Beginnings: LDS family remembers Church's first days in Panama
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Otto L. Hunsaker was a "have tools, will travel" sort of man.
An engineer and skilled organizer, Brother Hunsaker and his young family were accustomed to making a home wherever and whenever large construction projects called. In the years leading up to World War II, the Hunsakers were self-proclaimed "desert rats" as Brother Hunsaker plied his trade throughout the American West, helping build facilities such as the Hoover Dam.
Then in early 1940 a position opened up at the Panama Canal Zone where the U.S. Army was building barracks, highways and runways. Brother Hunsaker took the job and moved to Panama. Six months later, his wife, Cressa, and their five children boarded the Panama-bound fruit freighter Formosa in Los Angeles, Calif. They were reunited with their husband and father following a 10-day trip.
"I shall never forget how green and beautiful Panama looked to us the morning we woke up off shore," wrote Sister Hunsaker in her family history. "The red tile roofs of the (misty) houses . . . .was like a dream."
Sister Hunsaker and the children who ranged in age from 14 to 2 years old were thrilled with their new life in a foreign land and culture.
"We had some awesome adventures," remembered Susie Hunsaker Bennett, the second-oldest daughter who was 12 when she arrived in Panama.
The romance of the Hunsakers' exotic new home was soon tempered because the devout LDS family could not enjoy the week-to-week fellowship of other Church members. "When Sunday came we would think of our Sunday School and Church back in the States and wonder if there was another Mormon on the isthmus or in the Canal Zone."
Brother and Sister Hunsaker were willing to live the transient life as long as it always afforded an opportunity for their children to participate in the programs of the Church.
"The Church," said son Quinten Hunsaker, "was the center of our lives."
The family decided they would return to the United States if they were unable to locate or organize a formal branch.
Brother Hunsaker wrote Church headquarters to inquire if other members were living in the Canal Zone and explore the possibility of establishing a branch. Months passed without a reply. A second missive was mailed. A letter from the First Presidency soon arrived alerting the family that a General Authority would be traveling to Panama to check on conditions. Also included was the happy news that two other LDS families were living in Panama.
"We immediately looked up the other families, which we were surely thrilled to find," wrote Sister Hunsaker. "One was (U.S. Army) Captain Earl G. Kingdon and his wife, Helen, and their three children, the baby just two months old. They were living at Fort Clayton. Another, Wilber Webb and wife Laurel, who lived in Balboa working for the government."
As promised, Elder Antoine R. Ivins of the Council of the Seventy arrived in Panama a short time later, accompanied by his wife, Sister Vilate Ivins. On Sunday, May 18, 1941, Elder and Sister Ivins gathered with the small group of recently acquainted Church members in the Kingdon home. Following an opening prayer and hymn, Elder Ivins invited each member to share his or her testimony and state if he or she was willing to support a branch and ensure its success. All were anxious for the Canal Zone Branch to be organized and Elder Ivins was eager to grant their wish, according to Sister Hunsaker.
Brother Hunsaker was called as branch president, with Brother Kingdon and Brother Webb serving as counselors.
"(Elder Ivins) then asked if we would like to
have the sacrament," Sister Hunsaker wrote. "So it was prepared, blessed and passed to us by the priesthood holders. We were all very deeply touched, as it was the first we had had the sacrament in many months."
In the months that followed, the Hunsakers and their fellow branch members would witness other historic moments. Additional members were found among the many American servicemen stationed in Panama. Eight-year-old Sandra Hunsaker would be the first child baptized in the Canal Zone Branch, while older brother Quinten was ordained the unit's first deacon. The local Y.M.C.A. building was rented out on July 24th to celebrate Pioneer Day. Meanwhile, Sunday services were soon moved from member homes to public halls to accommodate the growing branch.
When the Canal Zone Branch celebrated its first anniversary some 100 members were listed on the branch rolls.
The United States' entry into World War II forced the Hunsakers to return home. Following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, many feared the Panama Canal would eventually be targeted, said Suzie Hunsaker Bennett.
Of their experience living in Panama, Cressa Hunsaker wrote: "Like most missionaries, it was one of the happiest times of our lives, and we were sad when it came time for us to leave."
But the family was not through with Panama. Following the war, Otto Hunsaker returned with his family to Panama to continue working. It was in Panama where daughter Suzie introduced an American serviceman named Jake Bennett to the gospel. The two would later marry.
Meanwhile, the Canal Zone Branch's first deacon, Quinten Hunsaker, returned to Panama in 1971 while presiding over the Central America Mission. During one tour of Panama, President Hunsaker purchased land for the Church near the Canal Zone where the Panama City Panama Temple is being built.
"Panama has been a sweet spot for my family," said President Hunsaker, who remembers the joy he felt in 1978 after learning of President Spencer W. Kimball's historic revelation allowing all worthy male members to hold the priesthood. That revelation has dramatically impacted the Church in Panama a nation with a large black population.
"After President Kimball's revelation, the missionaries could teach all the people and the Church really began to grow."
Seven stakes and eight districts are in operation today in Panama 65 years after the Canal Zone Branch was organized. Meanwhile, construction continues on the nation's first temple. Otto and Cressa Hunsaker have both died and their surviving children now have grandchildren. They forever relish their memories of Panama and the upstart Canal Zone Branch.
"Dad would tell us we were making history," said Susie Hunsaker Bennett.
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