designed on a small lot just a few yards away from a building that houses a meetinghouse and Church offices. Ordinance rooms, changing rooms and the celestial room are found on the temple's top floor, while a pair of stairways descend to the baptistry and a waiting room. The new temple has been the subject of several local news stories, including some filed the day of the dedication.
"Having the prophet dedicate the temple in our country is something I will always remember," said Carlos Ordeneta, who traveled 10 hours with scores of other members from Maracaibo, in western Venezuela. "The temple is the best thing that has ever happened to Venezuela."
The Maracaibo saints enjoy a reputation of being a faithful, missionary-minded lot. One day their diligence will be rewarded with a temple in their own city, Brother Ordeneta said.
Any dedicated temple operating inside Venezuela is, well, a miracle for many. While the faith has grown vigorously in some Latin American countries for many decades, there has been a Church presence here only since the late 1960s. In 1966, President Ted E. Brewerton (now an emeritus General Authority) of the Costa Rica Mission dispatched four of his elders to open Venezuela for missionary work. Among that quartet was David Bell.
The work was hard and slow when the missionaries arrived — in nine months only one couple was baptized, recalled Brother Bell, an Idaho resident who relished the opportunity of returning to Venezuela to attend the dedicatory session. Today there are more than 80,000 members in the country.
Participating in South America's eighth temple dedication was personally rewarding for Elder Ballard. On Christmas Day 75 years ago, Elder Ballard's apostle grandfather, Elder Melvin J. Ballard, gathered together a few Church leaders in a park in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and dedicated South America for missionary work. In his dedicatory prayer, Elder Melvin J. Ballard prophesied that the South American Mission would become a power in the Church.
Now Elder M. Russell Ballard is witnessing prophesy being fulfilled.
"It was just tremendous to see the growth in Venezuela," Elder Ballard told the Church News. "The Lord is pouring out blessings on the Latin American countries."
The new temple is already proving to be Venezuela's most effective full-time missionary. Besides the numerous referrals gleaned at the open house, the missionaries and members are using their discussions to emphasize the blessings available to all inside this new sacred house, said President James B. Martino of the Maracaibo Venezuela Mission.
Temples bring blessings — and new responsibilities, Caracas stake President Ruiz said.
"The Venezuelan temple will leave our people spiritually refined," he said. "Our people are going to change. Venezuela is going to change."