History of the Church in Costa Rica

David R. Crockett

During World War II, H. Clark Fails from Utah was an administrative assistant to the military attache in the U.S. embassy in Costa Rica. Brother Fails recalled: "During this time, I had the opportunity of becoming acquainted with a number of government officials, including the president of the republic, Teodoro Picado. I conducted the Church meetings in our home for other Americans. Several of our Costa Rican friends attended also. My wife and I felt lonely, but then, little by little, other members were assigned there. My wife and I were renting a big house, so they lived with us." ("Present-day Pioneers," Church News, July 24, 1993).

On July 8, 1946, the First Presidency authorized President Arwell Pierce of the Mexican Mission to open up Costa Rica for missionary work.

The first missionaries arrived on about September 10, 1946. They were Elders Robert B. Miller of St. David, Arizona and David D. Lingard of Salt Lake City, Utah. On September 13, 1946, Mexican Mission President, Arwell Pierce and H. Clark Fails (second counselor in the mission presidency) presented a letter to the Costa Rica government requesting recognition for the Church. They also presented the president of the republic with a copy of the Book of Mormon. Brother Fails said: "We spent over half an hour [with Costa Rica President Picado], explaining our mission and talking of the Church and the Book of Mormon. The president said he would like to have a copy and said that we could deliver it to him the following morning. President Pierce inscribed one for him, and the next morning we were again with him for about half an hour." (Ibid.)

Soon, Brother Fails left the Army and returned to the United States. At some point President Pierce ran into difficulties with the government over granting visas to missionaries. H. Clark Fails personally flew back to Costa Rica and met with an acquaintance in the government who then approved the visas.

Elder Spencer W. Kimball reported in General Conference in October, 1947: "And in the last three months two new fields have been opened. Mexican missionaries from the Mexican Mission have been sent into Guatemala and Costa Rica, and the work is going forward with the approval and hearty response, it seems, of the leading authorities of those nations."

A revolution broke out in Costa Rica in 1948, which caused the missionaries to be taken out of the country for their safety for a few months. In 1949 the missionaries returned. They were Elders David D. Lingard and Jack M. Farnsworth. The first conference of the Church was held on June 7, 1950 with 70 people in attendance. The first branch was organized on August 25, 1950. Land for the first meetinghouse was purchased in 1951. Missionary work progressed slowly at first. (1997-1998 Church Almanac, 314).

In about 1950, future General Authority, Elder Joe J. Christensen served a portion of his mission in Costa Rica. He was one of four missionaries to help baptize the first converts. He said that during ten months in Costa Rica, he had no personal contact from the mission president in Mexico. "It was a time of maturation and growing up in the gospel. There were many opportunities to learn that the Lord doesn't leave you alone in those kinds of settings, so the development of a spiritual commitment was enhanced to a great degree." ("Educator Passed Test of Discipleship," Church News, April 15, 1989).

The little branch in San Jose, Costa Rica struggled somewhat in those early years because of its distance from mission leaders in Mexico. Some of the early members had difficulties living the gospel. A couple influential members made it hard to keep peace in the branch and there was some bickering among the sisters. But the branch stayed together and the problems were eventual overcome.

In 1952 Elder Spencer W. Kimball and Elder Bruce R. McConkie visited Costa Rica during a tour to organize the Central American Mission. The new mission president, Gordon M. Romney and his wife traveled with them. President Romney recalled: "We flew on to Costa Rica. What a beautiful sight! Costa Rica is called the Switzerland of the Americas. It was emerald green the year round. Each day beautiful. Here, we found a small but thriving branch of about 40 members. There were two . . . elders laboring there." Sister Elizabeth Romney remembered: "I think one thing that always impressed me were the numerous flowing trees in each country. As we would approach the city we were going to land in, for instance San Jose, Costa Rica, looking down to the earth was much like looking at a great big red bouquet of flowers. The flowers in those countries bloom on the top of round, rather flat trees, almost hiding the green leaves except around the edges. As you approach closer you can see that there are as many blossoms on the ground under the trees as there are on the trees. It was a beautiful sight. The day was bright and sunny." They held a conference with the members.

President Romney soon called two brethren from the Costa Rica Branch to serve as full-time missionaries. Two other branches were soon organized, one in Alajuela with two elders, and another in Heredia with two more elders. Before long, San Jose became the working location for two sister missionaries. (Gordon M. Romney Oral History, 14, 16, 20, 43-44.)

The Catholic Church was very strong in Costa Rica. President Romney said: "I remember when a little sign was pasted on the window of each house saying, 'We are Catholics and no one of another denomination,' something to that effect. But neither the missionaries or the people paid too much attention to the notices."

In 1955, Elder Ezra Taft Benson visited briefly with missionaries and members in Costa Rica on the way back from a visit to South America. He had been in South America on government business, as part of his duties as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. He later said: "It was always a great pleasure to see them at the airports or to hold a brief meeting with them or to join them for breakfast or lunch. I wish our busy schedule might have permitted us to spend more time with those fine groups." (General Conference, April 1955).

By 1960, there were only 214 members in Costa Rica. In 1965, the Guatemala-El Salvador Mission was created which included Costa Rica. The first district conference was held in August 1968, with 296 people attending.

In 1970, there were 1,700 members in the country. In 1974, the Costa Rica Mission was created. It included Panama and Nicaragua.

