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Pioneers, former Mormon missionaries celebrate first stake, growth of LDS Church in Jamaica

Between 1976 and 1978, the membership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Jamaica consisted of three individuals: Victor E. Nugent, his wife, Verna, and their son, Peter.

In 1974, the Nugents became the first native Jamaican LDS converts. Unfortunately, economic and political upheaval forced the small branch’s priesthood leaders and their families to depart from the Caribbean island, leaving the Nugents all alone. The Florida Fort Lauderdale Mission was their closest LDS neighbor.

Determined to remain faithful, the Nugents held church meetings in their home. Victor Nugent didn’t hold the priesthood, so sacrament meeting wasn’t an option, but they could have Sunday school, Relief Society and Primary. They sang hymns, offered prayers and took turns giving talks. They even introduced the gospel to another family.

“It was a special time for us. We studied and learned,” Victor Nugent said in an interview with the Deseret News. “I think we learned more about the gospel during those two years than any other time in our lives.”

Nearly four decades later, the Nugents contrasted that sweet memory with witnessing the organization of Jamaica’s first stake.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve presided over the historic event that filled the chapel with more than 800 members June 8.

The Kingston Jamaica Stake is the second to be organized in the Caribbean after the Port of Spain Trinidad Stake was created in 2009, according to the LDS Church News.

It was a thrilling experience, Verna Nugent said.

“After so many years, to see the church grow from just our family to over 5,700 members,” she said with a tender smile. “When I saw the number of people there, the excitement, the Spirit was so strong. I knew they were ready and the work would continue to grow and be very strong in Jamaica.”

The Nugents, along with other Jamaican pioneers and former missionaries, are continuing to celebrate the growth of the church by sharing their memories and experiences of serving on the island.

‘No unhallowed hand’

It was on the picturesque morning of Dec. 5, 1978, that Elder M. Russell Ballard, then of the Seventy, visited Jamaica and dedicated the Caribbean island for missionary work. The Nugents were there and remember it well.

“We will never forget it. I can’t even describe the feeling we had,” Victor Nugent said. “Just about everybody who was there got up and bore fervent, sweet testimony that the church of Jesus Christ had been established on the Earth and Jamaica was about to become a significant part of it.”

Elder Ballard prayed that although few in numbers, the Jamaican members would be strong and spread the gospel throughout the island, Nugent said. The Jamaican pioneer saw Elder Ballard’s blessing fulfilled in many ways.

Nugent was the first native elder and first Jamaican branch and district president, according to the 2013 Church News Almanac. One of his duties was to work with the government to get work permits approved for incoming missionaries. After the first six missionaries were granted permits, other religions protested and the LDS Church was generally bashed in the media, Nugent said. As a result, the Kingston ministry of labor became wary of the church and forced all but two Mormon missionaries to leave the island.

Nugent went into the Kingston ministry of labor to plead on behalf of the church and a long argument ensued, he said. Finally, the woman in charge told Nugent that as long as she was there the church would not be granted any more work permits.

“I looked her in the eye and said, 'You don’t know what you are saying. This is the work of the Lord and no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing,'” Nugent said, quoting the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Three months later, the woman was demoted and transferred out, Nugent said. To his surprise, her replacement was his elementary school teacher and friend, Sir Howard Cooke, who eventually became the governor-general and a prominent Jamaican leader. Cooke was cautious at first, but Nugent earned his trust and missionaries were allowed into the country again. The number of missionaries on the island eventually surpassed 100, Nugent said.

“That was a testimony-building experience,” Nugent said.

As membership grew and the need for a chapel increased, Nugent assisted in the long, difficult process of getting the church officially recognized by the Jamaican government. When it finally happened, one impressed minister of the parliament committee said something that reminded Nugent of the Apostle Paul and King Agrippa (see Acts 26:28).

“Almost you convince me to be a Mormon,” the man told Nugent.

Joseph Hamilton

The LDS Church was frequently in the Jamaican media during the 1980s and 1990s, said Joseph Hamilton, a church leader during that time.

"We were constantly in the media. As a young branch president, I had to answer questions about the church and what we were all about every week," Hamilton said.

Hamilton had a public relations job at the U.S. Embassy. One afternoon, he was at his desk when the phone rang. He answered and identified himself.

