Church News - The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

U.S. and British territories: Virgin Islands

Published: Monday, Feb. 1, 2010

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(British and U.S.)

Jan. 1, 2009: Est. population,110,000; Members, 654; Branches, 4;percent LDS, .6, or one in 168; Caribbean Area; Puerto Rico San Juan Mission.

The Virgin Islands are made up of three large islands (St. Thomas, St. Croix, and Tortola) and 50 small islands located 70 miles east of Puerto Rico. The majority of residents speak English and have a republican form of government

Beginning in the 1960s, various Latter-day Saint families from the United States lived on St. Thomas. Earl Keele arrived in May 1969 and his wife, Celia, and two children followed in August. The family held a home Sunday School under the jurisdiction of the San Juan Branch in Puerto Rico. In 1970, another family, James and Carolyn Boykin, joined the group. Debra Rybacki met with the family and received permission to be baptized in Brewer's Bay in January 1976. Other families arrived and the St. Thomas Branch was created on 13 December 1977.

The first missionaries, John Sorensen and Dean Blomquist, arrived in June 1978. They baptized a friend of Debra Rybacki, Aubrey Nelthropp, and his wife, Carol, on 16 July 1978. In the early 1980s, the Church designed a prefabricated meetinghouse for use in tropical climates and built a prototype for display purposes. Originally, the building was to be sent to Mexico, but laws in Mexico prevented it, so the meetinghouse was given to St. Thomas. On 21 October 2001, Joseph W. Hodge became the first local branch president. Branches have also been established on St. Croix, Tortola, and since 2003 a group meets in St. John.

The first missionaries to St. Croix were Thomas Williams, Eric Leach, Gregory Collier, and Kurtis Gibbons, who arrived on 28 January 1981. They held meetings in the home of a member, Jack Cluett, with about 15 attending. A branch was organized on 8 February 1981, with Stephen L. Whitmer as the first president. A meetinghouse was later built on the island and dedicated in 1985. Until 1999, branch presidents were natives of the United States. In 1998, Tydel B. John, a local teacher from St. Vincent, joined the Church after serious study about Joseph Smith. He was called as branch president on 21 February 1999. About 60 members attend weekly meetings in St. Croix.

In 1985, a Latter-day Saint woman vacationed on the island of Tortola and met William Osborne, a local doctor. She offered to send him materials about the Church. Osborne read the Church literature and during a business trip in July 1985 to Puerto Rico visited the mission office. Within a few days Osborne was baptized. He was the first member in Tortola. On 8 August 1999, the Tortola Branch was organized.

President Gordon B. Hinckley and Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve made a brief stopover in St. Thomas on 12 January 2004. President Hinckley was returning from dedicating the Accra Ghana Temple and held a member meeting before returning to Salt Lake City. It was the first visit of a Church president to the Virgin Islands.

In 2002, membership reached 427.

Sources: Puerto Rico San Juan Mission, Manuscript history and historical reports, Church Archives; West Indies Mission Manuscript history and historical reports, Church Archives; "Home Emphasized on Island Visits," Church News, 24 January 2004; John K. Baird, Telephone conversation, 14 June 2004; Tydel B. John, Telephone conversation, 17 June 2004.