From Gregory R. Dalton: In June of 1965, when I was seventeen, our family moved to Puerto Rico. We didn't seek out the Church in San Juan right away that summer. But it wasn't long before the Church came looking for us. The "Church" came in the form of Joe Greenland, the San Juan Branch president who buzzed our apartment from the lobby one day not long after we arrived.
Apparently our membership records had been forwarded from the Bridgeport Ward in Connecticut and President Greenland had dutifully tracked us down. There was a small English speaking branch in San Juan, he said, which met in the military chapel at Fort Brooke on the edge of the old city next to the old El Morro fortress. Its membership included some FBI families, military people, several "continental" families such as ours, and one or two local Puerto Rican families. The Greenlands were our closest LDS neighbors, living in a condominium several blocks away.
Near them lived the Robinson family; actually, the Robinsons and the Harts, two families with lots of kids united through the second marriage of the parents. Most of the other members lived in residential areas outside of the city proper.
As we walked into the small chapel on our first Sunday, we were met in the outer foyer by several members including an energetic lady named Yolie Fotheringham. The Fotheringhams were one of the earliest Mormon families on the island. Sister Fotheringham greeted us with a warm welcome and, assuming that we were tourists, asked where we were from. When she found that we had moved to the island and would be permanent branch members, she revised her earlier greeting. "Well then, WELCOME!" she exclaimed, with emphasis on the "welcome" and an embrace to go with it. We were perhaps taken aback by the fervor of her greeting, but soon came to understand that enthusiastic affection was a characteristic of this branch in general and of Sister Fotheringham in particular.
Soon we were introduced to the families of Morris and Christina Burk, Elmo and Audie Robinson, Joe and Rachel Greenland, Billie and Yolie Fotheringham, Gardner and Dorothy Russell, Mildred Entwhistle, Lynn and Jeri James, Colonel and Norma Johnson, Quentin and Canita Lambert, Benito and Griselda Gonzalez, and perhaps one or two others. These families formed the San Juan Branch--the nucleus of the Church in PuertoRico. Two other branches were organized on the island: one at Roosevelt Roads Naval Base at the eastern end, and another at Ramey Air Force Base at the western end. But in 1965 the San Juan Branch was the flagship congregation in Puerto Rico due both to its larger size and to its relatively non-transient resident membership. There was something rather special about this little collection of mostly former Utah and
California Mormons thrown together in this distant place far away from home. The expression "ward family" is meaningful to all Mormons, but this was different somehow: this was FAMILY. My mother, especially, was fond of the custom in the branch, borrowed from Puerto Rico's friendly culture, of greeting each other on Sundays with an embrace anda kiss.
Priesthood meeting was the early meeting of the day followed by Sunday School. My dad, together with my brothers Mike and Brad and I, often rode to priesthood meeting with Joe Greenland, while my mother and younger sister Shannon picked up Sister Greenland and brought her to Sunday School later. This was a bit scary because President Greenland had learned to drive like the locals--impatiently with one hand affixed permanently to the horn. We arrived each week, however, unnerved butunscathed. It was in Sister Greenland's Sunday School class that I began to get acquainted with some of the kids who were near my age: Craig Fotheringham, Jonnie Hart, Nancy Robinson, Eddie Vargas, Becky Fratacelli, Morris and Billy Burk, Sheryl Russell, and several others. I liked Sister Greenland. She was a great story teller. I later discovered that she was a writer--had even written an unpublished novel which I read in manuscript form and enjoyed--and then I understood why her lessons were so mesmerizing.
That this little collection of Church members were pioneers of a sort was driven home to me one Saturday evening as the priesthood holders met in an evening priesthood meeting--one of the several meetings of our district conference. President Ned Winder, president of the Florida Mission which encompassed the Caribbean District, had come to Puerto Rico for the conference. The sun was setting, casting a fiery, pink-gold glow into the sky which was reflected into the ocean on the left and the quiet, shimmering waters of the San Juan harbor on the right. We met inside the small domed chapel, part of a larger edifice which housed offices of the Antilles Military Command. Inside, President Winder commented on the incredible beauty of the setting outside and the humble gathering within. "How could anybody witness a sunset like that," he said, "and deny the existence of God?" He went on, "Brethren, there may be many gatherings on this island tonight, but none--not one--is more significant or more important than this meeting in this chapel this evening. Here is gathered the priesthood of God.
There is no greater power assembled on this island than what is assembled here. Here, and only here, reside the keys to God's work on this island."
I looked around at our tiny little group--a few fathers and their sons, all in short-sleeved white shirts and ties--the boys fidgeting a little on the hard wood benches while droning fans on the wall stirred the warm, humid air of the chapel. It was not an imposing group and it was difficult to reconcile what I was hearing with what I was seeing. I have since thought, however, about that humble little meeting and then pondered about another modest meeting held two thousand years ago in an upper room where a group of largely unschooled, unimpressive disciples met with the Savior, not comprehending fully what was about to take place and as yet without a vision of what ultimately would result from such humble beginnings.
Some years later, President Glenn Rudd -- President Winder's successor -- would tell a somewhat larger congregation at another district conference that he could see the day when there would be wards and stakes, many buildings, and thousands of members on the island. Still I thought, not in my lifetime. I could not imagine, then, that in as few as twenty years, his prediction would come true.
My family resided on the island from 1965 until 1972. My father, James C. Dalton, later served as branch president of the San Juan Branch for several years and in that capacity was instrumental, with Gardner Russell, Billie Fotheringham, and others, in overseeing the building of the chapel at Jardines de Caparra -- the first LDS chapel built on the island.