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Mike Stack | Special to the Tribune View of the LDS New Zealand Temple from the town of Temple View.
New Zealand Mormons losing parts of their past

New Zealand » Church tearing down beloved school, homes near the temple — and building a Legacy Park.

By Peggy Fletcher Stack

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Jan 24 2014 01:19 pm • Last Updated Mar 24 2014 11:36 pm

Hamilton, New Zealand » If you squint your eyes, you might think you are in a greener, lusher version of 1960s Manti, with the Mormon temple rising out of cow pastures on a hill and clusters of smallish, well-kept homes all around.

This is Temple View, a suburb of Hamilton and a planned community about an hour outside Auckland, where a largely Mormon population has lived for decades, drawn by a common faith, a desire to be near sacred space — and a chance to be educated.

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A little ways down from the temple stands the sprawling campus of the LDS Church College of New Zealand, equivalent to an American secondary boarding school, which became one of the premier educational institutions in the country, especially for Maoris.

It, like the temple, was built in the late 1950s by an all-volunteer crew of Maori Mormon workers, known as "labor missionaries," who lived on the site. With each nail and plank, these laborers constructed what they considered a holy place, while at the same time creating a cohesive, self-sacrificing core of devoted Latter-day Saints. They met, married and later sent their children to that very school — and eventually became the nucleus of Mormon leaders in the region.

Together, the temple (the church’s first in the Southern Hemisphere), school and homes formed a distinctly Mormon village, much like small Utah towns, where every aspect of social life was entwined with the faith.

"The Temple View precinct has huge historic significance for the country," says Martin Gallagher, a former member of the country’s Parliament and currently on the Hamilton City Council. "It represents the incredible story of labor missionaries, which is not just an LDS story but a New Zealand story."

In 2006, officials at LDS Church headquarters in Salt Lake City closed the school, saying it was no longer needed.

The first word was that the campus would be razed, reduced to grazing land. After vehement objections by some local members, many of whose forefathers and mothers had been Mormon pioneers in the region, LDS leaders took a second look.

Now, church officials and designers have spent years crafting a less-drastic plan, which would save at least five of the historic buildings and put them to a new purpose as a "Legacy Park," while enhancing the landscape, upgrading the road, erecting a new LDS stake center for regional meetings, creating a nature preserve and youth camp, and, later, opening a small part of the 1,700-acre parcel for residential and retirement housing.

Mormon leaders saw the school "in a vision," says Hoki Purcell, who, with her husband, Owen, leads the Labor Missionary Society and strongly backs the plan. "It filled a need for our kids to get the best education. Now that mission has ended. We can turn our attention to other needs."


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But weighing all the perspectives has been grueling and polarizing.

Preservation versus development is tough under any circumstances, but it has been especially challenging for a hierarchical, centrally controlled faith such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to work within New Zealand’s democratic system. Church officials are accustomed to members unanimously endorsing their decisions; having to listen to members, outsiders, councils, architects, historians and politicians — often with conflicting views — has been unfamiliar and slow.

"If you don’t have vigorous discussion," Gallagher says, "bad decisions can happen."

The debate has pitted Hamilton members and leaders who embrace the church’s proposal against those who feel judged as disloyal for opposing — or at least questioning — it.

The larger issues, though, move beyond New Zealand and affect all of Mormonism as the American-born faith attempts to cover the globe: How can it hold on to the best of the past, while propelling into the future? How can it evolve from an all-encompassing social, cultural and religious experience to more of a Sunday-go-to-meeting church without losing its identity?

A consecrated history » Within decades of the 1854 arrival of Mormon missionaries in New Zealand, 1,038 of the 1,238 members in the country were Maoris. By 1889, the Book of Mormon was translated into Maori. The church’s first school there, the Maori Agricultural College, was built in 1913 and survived until an earthquake destroyed it in 1931.

Several Maori converts had been onetime warriors, and compelling stories of them burying their weapons — following the example of figures in the Book of Mormon — have been handed down in multigenerational LDS families.

By the 1950s, the church had enough members (17,000) to sustain a temple and an adjacent school to educate Mormons who came mostly from rural areas without adequate schools. But money was tight, so the church called for volunteers to join its labor missionary program. For eight years, nearly 400 people, members and nonmembers, young and old, flocked to Hamilton at their own expense to be bricklayers, carpenters, plumbers and electricians on the project. Other New Zealanders who couldn’t help physically provided meals, money and clothing.

Single men lived in tents on the site, while married couples with children dwelt in cozy cottages nearby. They hauled "sacred" trees from distant regions to put up classrooms, dorms, an auditorium, gymnasium, cafeteria, student store, an Olympic-size swimming pool, laundry, barbershop, butcher shop and an administration building.

And the temple.

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