History of the Church in Nicaragua

David R. Crockett

The first Latter-day Saints to visit Nicaragua were probably among those going to or from the California gold mines in 1849. In addition to using a route across the Isthmus in Panama, many of the travelers instead journeyed across Nicaragua. Church member George W. Averett, took this route while returning from the gold fields, taking a ship from Nicaragua to New Orleans, and then on to Illinois. Nathan C. Springer, a miner, and Church member from Utah, died in Bluefields, Nicaragua, in 1888.

In November 1952, Elder Spencer W. Kimball, Elder Bruce R. McConkie, newly appointed Central American mission president, Gordon M. Romney, and his wife, Elizabeth Wilson Romney visited Managua, Nicaragua. Sister Romney said: "Before landing we had a good view of the active volcano [Mt. Monotombo] and the large lake [Lake Managua]. After landing and looking around the city we saw boganvilla in every shade from deep purple to delicate pink. It grows rampant everywhere. At this time we did not know that there were several North American LDS families living in Managua. Later we were to become well acquainted with them. There were Brother and Sister Nathan Barlow and a young couple named Berry and Sister Pope. They always made our following trips there a pleasure." (Gordon M. Romney oral history).

The first two missionaries assigned to Nicaragua in 1953 were Elders Manuel Arias and Archie R. Mortensen. On April 11, 1954, the first person was baptized -- Jose D. Guzman. In 1954, President David O. McKay stopped briefly at the Managua airport and in 1955, Elder Ezra Taft Benson met with Saints at the airport while returning from South America. In 1959, the Nicaraguan District was formed.

In 1965 the Guatemala-El Salvador mission was split off from the Central American Mission. Nicaragua remained in the Central American mission under the leadership of Ted E. Brewerton. There were about sixty missionaries in the entire mission.

On December 23, 1972 a massive earthquake almost totally demolished Managua. 5,000 people were killed, 20,000 injured, and 250,000 left homeless, including nearly 1,700 Saints. The chapel in Managua was nearly destroyed. President Armando Garcia, of the Managua Second Branch took his family and ran out of their home when the quake hit. He later recalled: "We immediately knelt down and thanked the Lord for our safety and then asked him to bless the members of the branch. As we prayed we felt an assurance that all would be well. Even our children lost the fear that they had." It was amazing that there were no known deaths among the active members in Managua and only one sister was seriously injured -- a broken back. Many of the members said they had felt premonitions that something was going to happen and slept with their clothes on. Some members lost next-door neighbors on either side, yet their own lives were spared. The Ensign reported: "A widow sister who operated a small store in her house told of wall blocks tumbling down onto her children's beds, but not one child was harmed. She and her family then walked barefoot out of the building over cases of broken glass without receiving a scratch." President Garcia went to the house where his branch met and saw that it was destroyed. He managed to save the branch records and funds. ("Managua: One Year Later," Ensign, December, 1973).

President Quinten Hunsaker of the Central American Mission said: "We evacuated the 28 missionaries there; in fact, I had to go in myself to get them out because they could not get any transportation. . . . The border was closed to people trying to go in or out of Nicaragua. By Sunday morning (the 24th) they hadn't come, and we hadn't heard from them, I knew I had to go and get them. I drove into Nicaragua and had to have a military escort from the border into the city, where I found the missionaries at the chapel. We chartered a plane out of Costa Rica to evacuate them."

President Hunsaker said that by the following day, twenty tons of supplies including food, water, and tents were ready to be shipped into the country. "We drove all night to the border and then spent all day getting permission to leave Costa Rica and enter Nicaragua. We never would have made it without the Lord's help." The supplies made it to the small branch at Masaya, 25 miles outside of Managua, where they set up relief headquarters for the Church. Four missionaries were brought back in to help. Two were stationed at the supply headquarters, and the other two drove around in a van to take food to members. Many of the Saints were left destitute. For many, the only belongings they had were the pajamas worn at the time of the quake. President Hunsaker said: "They have nothing, but it hasn't shaken their faith. The only hope now is the Church, and they know it. I think they will come out of this stronger." ("Nearly 1,700 Saints Left Homeless in Nicaraguan Earthquake," Ensign, February, 1973).

