SALT LAKE CITY — After many difficult weeks and months, hurricane-weary Latter-day Saints in the Puerto Rico’s capital finally have a couple of reasons to celebrate.
First, on Friday, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced full-time missionaries would be returning to the island after being removed in September following Hurricane Maria.
And second, the San Juan Puerto Rico Stake will gather for stake conference on Sunday. The gathering has been postponed multiple times during the ongoing hurricane recovery.
For Mormons here, both events double as symbolic victories.
“It will be great to have the missionaries back,” said San Juan Stake President Wilfred Rosa. “They will have a lot of opportunities to tract and find people, but I’m sure the missionaries will also be involved in a lot of service projects.
Friday’s announcement noted “some of the missionaries” would be returning to the Puerto Rico San Juan Mission:
“Fourteen young elders will return to Puerto Rico, and two senior couples will return to St. Croix and St. Thomas. Decisions about the return of the additional missionaries will be made at a later date.”
Puerto Rico suffered a two-fisted disaster combo that began with Hurricane Irma, followed a short time later by the severely destructive Hurricane Maria.
The mid-September removal of the missionaries unsettled many of the members, said President Rosa. Their return will allow them to feel a new measure of security and optimism.
Across the island, Puerto Ricans have endured months without reliable power and drinking water.
“We still have issues, but things are getting better now,” said President Rosa on Friday, who added he still does not have electrical service in his own home.
“About 60 or 70 percent of the capital has power now.”
Electrical service in the San Juan stake center was restored about two weeks after Maria. “Which was a real miracle,” he said.
That’s allowed Latter-day Saints assigned to that building to enjoy somewhat normal Sabbath services and activities. More remote meetinghouses in the stake are still without power, so local members continue to meet in the dark for Sunday sacrament services.
This weekend’s stake conference represents a moment of victory, emergence and resiliency for the San Juan members, said President Rosa. They will look back on what they’ve endured — and look forward to better days ahead.
The church’s ongoing humanitarian efforts across the island, he added, “have opened a lot of doors for us here, we’ve worked closely with the government.”
Meanwhile, on the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Thomas, a small branch of Latter-day Saints continue their own recovery following Irma’s arrival months ago.
Having a senior couple missionary back in St. Thomas “will be great,” said St. Thomas Branch President Steven Richards.
“The will be able to help us a lot — especially in providing some additional priesthood leadership,” he said Friday. “Having a couple here will be very beneficial.”
Immediate plans are also underway to begin rebuilding the St. Thomas meetinghouse, which was severely damaged during Hurricane Irma. The small branch has been meeting for Sunday services in recent months at President Richard’s home.
Maria was a Category 4 storm when it struck Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 with 155 mph winds. It killed nearly 1,000 people, according to a new study by the Center for Investigative Journalism reported in the Miami Herald. The storm knocked out power, phone service and running water throughout the island.
The evacuation was the second time in four years that the LDS Church had evacuated an entire mission. The Puerto Rico San Juan Mission did not close, but church leaders said missionaries wouldn't return until basic infrastructure was rebuilt.
President David Smart and his wife Brenda moved to the Dominican Republic but traveled regularly to Puerto Rico to assess the situation and prepare for the return of missionaries, who had been heartbroken to leave Puerto Rico.
The Smarts gathered nearly all of the missionaries at the mission home or mission office before Maria hit.
"It sounded like a train whistle," one said afterward. The wind ripped a board off the window to her room in the mission home and whipped the wind through cracks and into the house, covering the floors with water. The roof sustained serious damage and water damaged the walls and paint.
Some of the evacuated missionaries have completed their missions and returned home. The others are scattered from Florida to Washington state. A few were assigned to other countries.
In November 2013, the church evacuated 204 missionaries from the Philippines Tacloban Mission. Four months later, 162 missionaries returned to Tacloban, minus those who had completed their missionary service.