"Is this the Joseph Hamilton who is the head of the Mormon church in Jamaica?" said a female voice.

"You could say that — I am the branch president," Hamilton said.

The woman, a member of the local media, informed Hamilton he was live on the evening news.

"This conversation is being broadcast throughout the entire country," she said. "As a black man, how do you feel joining this church amid all its controversy and persecution?"

Unruffled, Hamilton thanked the woman and said her call was a blessing.

"I have always wanted the church to be known in Jamaica and here you are giving me the best exposure that I can think of," Hamilton said. "She was so upset with me sharing that testimony that she hung up the phone right away. Everybody said 'Oh Joe, we heard you on the news. What beautiful testimony that you have. I didn’t know the church was that big in Jamaica.' It was a blessing."

Hamilton remembers sending a photo of about 30 Jamaican members to LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball and receiving a tender response from the prophet.

"He said, 'President Hamilton, I love this little group. I tell you what, why don’t you go and look for a piece of land and build a chapel,'" Hamilton said. "That was another great highlight for me."

Hamilton eventually moved his family to Florida when he got a new job, but he plans to return to Jamaica at some point.

"My vision is to go back and to continue to help build the kingdom," said Hamilton, whose son-in-law Andrew Lue is the new stake president. "I've gained a lot of knowledge and experience here. When I retire, I will go back and help them. That’s my goal."

Matt Fowles

Matt Fowles served in the Jamaica Kingston Mission under President David R. Calvert from 1994-1996. He was delighted to hear the news about the new stake.

"They have worked hard for it," said Fowles, now an auto mechanic living with his family in Garland, Box Elder County.

One of his most memorable missionary experiences happened during December 1995. Amos Chin, the first native Jamaican missionary and a local LDS Church leader, proposed the idea of transforming the chapel into a visitors center with Christmas lights, decorations and guided tours, like Temple Square.

Chin spearheaded the project. He petitioned members for lights and even repaired old lights from Temple Square. The missionaries pitched in, and everything was ready in time for the First Presidency Christmas Devotional. The resulting crowds caused traffic jams, and bus routes had to be reconfigured, Fowles said.

"Once we got it all together, it was absolutely beautiful. The grounds were packed each night. Those who came felt serenity and peace," Fowles said.

While their visitors center attracted large crowds, it didn't immediately lead to convert baptisms. Fowles was initially discouraged but with time realized good seeds had been planted. Nugent confirmed that fruit did come from their efforts.

"We got converts out of that activity," Nugent said. "There were so many misconceptions spread by other churches. Whenever we were able to get people to come in and see things for themselves, they liked what they saw."

Debbie Pearce Wilson

Debbie Pearce Wilson never knew her parents. She was raised in Kingston by her grandmother during the 1960s and 1970s. Her best friend conceived her first child at age 13 and had three by the time she was 19.

"As I looked at my friend's life, I realized I wanted something better for myself. I wanted a home and a family," Wilson wrote. "I knew I had to leave the ghetto."

Wilson recorded the story of her Latter-day Saint conversion in a 1991 church magazine article titled "A Prayer from the Ghetto."

She began investigating and attending different churches and eventually joined the LDS Church in 1984. Wilson was the fifth native sister missionary sent out from Jamaica. She served in the Utah Salt Lake City South Mission where one of her highlights was teaching the gospel to former BYU basketball star Jeff Chatman.

"Many of the girls I grew up with never left the ghetto. I could not have made it without following the desires of my heart and trusting in my father above to lead me," Wilson wrote. "I was blessed with the chance to leave the ghetto, be baptized a member of this church, gain an education and fulfill a mission in Utah. I know Heavenly Father loves us all and is mindful of our circumstances no matter where we are. He desires above all things our happiness."

Today Wilson lives in Maryland and serves as a Sunday school teacher for the 14- and 15-year-olds. She was not able to attend the Kingston stake organization, but rejoiced at the news. She is planning to return in August for the baptisms of two family members. She anticipates the church will continue to grow and hopes for the day when Jamaica will have a temple.

"The people are still receptive. They are seeking for truth and they are finding it," Wilson said. "Most of the pioneers of the church have migrated, but our heart is still with the people and the work there. Whenever anything big happens in the church there, we are there also."

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