Michael’s major project for the Church History Department—the main reason Elder and Sister G were so eager for him to come to Hamilton—is to bring order to the Matthew Cowley Pacific Church History Centre’s large digital collection. To even begin to understand the scope of this project, you have to understand a bit about the history of the MCPCHC itself.

Rangi, on the day in January when we first met her

Forty years ago, Rangi Parker, a Kiwi of Maori descent, was inspired to begin collecting and preserving memories from former Latter-day Saint missionaries who had served in New Zealand. She began by asking people if she could record their stories, first on cassette tapes, then on video. Usually, the subjects of these oral histories would offer to provide photos, journals, and scrapbooks to go along with their stories, which Rangi gladly accepted. Word began to spread that Sister Parker was collecting New Zealand missionary memorabilia, and soon anyone with anything remotely related to the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in New Zealand was giving stuff to Rangi—some original, some photocopied; some valuable, some not. Eventually there was so much historical material stacked up in the Parkers’ spare bedroom and garage that Rangi and Vic, her totally supportive husband, could hardly move through either. By that time, the Parkers were living here in Temple View, so they sought and were granted storage space at the Church College of New Zealand. In time, they decided to create a trust that included all the recordings they had made and items they had collected, and then donated the trust to the Church History Department. Normally, anything donated to the CHD is taken to Salt Lake City for preservation and permanent storage, but the CHD agreed to accept Rangi’s stipulation that while the CHD could do whatever it wanted with digital copies of her assets, the original artifacts would stay in New Zealand.

When the Church College of New Zealand was decommissioned in 2009 and Church administrators were still deliberating over what to do with the physical plant, Rangi’s collection was allowed to expand into a few more classrooms. In 2014, the Church decided to raze all of the college buildings except the Wendell B. Mendenhall Library, which subsequently was gutted, expanded, modernized, and transformed into a multipurpose facility whose centerpiece is the Matthew Cowley Pacific Church History Centre. The MCPCHC became the Church’s first overseas records preservation center and—largely thanks to the Parkers—it contains the only CHD museum outside Salt Lake City. With a beautiful new space for Rangi’s collection and a dedicated staff of New Zealand-based Church history specialists to curate it, Rangi was close to realizing her dream of sharing everything she had gathered with anyone who was interested.

Collecting and sharing the story of the Latter-day Saints in her native land is only part of the mission Rangi has felt called to. The other part involves helping others understand how they fit into the story. She does this by creating personalized photo albums, videos, PowerPoint presentations, or ebooks for anyone who can be connected to the material in her collection—and by now she seems to have collected enough material to connect nearly every Latter-day Saint who has ever lived or worked in New Zealand.

But, as Rangi learned when she was about to donate the items in her trust to the Church History Department, once the CHD takes ownership of a set of records and artifacts, it has no obligation to put them on display or make them available to the public. Rangi did not want her collection to end up filling the shelves in a warehouse in Salt Lake City where those to whom the records would mean the most would not be able to access them. So before donating her trust, Rangi negotiated a unique arrangement with the CHD: the CHD would take ownership, but Rangi would retain the right to access every asset that either was already digitized or was digitizable. The contract thus allows Rangi to copy any digital asset from her collection and combine it with other assets to assemble the personalized histories she creates.

Sounds like a great service, doesn’t it? Well, it is, because Rangi loves people and they love what she has been able to share with them. But it is sharing her historical records, not organizing them, that is Rangi’s forte. So whenever she wants to put together a new presentation for someone, she goes through her files, copying a photo here and a photo there to plug into a PowerPoint—and then she saves those copied files under new names. When Rangi decides to add footage from a 1996 interview stored in a huge AVI file to a video she’s creating in a more compact format, she might make a copy of the original clip, reformat it, and then file it in yet another folder with yet another new name. As a result, the 70,000 distinct items that Rangi gathered have ballooned into a collection of 15,000 digital folders that contain more than 600,000 individual files, consuming six terabytes of data.

Uncontrolled duplication is not the only problem. Sometimes, a file gets moved from its original location, thus removing it from the folder that identifies where and when the photo was taken, or who is pictured in it. Many of Rangi’s file names include the names of people, places, and events, but many others are identified only as “Scan 068” or something like that. Rangi has a prodigious memory for names and faces, so she always seems to be able to find what she’s looking for, but it is not so easy for the rest of us. Another problem is that the trust Rangi donated to the CHD was supposed to remain static, but she continues to accept historical material from anyone who offers it to her, and the additional digitized assets often get mixed in with the assets of the original trust. This creates thorny legal issues for the CHD over ownership and access.

Michael’s job, then, is to categorize all of Rangi’s files and impose some order on them. He needs to eliminate duplicates and declare a Master Data Record (MDR) for each digital asset. He also needs to capture metadata (e.g. the who, when, and where) for each digital asset from the information embedded in the folder structure Rangi created. He needs to figure out which of the MDRs were part of the original trust donation, and which have been added in the years since the trust was turned over to the CHD. Finally, he needs to figure out how to store all the assets on a network drive so that Rangi and others can have access to them until they are accessible from the global CHD catalog.