As rebuilding efforts took place, it was determined that the Managua Branch chapel could be repaired. Most of the walls fell, but the roof remained in place because of supports and beams. The branch members held their meetings on the chapel lawn. The house which had been used by the Managua Second Branch was destroyed and the members started to meet in the branch president's home. President Hunsaker reported in early February, "We are still providing the Saints with food and other supplies they need, and we may have to do so for many months to come, but now that the initial shock has worn off, the Saints are getting together to help each other rebuild their homes. They are working together in real gospel brotherhood. . . . This has been a terrible ordeal for them, but their faith has been strengthened, for they have seen the Lord protect them." ("Nicaraguan Saints Rebuild in Spirit of Brotherhood," Ensign, March 1973).

By March, twelve missionaries were back in Managua. Nearly thirty percent of the Saints were back to work, using their sparse income to rebuild or repair their homes. Food was again available but few had money to buy it, so the Church still provided supplies for the Saints. They also helped nonmembers who had great needs. The Managua Chapel was back in use. The mobilization of the Church's relief efforts did not go unnoticed. It was felt that missionary work could start moving forward in areas that had seen little success before, as active members had to move to different towns in the country. President Hunsaker said: "The members are in great spirits and very grateful for the help and prayers in their behalf." ("Managua Saints Returning to City," Ensign, April 1973).

Soon, it was determined that the chapel in Managua was too badly damaged to be saved. It was razed and construction quickly started on a new chapel. The Saints started meeting under canvas, in a temporary structure. By the end of 1973, a year after the tragedy, the Saints in Managua were mostly self-sufficient and the relief program was discontinued. Missionary work was going forth with greater strength.

By 1973, there were five branches in Nicaragua. In 1974 there were 1,732 members. Attendance at Church Meetings again dropped during that year. The reconstruction of the Managua First Branch chapel was slow because members became less willing to donate labor, materials, or money. Dissention grew in the branch and missionary work was hampered. (From report by President John E. Eagar, as quoted in "Pre-Civil War Mission History" by Rahn D. Price). A branch in Granada had been recently opened with fifteen members.

By 1977, there were about 3,000 Saints in Nicaragua. During that year revolution and civil war broke out. In November 1977, the Sandinistas attacked Managua and Masaya. It was a P-day and two missionaries were out taking pictures with tripods. The Guardia Nacional thought that the two elders were Sandinistas, setting up a mortar. They were captured, interrogated, and soon released. (From history by David Winkler on Nicaragua Mission Home Page: http://cc.usu.edu/%7Eslc9d/Nic.html )

By September 15, 1978, thirty-seven full-time missionaries were withdrawn from the country. The remaining missionaries were instructed to stay in their apartments and the Red Cross helped to make contact with them by amateur radio. By September 20, the remaining thirteen missionaries had been brought out of the country, some with the assistance of Peace Corps volunteers. (Ensign, November 1978).

During October, 1978, Mission President Joseph C. Muren, of the Costa Rica San Jose Mission, sent eight missionaries back into Nicaragua for a short time to help train local district missionaries. During a two-week period forty-three people were baptized. One Elder who made a significant contribution was Elder Jose Boza, an assistant to the mission president who led the eight missionaries back to his home country of Nicaragua. Elder Boza remained to train thirty-six local part-time missionaries. [Elder Boza later served as district mission president and from 1992-95 served as the President of the Nicaragua Managua Mission]. During November, 1978 the local missionaries baptized fifty-six people. Members tried to continue with their Church activities as normally as possible. President Muren continued to make visits to Nicaragua. ("Church Continues Progress in Nicaragua," Ensign, February 1979).