On January 20, 1977, the first stake was created, the San Jose Cosa Rica Stake. Manuel Najera Guzman was the first president. On February 23, 1977, an area conference was held, presided over by President Spencer W. Kimball. At that time there were 3,800 members in the country. At a priesthood session of the conference, President Kimball said:

We want you to know that this [missionary work] is really serious business. We're not merely inviting people to go on missions. We are saying, This is your work! The God of heaven, through his prophets, has called you to this service. . . . You see, the Lord has put you out here in the world, both the foreign and the local missionaries, not only to give the lessons, not only to bear your testimony, but to take this body and this soul of yours and make something of it. And your decision is today, not at the conclusion of your mission. It is today and has already been made. That decision must be right, because when you get back into the swing of things the temptation will be greater. The Lord knew what he was doing when he impressed the Brethren to have you be neat and tidy and clean in the mission field. (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p.549, 592.)
In 1980, membership reached 4,100 members. By 1986, there were 7,100 members.

Elder Gardner H. Russell of the Seventy related this experience that happened in 1986:

In my training as a new General Authority, I found myself in Costa Rica with Elder F. Arthur Kay and others. In prayer and fasting, we visited families who were less active. The stake president and bishops had fasted and prayed that the Lord would indicate to them the choice families to be visited, and the families were then notified of the planned visits. We first entered the home of a young, successful businessman with a lovely wife and children. A former leader, he had transgressed the laws of the Church. As the Spirit of the Lord spoke through his servants, tears came to all our eyes as the couple committed to prepare to go to the Lord's house, the beautiful new temple in Guatemala, to be sealed for eternity. (General Conference, October, 1986).

In April 1989, General Conference was telecast via satellite for the first time in Costa Rica. President Rodrigo F. Matarrita, of the Costa Rica San Jose La Sabana Stake said: "There are no words to describe our feelings. It was really difficult not to weep with emotion. It was one of the greatest blessings we have ever received; we felt the Spirit testifying of the authority of the Brethren who spoke. We felt humble and grateful that we were part of a live conference." He reported that 3,600 people gathered at the stake center to witness the live conference. ("'Words Can't Describe Feelings' of First-Time Conference Viewers," Church News, April 15, 1989).

During 1989, the Costa Rica mission was divided. Panama received its own mission. The Costa Rica Mission still included Nicaragua, but shortly thereafter, the Nicaragua Managua mission was formed. In 1990, membership in Costa Rica reached 12,000.

On April 23, 1991, an earthquake struck Costa Rica. In some places the land had been raised nearly five feet. One Church member suffered a minor injury while helping with cleanup efforts. A few member homes were damaged. ("Earthquake Shakes Costa Rica," Ensign, July 1991).

On August 22, 1991, the country of Costa Rica was dedicated for the preaching of the gospel by Elder Boyd K. Packer. The ceremony was conducted in a secluded spot about ten miles north of San Jose. Also with Elder Packer was Elder Richard Clarke, Elder Ted E. Brewerton, Regional Representative Enrique Falabella, and mission president, Thomas G. Hendricks. Other local leaders were also there. Elder Packer prayed:

As we dedicate this land, we invoke thy protection upon it; it is a peaceful land . . . surrounded by countries where there are unrest and difficulties. We pray that thou wilt protect this land from such difficulties. . . . As the generations move through this beautiful land receiving a mortal body, being tested in mortality, accepting the gospel, receiving the ordinances and then moving forward into the portals of eternity, we invoke thy blessings upon that process that the Church will be here, that the gospel can be carried across this land up in the mountains, in these valleys, from the coast near the ocean to the highest peak of these beautiful mountains. We are grateful for the gospel of Jesus Christ and the fullness of it which comes to us through the Book of Mormon. We sense that we stand where the ancients once stood, those who knew thee and knew thy gospel. (Church News, December 19, 1992).
In 1995, there were 25,000 members with four stakes and six districts. The area presidency reported:
We are also happy with the progress of members in Costa Rica and Panama, especially our youth. Because of the emphasis leaders are putting on youth and youth activities, we have more missionaries than ever coming from Costa Rica. Family ties are strong, and the people have strong desires to live worthily, to attend the temple when possible, and to do what is necessary to merit gospel blessings. The members face challenges similar to those in other Central American countries, but they are moving forward in faith and responding to the challenges.
In 1995, Enrique R. Falabella, of San Jose, Costa Rica, was called as an Area Authority.

On January 20, 1997, President Gordon B. Hinckley visited Costa Rica. He first visited with the missionaries in the mission and then called on the president of Costa Rica, Jose Maria Figueres. President Rigueres spoke of the execellent reputation of Church members in Costa Rica. reputation of Church members in the nation. President Hinckley presented him a statue commemorating family life along with a framed copy of the "Proclamation on the Family." In the evening, President Hinckley spoke at the National Gymnasium to nearly 7,000 members.

That evening, President Hinckley spoke in the national gymnasium to nearly 7,000 members. He said, "We have a great work to do. It requires the faith of every one of you." He made mention of the 840 converts who joined the Church in 1996:

Every one of us has an obligation to fellowship those [converts], to put our arms around them, to bring them into the Church in full activity. It is not enough just to go to Church on Sundays, we must reach out each day. I wish with all my heart that in Costa Rica every man, woman, and child who was baptized would remain faithful and active. And that can happen if all of you make up your minds to reach out and help the new convert. There is no point in the missionaries baptizing people only to have them come into the Church for a little while and then drift off. You have remained faithful, and I thank you for that, but again urge that you make an extra effort to reach out to those who have recently been baptized. They cannot do it alone. They are not strong enough yet. They need your help. God bless you to fellowship the new convert. That is so very, very important. That is a principle of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Only as we reach out to help others are we truly Latter-day Saints. ("An Outpouring of Love For Prophet," Church News, February 1, 1997).