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New Zealand Mormons losing parts of their past

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



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"My father learned the plumbing trade as a 17-year-old labor missionary right out of high school. He served for four years for $1 per week," recalls Ra Puriri, who lives in St. George. "My father met my mother, who worked in the project construction office. I was born in Temple View in 1958."

At the time, New Zealand’s educational institutions were dominated by European values, and Maori children could be beaten for speaking their own language, Tereaph Elinora Solomon writes in a 2008 master’s thesis about the school. Thus the Church College became a magnet for Maoris seeking an education where their history and culture would be respected.

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The government considered the school "one of the top performing schools for Maori and Pacific Island students in the country," Solomon writes. "With a roll of around 700 students annually, the school has also produced many leading achievers for the [LDS] Church."

Classes often were taught by American Mormons, who brought their own sports like basketball and large cars like Buicks to the distant island. Their influence reached far beyond the school’s borders. And the LDS values taught at school were reinforced at home. The school’s motto: "Build now for eternity."

In the temple’s 1958 dedicatory prayer, then-LDS Church President David O. McKay praised "all those who have accepted calls as labor missionaries and literally consecrated their all upon the altar of service."

It is no wonder, then, that the multipurpose David O. McKay Building — where scores of students won swimming trophies, acted in shows and played in basketball tournaments — is at the center of the ongoing struggle. It was the community’s heart.

"The McKay Building is significant for Hamilton — the Czech Philharmonic played there, among others," says Gallagher, who is not Mormon. "It would be really sad to see it go."

A changing church » The decision to shutter the school was made in Utah by LDS officials, who were steadily getting out of the regional education business. But so was the move to preserve and repurpose some of the buildings.

Church employees, including urban design expert Don A. White, were sent from headquarters to explore options and manage the project. They studied zoning issues that would apply to the church land and huddled with interested parties and experts to hammer out a plan that might appeal to a wide spectrum of Mormons and other residents.


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Here’s what they came up with: Preserve the Mendenhall Library, which would house an LDS history museum to display artifacts such as Maori memorabilia, a clock from the college’s basketball court and yearly alumni awards from the school; the First Teacher House, which would become a day-care center; the George R. Biesinger Building, which would be used for gatherings and funerals; Kai Hall, which would become a reception center; and the Block Plant, where they used to make bricks, would most likely become a recreational/reception facility.

The plan includes demolishing the teacher cottages and student dorms, while erecting a massive new stake center in the style of the old school, building a roundabout on the road beside the school, creating a lake, establishing "Hamon Native Bush" with cabins and a common kitchen for LDS youth groups, and planting 100,000 trees.

"We’ve had plenty of time to mourn the loss of the school," says LDS Area Seventy Paul Coward. "It’s time to move on."

Temple View LDS Stake President John Kendall agrees.

"My kids are going to local schools, and they’re doing fine," says Kendall, who oversees a number of Mormon congregations in the area. "It is an opportunity for our kids to be missionaries."

The school closure "hasn’t dented the church at all," Owen Purcell, the labor missionary, says. "I have no worries about what’s happening at church."

White and other LDS leaders went around the area, spelling out the proposal at informal church settings known as "firesides," typically used for religious instruction.

These leaders noted that the plan was developed under the LDS Presiding Bishopric and implied — and often stated — that it had the approval of LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson.

But when Monson stopped by the school in 2010, audience members heard conflicting messages.

The Mormon leader, considered a "prophet, seer and revelator" in the 15 million-member faith, told the crowd that he believed in "building up, not tearing down," which some members interpreted to mean that the McKay Building and others would escape the wrecking ball.

Others heard no such promise.

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