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Pageant reflects heritage

History of Church in New Zealand unfolds in sesquicentennial events

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HAMILTON, New Zealand — Celebrating 150 years of the Church in New Zealand, more than 4,000 members and friends attended a pageant chronicling the events and peoples of the past century and a half.

Jointly sponsored by the New Zealand Temple Visitors Center and the five stakes in the Hamilton region, the pageant portrayed the first missionaries arriving in October 1854 to open the work in the land that has since grown to 25 stakes and about 93,000 members. Although this membership is predominantly Maori, as the pageant attested, the Church in New Zealand now has a rich cultural blend of nationalities.

In attendance at the pre-recorded, multi-media pageant, presented Sept. 25, 28-30, were the mayor of Hamilton, several city councilmen and past and current members of parliament. Also attending were Elder Robert K. Dellenbach of the Seventy and Elder Lindsay T. Dil, Area Authority Seventy and counselor in the New Zealand Area presidency.

The pageant recounted how the first missionaries arrived from Australia, "but didn't stay very long. As in the world everywhere in those early days, there was persecution against the Mormons, so the converts, too, longed to be with the saints in Zion, and in the 1870s most of them traveled by ship to Salt Lake City," according to pageant publicity.

Until 1881 the Maoris weren't ready for the gospel; 99 percent of them had become Christian when Christianity was introduced, but they knew there was conflict among the Christian churches, and not only that, there were land disputes and wars between the Maoris and white settlers, or pakeha. Maori prophets — wise and respected leaders among the Maoris — had seen visions and told the people to wait, or taihoa. They would recognize the true Church when it came because the preachers would travel in pairs, would eat with them, stay in their homes, and teach the gospel in their own tongue. They recognized the true Church when the elders came.

Some of the early elders to New Zealand have an interesting posterity. One of these, Carl C. Asmussen (later changed to Amussen) was an early convert from Denmark who had a jewelry business in Christchurch and taught the gospel to William and James Burnett. Elder Asmussen was an ancestor of President Ezra Taft Benson's wife, Flora. William Burnett is a great-great-grandfather of Elder John H. Groberg, now of the Presidency of the Seventy. One of the missionaries who experienced some of the most success among the early Maoris was Elder Ira Noble Hinckley, who is related to President Gordon B. Hinckley.

The pageant choir sang a song called "The Land of Love — the South Sea Isles," which was written by New Zealand Mission President Elder Sydney J. Ottley, the father of former Mormon Tabernacle Choir director Gerold Ottley.

Also told in the pageant were the stories of the visits of President David O. McKay and of Apostle Matthew Cowley and his ministry among the Maoris.

One of the visitors at the pageant was Te Rapahara Wineera Jr., from Wellington. He is the "young boy" who received his vision from Matthew Cowley, made famous in a story Elder Cowley frequently told. The young father brought his son to Elder Cowley for a name and a blessing. As Matthew Cowley proceeded to give the boy his name and blessing, the father also asked Elder Cowley to give the boy his vision because he was born blind. So he blessed the boy with his vision. Brother Wineera attended and enjoyed several of the performances of the pageant.

The last part of the pageant told about the more recent growth of the Church among all the Polynesians and people from other lands, who have accepted the gospel, and who live and are rearing their families in New Zealand. In one-minute vignettes, stories were told of a Bolivian man, Simon Acarapi; a Fijian woman, Siteri Mellor; a Chinese woman, Hsing Hsing Wu; and a Korean woman, Charla Pak. After each told his or her conversion story, it was followed by a dance from his or her country.

"The dances are beautiful and include Maori, Tongan, Samoan, Hawaiian, Fijian, Colombian, Korean, Chinese, Russian, English and Irish presentations," said Sister Cecile Scribner, who serves with her husband, Elder Douglas Scribner, temple visitors center director. "The people in this area are rich with talent, and there are more than 400 people involved in this pageant.

"They just clap and enjoy each other's culture, right there on stage where everyone can see them — the whole audience picks up on it and gives a huge support to each of these beautiful cultures," she said.

"In the finale, as the choir sings 'Faith In Every Footstep,' flags from many nations fill the hall, and participants file on stage. Then the song pauses and more than 80 full-time missionaries rise up from their seats in the audience, singing 'Called to Serve.' They join the cast on stage, then together all finish 'Faith in Every Footstep.'

"It's spectacular."