By 1980 there were 5,800 members in sixteen branches. Elder William R. Bradford reported: "The members are eager to learn. Education is by far the most sought after thing in their lives. You almost can never visit Nicaragua but what the gratitude of the members is expressed to you openly, sometimes tearfully, for the generosity that the membership of the Church has shown toward them in things like education and willingness to donate to the funds that have made an education possible for their children." ("Nicaraguans eager to learn, improve lives through gospel," by Gerry Avant, Church News, November 22, 1980).

On March 22, 1981, the first stake was created. Jose R. Armando Garcia was called to be the first president of the Managua Nicaragua Stake. Four wards were formed in Managua, one in Masaya, and four other branches.

During the tramadic years through the 1980s, Church leaders had difficulty getting into the country. In 1982, the Sandinistas accused LDS missionaries of participating in CIA-directed plots. For a time all meetinghouses were shut down. Some were confiscated, ransacked, or destroyed. The Church issued a firm statement which included: "Our missionaries are sent into the world solely to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ. . . . The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints makes it emphatically clear as a matter of policy, training, and practice that no missionary is to be involved in CIA activities, in political activities of any nature in countries where they serve." ("Church Denies Sandinista Charges in Nicaragua," Ensign, October 1982).

During the following years of war, the Church growth slowed greatly. Church members struggled without missionaries and buildings. In the midst of these difficulties, in 1987, a bus load of Nicaraguan Saints were able to travel to the Guatemala City Temple.

In 1989, as hostilities ceased, the Nicaragua Managua Mission was formed. At the same time the Managua Stake was discontinued, placing the Nicaraguan Saints under the mission leadership. There were 3,453 members in the country. Still without buildings to meet in, the Saints were organized into home units called "Nucleos." The father of each active family was authorized to organize his own Nucleo which consisted of his family and neighboring single members. Their short meetings each week were based on the book "Gospel Principles." The sacrament would be administered, short talks given, hymns sung, and a Sunday school lesson taught. Over time, many of the Nucleos fell apart, but many of their faithful leaders later became branch presidents and bishops. (E-mail from David J. Shafer, January 1998).

During 1989 Elder Gardiner H. Russell of the Second Quorum of Seventy flew to Managua and met with Minister Rene Nunez, Secretary to the governing ministers. His objective was to have the Sandinistas recognize the Church and return the church buildings. Elder Russell reported that eighty-nine members had fought in the Sandinista armed forces and that six had been killed. The Minister agreed to return two chapels immediately and gave approval for a mission home to be built. He also gave approval for missionaries to receive visas. Missionaries again returned, and the work accelerated. First, twenty missionaries were selected from missions in Mexico to serve with twenty missionaries from Nicaragua. Gradually, some of the buildings were opened again and faithful hometeachers tried to look after the needs of the Saints in this war-torn country.

As some of the buildings were returned, the Nucleos still functioned. The Saints took turns using the buildings. A branch would meet in their Nucleos for three Sundays per month, and meet together in the building once per month.

On April 9, 1990, Elder Richard G. Scott dedicated Nicaragua for the preaching of the gospel. Elder Scott and Elder Russell M. Nelson met with twenty-six local members five hundred feet from the southeast lip of a dormant crater in Masaya Volcano National Park, about eighteen miles from Managua. Elder Nelson spoke in Spanish and said: "This is one of the most important occasions in the history of the Church in Nicaragua. My message is very important, and it can be expressed in three words, 'Keep the commandments.' When we live the commandments, we find joy and happiness. I also know that sadness and pain come if we do not obey the commandments."

