History of the Church in Suriname

David R. Crockett and Mark Staker

[In 1990, Mark Staker arrived in Suriname. He was later joined by his wife Kim during 1991. Mark was a graduate student working on his doctoral dissertation in Cultural Anthropology. During that time he served as a Young Men's Leader in Suriname and Kim served in the primary. We thank Mark for helping to put together this history.]

LATTER-DAY SAINTS IN SURINAME By Mark Staker and David Crockett

The Republic of Suriname is situated north of Brazil between Guyana and French Guiana. About one third of the inhabitants are descendants of African born slaves. While most of them live in Paramaribo, the one major city in the country, some of them live in the rain forests where their ancestors escaped the horrors of plantation life. Most of Suriname's inhabitants are descendants of laborers from the Dutch East Indies. About one third are descendants of laborers from Northern India and another sixteen percent are descendants of workers from the island of Java in Indonesia. The remaining population is made up of smaller groups including Native Americans (largely Carib and Arawak), Chinese, Armenians, Portuguese Jews, and others. See page on Suriname at: http://www.surinam.net/

The history of Latter-day Saints in Suriname began in the Netherlands. When Dutch Guyana gained its independence in 1975 and became the Republic of Suriname, almost half of its inhabitants chose to retain their Dutch citizenship. Most of them immigrated to the large cities in North and South Holland and some settled in other parts of the Netherlands. Wards and branches in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Delft, and elsewhere saw Black Surinamers join their fold after the 1978 revelation on the priesthood.

Ten years after the priesthood revelation John and Beverly Limburg put in their mission papers hoping to go back to Holland where John had served as a mission president. Instead, the couple was called to open up Suriname for the preaching of the gospel. Brother and Sister Limburg arrived in the capital city of Paramaribo in October of 1988. They spent most of the first year trying to get settled and established in the country.

The first baptisms took place on Easter Sunday in 1989. August Marengo, a Creole tax commissioner and accountant trained in the Netherlands, was the first person baptized. He had already worked to have "Music and the Spoken Word" played weekly on the national television station and was doing considerable missionary work. That same morning in the only public swimming pool in the country, Eline and Maudi Troenosemito were also baptized. They were two Javanese young women. Their father was a leader at the local mosque and their mother's father was one of the national leaders in the Islamic community. Although their parents had testimonies when the two were baptized they were reluctant to make a break from the Muslim community. They were both baptized a year later.

On the evening after the baptismal service was held, Elder Limburg led the first sacrament meeting with the new members and a Suriname born Latter-day Saint couple visiting from Canada. Soon after this initial beginning other baptisms followed. Philly Denswijl and Iwan Nathaniel were baptized a few months later and were the first Surinamers ordained to the Melchizedek priesthood. The membership continued to grow from these small beginnings.

When the Limburgs were released, two couples replaced them: Don and Lorna Rapier with Hermann and Elsie Schreuders. Before the Limburgs departed, on February 24, 1990, Elder M. Russell Ballard or the Twelve arrived to dedicate Suriname for the preaching of the gospel. The service took place in the garden of Limburg home in Paramaribo. The Rapiers and Schreuders were in attendance along with a total of eight-five members and investigators.

Elder Ballard later said that during the prayer a blessing was asked upon the government leaders of the lands. The members were promised that they would grow steadily to have wards presided over by local people and that the work of the Lord would prosper. They were promised that missionaries would rise up from the country to serve in other lands. He also said: "A big 'Welcome' had been written on the blackboard and the doors had been decorated with palm leaves. We left surrounded by the children and members expressing their love." ("Services in 3 South American Nations and Island Republic," Church News, March 10, 1990).

During 1990, the Rapiers and Schreuders held Sunday meetings in three different cities, although most of the members attended sacrament meeting in the Rapier home in Paramaribo. "Music and the Spoken Word" continued to be broadcast every Sunday on one of the country's two television stations. About one hundred members attended the Paramaribo Branch, with seven elders and nineteen priests. Nine people were baptized during November, 1990. Some of the recent converts were introduced to the Church by a 15-minute radio program which had also been used in the Netherlands.

Don Rapier commented to the Church News: "It's thrilling to see the members here start to develop. In a few years we should have almost 300 members, and the local leadership can take over. . . . The members are like little children - the things you and I take for granted, like principles we learn in Sunday School, they're only starting to understand. We're just teaching them fundamentals." ("Work Flourishing Among a People 'Without Guile'", Church News, December 1, 1990)

Elder Rapier further shared his feelings as a pioneer missionary: "As I look at it, it must be like the early days of the Church. Missionaries were sent to distant lands and they started from scratch. There's not much contact with the rest of the Church, and it gets lonely here at times." Sister Rapier and Sister Schreuder taught a sewing class to help them meet interested investigators.

Saniman Troenosemito, a member of the Church in Suriname said: "The Church represents our future. It's our home. Before I joined the Church I had no future, but thanks to the missionaries I know what my future can be. I know this is the only true Church on earth." (Ibid.)

Brother Denswijl had some family property in a remote rural community of Lelydorp where the missionaries began holding meetings in a wood clapboard structure. About the same time Sondra Verbond, an East Indian immigrant from Gayana (married to a Saramakkan-- a Black "bushnegro" living on the edge of the rain forest) joined the Church and meetings were held on her property in the small village of Uitkijk. These meetings later moved to the local schoolhouse, the only public building within a fifteen mile radius.

During the first few years, about fifty percent of the converts came from the small Native American population in the country. In 1991, when the missionary couples were released, Paul and Rae Levie came along with four elders transferred from Holland: Elders Oliphant, Acosta, Newell, and Reese. A branch was organized with Brother Levie as Branch President. Two Javanese members, Rafael Weide and Stanley Cooman, were called as counselors. Sister Selma Armaketo (an Arawak Native American) was called as the Relief Society President with Ngatijem Cooman and Sister Manakaware as counselors. Shortly after this the two rural gatherings of members were encouraged to attend meetings in the city as the missionaries attempted to consolidate their efforts.

During 1991 the Trinidad and Tobago Mission was created. It included Guyana and Suriname.

Joseph Smith's First Vision and a Gospel Principles manual were published in the local Creole language, Sranan-tongo (also called taki-taki by outsiders). By the mid-1990s missionaries began to find success among the local East Indian population (known as the Hindustanti in Suriname). A Suriname born East Indian missionary was called from the Netherlands to serve in the Trinidad and Tobago Mission. Although he spent his time serving among the East Indians in Trinidad he was able to impact success in Suriname as well. Over the past few years the branch in Suriname continues to grow at a slow, but steady pace. In 1997 a missionary couple and eight elders served in the country.