RAROTONGA, Cook Islands — In the heart of the Pacific Ocean lies the Cook Islands. While not as well known as the neighboring island groups of Samoa, Tonga or Tahiti, the Cook Islands have enjoyed a legacy of Church faith that now spans five generations.
"We are blessed with good leaders and good facilities to meet in," said Angaroa Williams, first counselor in the Cook Islands Rarotonga District. "We have five branches here, three on the main island of Rarotonga and two on the outer islands. We have a membership of around 900 members."
One in 14 citizens of the Cook Islands is a member of the Church, making it one of the most densely populated LDS countries in the world, according to the 2003 Deseret News Church Almanac.
While the Church in the islands today enjoys a strong history and heritage, things were not so strong in the early days.
The gospel was first preached in the Cook Islands by Elder Sidney Hanks during a fleeting visit on his way to Tahiti in 1857. The first missionaries to the Cook Islands arrived May 23, 1899, but failed to gain any converts and left three years later, according to the Church almanac. Early missionary work was hampered by religious opposition from other Christian churches already established on the island and by the fact that few locals could speak English. Subsequent missionaries overcame this second obstacle by mastering Maori, the local language of the Cook Islands.
During World War II, Matthew Cowley, then president of the New Zealand Mission, assisted Fritz Bunge Kruger from New Zealand to establish the Church in the Cook Islands on the main island of Rarotonga. Brother Kruger and his family moved to the islands' capital, Avarua, to establish a bakery business. The first converts in the Cook Islands, Samuel Glassie and his family, were baptized May 12, 1942. Brother Krueger was instrumental in advancing and establishing the Church in the Cook Islands and is still regarded as one of the most recognized pioneers of the Church in the Pacific. By June 1946 Brother Kruger had 37 members on record. It was also around this time that he and his family decided to return to New Zealand, leaving the steadily expanding congregation without any priesthood leadership.
However, additional full-time help arrived almost immediately, as the Church sent numerous missionaries to the islands. One full-time missionary couple, Elder Trevor Clarke Hamon and his wife, Sister Mildred Patricia Anne Hamon, arrived in 1946 under unusual circumstances, having received a cable from Salt Lake City instructing them to obtain the meager sum of 16 New Zealand pounds in order to build a chapel with an office space at one end and missionary living quarters at the other end. On the Hamon's second day on the island, ground was broken for the new meetinghouse and office.
Less than one month later, the chapel was far enough advanced for the eager members to hold their first meeting in it. Their diligence was doubly rewarded that weekend as history was again made with the formal organization of the first branch of the Church in the Cook Islands. As membership continued to grow, so too did the inevitable opposition. Elder and Sister Hamon persevered in their labors despite opposition which even included threats made to their lives. One formal threat stated, "Please advise the Mormon missionary not to come to our village, if he does he will be stoned and run into the ocean and drowned." It was signed by the chief of the village of Arorangi. Elder Hamon held a meeting in the village anyway, with 97 adults in attendance.
Today the Arorangi Branch remains as the largest and strongest branch in the Cook Islands and the first branch president in the Cook Islands also came from this village.
President Rongo Ezekiela, also from Arorangi, was the first Cook Islander to become district president, according to personal notes of Angaroa Williams, Cook Islands District Presidency, 2003.
On June 28, 1947, Elder Matthew Cowley, now an apostle, arrived again. A very large gathering was held at the new chapel in Muri Enua on July 1 to hear Elder Cowley speak. A grandmother named Emily Williams joined the Church, leaving behind an enviable legacy of heritage and history. She was not able to convince any of her own children that they should join the Church but 16 of her grandchildren were taught the gospel and baptized.
Sister Williams became the first Cook Islander to receive the blessings of the temple in New Zealand and she encouraged many more to acquire temple blessings before her recent death. According to notes of Angaroa Williams, today there are close to 200 members of her direct family spanning five generations that have joined the Church because of her efforts and example.
By 1951, there were branches of the Church on the islands of Rarotonga, Mangaia, Mauke and Aitutake, according to Unto The Islands of the Sea, by R. Lanier Britch. President David O. McKay visited the Cook Islands in 1955 and The Book of Mormon was translated into Cook Islands Maori in the early 1960s.
In 1970, the Cook Islands had their highest Church membership numbers with around 1,200 members. This was followed by a great exodus of many Church members to New Zealand. In 1979 there were 10 branches and 718 members, according to Brother Britch. In September 1996, Church members celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Church in the Cook Islands with a four-day celebration featuring dances, exhibits, sporting events, a district conference and a special fireside.
The Church in the Cook Islands has come a long way from its humble beginnings of obscurity and persecution. The chapels on the islands are some of the nicest and most recognizable buildings in the country. Many Church members hold influential positions within their communities and the missionaries are well-liked and well-received.
In 1990, the government honored the Church by producing a postage stamp that featured a painting of Elder Widstoe (the first missionary of the Church to the Islands) and one of the chapels. The Cook Island members continue to work hard building the Church in the islands, ever expanding upon the firm foundation of faith that has been laid by dutiful missionaries and faithful ancestors.
"We are trying our best to follow President Hinckley's challenge, which is to double our efforts," said Brother Williams, "but are faced with the same challenges as everybody else."