Elder Scott offered the prayer, also in Spanish. In it he said:

We dedicate Nicaragua to the preaching of the gospel, the building up of the Church and the preaching of the pure doctrines of the Restoration for the establishment of Zion, so that the saving ordinances are available to the righteous of this country. We dedicate this land so that at the appropriate time all of the promises that have been declared by thy holy prophets through the ages by thy Son's command may be realized in this nation. We bless this land for the preaching of the gospel, so that thy sons and daughters who live here, and those who shall live here, who are pure of heart and desire to know the truth can find it. ("Two Central American Lands Dedicated," Church News, April 21, 1990).
In 1991, Elder Ted E. Brewerton reported: "In October 1989, Nicaragua had 3,453 members of whom 450 were active. About 22 percent attended Church meetings. In December of 1990, Nicaragua had 8,000 members and the activity rate had increased to 53 percent. We had 100 percent home teaching in Nicaragua in October, November and December. Eight hundred men were ordained to the priesthood last year." ("Central America: Work is Booming As Members Eagerly Share Their Testimonies With Friends," Church News, February 16, 1991).

During 1992, North American missionaries returned to Nicaragua. Also during that year, the first native Nicaraguan was called to be a mission president. Jose Evenor Boza Dompe was called to be the president of the Nicaragua Managua Mission. He was born in Santo Domingo, Nicaragua and had served as a stake president. At the time of his call, he was living in Guatemala City. His wife Janette, was also born in Nicaragua.

On July 21, 1993, a guerrilla group called "Re-Contras" invaded the city of Esteli, robbed a bank, and tried to stir up fear. Elder Adolfo Agustin, of Guatemala City, Guatemala, and his companion were teaching a discussion in Esteli when the Re-Contras arrived. They heard machine gun fire, quickly left the discussion and returned home. As Elder Agustin was reading his scriptures next to his bed, a stray bullet was shot through the tin roof, passed through the bed, and became embedded in the tile floor. (From story told by Steve Carman on the Nicaragua mission homepage: http://cc.usu.edu/%7Eslc9d/nicaragua/stories.html)

By 1994, there were 12,000 members in Nicaragua. The Church was organized into branches and districts, the Nucleos no longer were needed. The mission was organizing two temple trips per year to Guatemala City. In 1995 the Central America Area Presidency reported:

Economically, Nicaragua is having even more difficult times and the people are suffering various kinds of adversity. They may not always have shoes or ties, but they attend church. They strive to be faithful despite their circumstances. Because of the war, we met in home-based Church meetings for a decade. But now we have begun meeting in branches again. For ten years, we had no outside missionaries, just local leaders. But now we have fourteen thousand members and a mission president born and raised in Nicaragua. The work is going ahead, though many members still carry with them physical and spiritual wounds from the war.
In 1996, there were 17,000 members in Nicaragua.

On January 21, 1997, President Gordon B. Hinckley visited Nicaragua and spoke to 2,400 Saints in Aloph Palme Auditorium. He said: "I know you have many problems in your lives. You wonder where your next meal is coming from. You have suffered much in years past. I am grateful better days are here. I hope and pray the blessings of the Lord will be poured down on you. The Lord loves you and looks down upon you with great love. . . . I will never forget this wonderful sight in the city of Managua, Nicaragua." President Hinckley also spoke to the 140 missionaries in the mission and he expressed hope that the districts would soon become stakes and that the branches would become wards, "that the work will go forward with a maturity that it has not known for a long time." ("An Outpouring Of Love For Prophet," Church News, January 25, 1997).

As President and Sister Hinckley were riding in a car on the way to the airport, a pickup truck carrying steel beams stopped abruptly as the Hinckley's car was being escorted through an intersection. Some of the beams struck the car in which the Hinckleys were riding. They hit the car behind the rear door and shattered the rear window. President Hinckley was not injured and Sister Hinckley only had minor scratches. Elder Russell M. Nelson and his wife were in the car following the Hinckleys. The party continued to the airport and flew to Honduras. Elder Nelson later said: "While shattered glass was being removed from their clothing and skin, President Hinckley said: 'Thank the Lord for His blessing; now let's continue on in another car.'" ("Pres. Hinckley Not Injured In Auto Accident," Church News, January 25, 1997).