As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints embrace President Thomas S. Monson as their new president, Canadian Mormons claim especially close ties to him.
The Canadian Mission of the Church had seen many great mission presidents. But when Thomas Spencer Monson arrived in Toronto in May 1959 with his wife, Frances, and their two young children, Tom and Ann, he was the youngest mission president anyone had seen. He was 31 years old, one of the youngest mission presidents in the Church.
The Monsons were given only three weeks to prepare for their new assignment to Canada. But even with Frances expecting their third child, they began their three-year service with enthusiasm.
According to Helen Warner, a Church member from Toronto, Church members in Canada responded warmly to President Monson from their first meeting with him. “He would make them laugh as he told funny stories — usually about himself,” she said. “They would be in tears the next minute as their hearts were touched by a story of devotion and sacrifice — often about members of their own congregation.”
Warner recalls President Monson’s uncanny ability to remember names and faces — a talent recognized by many others. “Many Canadian members of the Church will tell you that he could address them by name years after an initial meeting,” she said. “He could remind them of some experience they once shared.”
Following his first trip through the Canadian Mission, which then comprised Ontario and Quebec, President Monson had already memorized the names of all 130 missionaries he supervised and those of many other members of the Church.
Dorothy Davies traveled across the mission with the Monsons as part of her leadership assignment in the Church’s organization for children, called Primary. At the time, meeting places for Latter-day Saint congregations were somewhat primitive. She remembers meeting once in someone’s unfinished basement with cement blocks for chairs. But her clearest recollection was of President Monson’s sense of humor whenever they met in less-than-ideal circumstances.
At one such meeting in the local Moose Hall, a large stuffed moose head hung on the wall. Before a woman named Marie Templeman stood up to speak, President Monson leaned over and solemnly cautioned: “Be careful what you say. That moose is going to be looking at you every moment.”
Maureen Walker currently supervises other volunteers in the Church’s Toronto Ontario Temple. When the Monsons lived in Canada, she traveled with them to various Church meetings. On these occasions, she was always impressed by President Monson’s concern that each person felt personally welcomed and included in his interest and enthusiasm.
She also noted that he had the ability to unite entire congregations in common cause. “We all felt as if we were one,” she said.
Everett Pallin served as President Monson’s first counselor in the mission presidency. He said, “President Monson’s great contribution was creating an excitement and momentum that encouraged Latter-day Saints to stay in Ontario and build up the Church there.” Before that, many members moved to Utah or Alberta, where many other Church members lived.
In 1960 President Monson was instrumental in organizing the 300th stake of the worldwide Church, in Toronto (a stake is a group of congregations, similar to a diocese).
Pat Davies, a longtime member of the Church in Canada, recalled: “President Monson was determined to fill every seat for the inaugural meeting of the stake. He counted the number of seats in the venue. The meeting was attended by nearly 2,250 Latter-day Saints — 92 percent of the new stake’s membership.”
“President Monson had the kind of personality that drew people together. If he asked them to be there, they came,” Davies said.
Helen Warner’s husband, Malcolm, said that a Monson legacy was the building of chapels, giving permanence and respect to the Church in the area and letting neighbors know the Church was “there to stay.”
When President Monson began his service as mission president, there was only one meetinghouse in Ontario and Quebec, located on Ossington Avenue in Toronto. Under his leadership, a building program was begun and by 1961, meetinghouses had been constructed in Timmins and Oshawa.
After the Toronto Ontario Stake was organized, President Monson began working with local leaders and architects to build the Toronto stake center (or meetinghouse) in Etobicoke. “As a result of President Monson’s efforts, there were twelve meetinghouses in the mission by 1964,” said Warner.
President Monson also had a keen sense of the Church’s history in eastern Canada. He often shared with Canadian members the Church’s early Ontario history, reminding them that they walked along the same streets traveled by early giants in the Church such as Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. The third president of the Church, though English-born, was Canadian immigrant John Taylor.
Helen Warner remembers how close the Monsons were as a young family. “We often heard President Monson refer to his wife, Frances, as the warm, gracious and stalwart love of his life,” she said. “We learned how they first met, about their courtship and how strong marriages are created.”
When President and Sister Monson completed their assignment in Canada in 1962, their family had grown to five with the birth of their Canadian son, Clark.
Mrs. Warner believes that Latter-day Saints in Canada know President Monson has not forgotten them. “Over the years they have heard him recount experiences with them during the Church’s worldwide general conferences,” she said.