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Caracus, city of eternal vision, promise

CARACAS, Venezuela — Chronicling the story of the Church in Caracas is a little like writing the final chapter on the New World just weeks after Columbus spotted land.

Elena Aray de Barrios and her daughter, Kristell, are emblematic of the scores of Caracans who have accepted the gospel in recent years and become an asset in their respective wards and branches.

Left, Caracas is a cosmopolitan city of skyscrapers, highrise apartment buildings and lush greenery. Left inset, residents and tourists alike enjoy a historic section of Caracas outside the home where Venezuelan liberator Simon Bolivar was born.

Above, a colorful plaza leads to a government building in downtown Caracas that houses the Venezuelan legislature. Fountains, patriotic statues and reminders of the country's colonial past can be found throughout the city.

Above, Hernan and Anna Pea were baptized shortly after missionaries arrived in Caracas. Left, Caracas Venezuela Urdaneta Stake President Jorge Alberto Ruiz, right, meets with Caracas-area priesthood holders. Right is one of the many historic buildings found in the center of vibrant Caracas.

Right is Venezuela postage stamp with portrait of Simon Bolivar, a Caracas native and liberator of much of South America. Below, Elder Francisco G. Gimenez, an Area Authority Seventy, meets with local television reporter during dedication of the Caracas Venezuela Temple.
Elena Aray de Barrios and her daughter, Kristell, are emblematic of the scores of Caracans who have accepted the gospel in recent years and become an asset in their respective wards and branches. Left, Caracas is a cosmopolitan city of skyscrapers, highrise apartment buildings and lush greenery. Left inset, residents and tourists alike enjoy a historic section of Caracas outside the home where Venezuelan liberator Simon Bolivar was born. Above, a colorful plaza leads to a government building in downtown Caracas that houses the Venezuelan legislature. Fountains, patriotic statues and reminders of the country's colonial past can be found throughout the city. Above, Hernan and Anna Pea were baptized shortly after missionaries arrived in Caracas. Left, Caracas Venezuela Urdaneta Stake President Jorge Alberto Ruiz, right, meets with Caracas-area priesthood holders. Right is one of the many historic buildings found in the center of vibrant Caracas. Right is Venezuela postage stamp with portrait of Simon Bolivar, a Caracas native and liberator of much of South America. Below, Elder Francisco G. Gimenez, an Area Authority Seventy, meets with local television reporter during dedication of the Caracas Venezuela Temple. Photo: Photos by Jason Swensen

The LDS faith in the Venezuelan capitol seems too young, dynamic and fluid to truly offer its history yet. After all, many of the city's "pioneers" still have color in their hair. Most of the adults at the recent temple dedication in Caracas were first-generation members, people who still swap letters with the elders or sisters who taught them the missionary discussions just a few years ago.

Instead, consider this story a prologue, an introduction to a city still cutting its gospel teeth — but blessed with eternal vision and promise.

The Church's early days in Caracas were as inauspicious as its first official vehicle: a light blue Volkswagen Bug used by the missionaries. In the mid-1960s an American member named Carl Wilcox learned his company was transferring him to Caracas. Brother Wilcox asked about the Church in Venezuela and was told a few expatriate members were holding services in the capital city — and that they would soon be leaving, according to a chronicle of the Church's initial days in Venezuela compiled by Alan K. Manning.

Shortly after arriving, Brother Wilcox and his family attended a non-denominational Christian church. On the visitor register were the names of five families who listed their religious affiliation as "LDS." Thrilled, Brother Wilcox contacted each family. They began holding Church services each Sunday in his home — a beautiful three-story house overlooking Caracas.

Soon there were about 40 people attending weekly, according to Brother Manning. All were reportedly North Americans except for one young Venezuelan woman named Maria who had joined the Church while attending college in Canada.

"Brother Wilcox said the group was, collectively, an unusually active group as far as the Church was concerned," wrote Brother Manning. "Not one person missed a single meeting in the nearly one year they met together."

Eager to share the gospel with their Caracan neighbors, the small band of members contacted Church headquarters and asked that missionaries be sent to Venezuela for the first time. Their request was granted, but first the country was dedicated.

On Nov. 2, 1966, Elder Marion G. Romney, then of the Quorum of the Twelve, dedicated the country for the preaching of the gospel. Perhaps appropriately, his dedicatory prayer was offered in a garden next to a university named after Simon Bolivar, northern South America's revered liberator.

Elder Romney also organized the first branch and called Brother Wilcox to preside. Soon a quartet of missionaries arrived from the Central American Mission ready to spread their message.

"I remember waking that first morning in Venezuela. . . clouds shrouded Mt. Avila and there were ghostly images of palms on the flank of the mountain not far from our window," recalled Elder Fred Podlesney in Brother Manning's narrative. "It was a scene of sublime beauty. And all around us was the city — two million people! I loved Caracas on that first day and that sense of attachment still remains with me."

The small band of elders quickly found their prospective investigators in the prosperous sections of the cosmopolitan city to be different than those they were accustomed to teaching in rural, Central American towns.

"The [Caracans] were not only more resistant to change, they were more difficult to find home," Brother Manning wrote. "If they were home, then it was difficult to get past their maids and other servants who worked in the house. The missionaries did their best under some trying circumstances."

The work was initially tough and baptisms were sparse. Still, many of the first Venezuelan saints today regard the missionaries' unexpected knock on their door as heaven's clarion call.

"I remember being 10 years old and visiting my grandmother when the missionaries knocked for the first time," said Jorge Alberto Ruiz, who now presides over a stake in Caracas. "The missionaries kept coming, we went to Church and the people there treated us like we were old friends."

Hernan and Anna Pea heard their knock in 1968, just months after being married. They were baptized in a portable swimming pool in Caracas at a time when only 17 missionaries were serving in Venezuela.

"After Brother Wilcox left, the branch members rented a school for our meetings, we used the biggest room for sacrament meeting and other classrooms for other meetings," said Brother Pea, who eventually became the branch president. Young Anna was the Primary president.

The Peas traveled to Peru to be sealed. Such sacrifices were both common and legion for many members. Still, the Caracan members and missionaries persevered. Soon branches multiplied and the gospel spread to Venezuelan cities such as Maracaibo, Merida and San Cristobal. By 1977, there were some 4,000 members in Venezuela — including a significant chunk in Caracas. The Caracas Venezuela Stake, the country's first, was organized in May of that year. Today, there are almost 90,000 members in Venezuela.

Perhaps this opening chapter in Caracas' rigorous, rewarding Church history ends with a prophet's visit. President Gordon B. Hinckley joined thousands of Caracans and their fellow Venezuelans last August for the dedication of the Caracas Venezuela Temple. When the prophet drove away from the temple grounds his entourage was saluted by a brigade of members, many who waited hours for his passing.

Each Venezuelan waved a handkerchief — bidding good-bye to their prophet, welcoming their future.

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