Michael has had to dust off programming skills that have lain dormant for many years. He has taught himself PowerShell, which has allowed him to crawl through the server and identify all Rangi’s files and capture basic characteristics about each one, such as name, file type, size, and content hash, which uniquely identifies a file by its contents so that files with different names can be recognized as containing the same material. The job of gathering this information from the file server holding Rangi’s stuff took two weeks to run to completion because the entire contents of every file had to be read in order to calculate the hash. (As an aside, Michael tried running this job at home during the lockdown over a VPN, but it was so slow and moved so many megabytes of data across the network that even after he upgraded the broadband service into our flat, he decided that it wasn’t worth continuing.)

In addition to resurrecting old programming skills, Michael had to polish his influencing skills and prove to the young bucks in the CHD’s central IT department that this old man knows what he is talking about. After about three months of presenting cogently worded suggestions and requests, they finally gave him access to about everything he needs. The latest request awaiting approval is for a relational database of his own so he can capture all the metadata for the files.

Needless to say, this is a painstaking, time-consuming project. Michael reports his progress during a bi-weekly virtual meeting with the specialists in Salt Lake. His ambitious goal is to have the reorganization project completed by the time our mission ends in November 2021.

Meanwhile, Nancy has been occupied with some major projects of her own, all of which she intends to finish well before the end of our mission. The one that is consuming most of her time right now is helping to develop a new museum exhibit, which is scheduled to open in April 2021 at about the same time the Hamilton New Zealand Temple will reopen. The temple, which is located just up the road on the same campus as the MCPCHC, has been closed since 2018 for extensive renovation. The building was gutted and placed on a new, seismically-resilient foundation, so by July 2021, it should be ready to rock ’n’ roll, so to speak. But the new museum show will focus on the temple’s original construction, which was accomplished in just three years (1955-58) entirely by “labour missionaries”—unpaid workers who either volunteered or were called to serve on the project—and on the sacrifices made by Saints all over the South Pacific to come to the Hamilton Temple when it opened so that they could at last participate in the sacred ordinances that are available only in temples. These were people of incredible faith and commitment, as we hope to make clear to everyone who views the exhibit.

Elder and Sister G conceived the theme and basic outline for the new show, and both Michael and Nancy have contributed ideas to help them refine it, but Eva and Nancy are the ones who are really making it happen. Working along with Tiffany B, the Church History Museum’s education curator, they developed a formal proposal to present to CHD executives and ecclesiasitcal leaders for approval. Once they got the go-ahead, they began selecting photos, artifacts, and stories from CHD collections to include in the display; Eva also arranged to borrow more artifacts from former labour missionaries and their families. During the lockdown, Nancy read scores of memoirs and transcripts of oral histories from former labour missionaries to glean the best stories, while Eva spent countless hours reviewing recorded interviews to identify the most valuable footage to include in associated video presentations. Nancy is about finished writing the copy that will appear on wall panels and display-case labels, while Eva is selecting still images to enhance video clips from the recorded interviews. (It should be noted that the work these women are doing has been complicated by the fact that Michael’s reorganization project has only just begun.)

During the lockdown, Nancy, Eva, and Tiffany also worked on a couple of projects to help engage the MCPCHC’s younger visitors. Kids always enjoy using the museum’s interactive displays, but there aren’t as many of those as we would like, and our budget is such that we aren’t likely to get any more in the foreseeable future. So the three women began devising some new, low-cost children’s activities. One of these is a word puzzle that encourages children to learn more about Matthew Cowley. Another is a “passport” that challenges kids to answer questions about stories from different countries and then complete a set of activities as they “travel” through the museum. When they are finished, they can receive an embossed stamp in their passport. While working on this activity, Nancy learned first-hand how the Church’s multilevel bureaucracy can turn a simple project into a complex endeavor requiring input and approvals by four other departments and at least a dozen people beyond the three who originally conceived and executed it.

In addition to their work for the museum, Nancy and Eva were asked to produce a collection of at least thirty inspirational, true stories about people from the Pacific, indexed by topic. This collection is to be used by the Pacific Area presidency as they prepare conference talks and articles for Church publications, so the stories need to be verified before they are shared publicly. (Unfortunately, a few prominent Church leaders have been accused of promulgating “faith-promoting rumors” in the past, and no one wants to be the next culprit.) The folks in the Pacific Area office thought this would be a simple task, assuming that Nancy and Eva could simply copy and paste stories already collected for the museum into a new digital file. “Just pick the low-hanging fruit,” they said. What they didn’t realize is that the stories on display in the museum exist only on storyboards attached to the walls; any digital files containing the original material are no longer accessible—and neither are their source citations. Moreover, most of the stories from the museum needed to be revised to include explanatory context before they were ready to be shared in a conference talk. So it wasn’t simply a matter of picking the low-hanging fruit; that fruit needed to be peeled, cut up, bottled, and processed before the Area presidency could safely serve it to their listeners.

Knowing how much work this project would actually entail, Nancy and Eva put it on their “low-priority” list—until their adviser in the Area office indicated that the story index was supposed to be done in ten days. So during the next week, they spent many intense overtime hours gathering material from PDFs of the museum storyboards (because none of us were allowed to enter the MCPCHC during the lockdown), locating their original sources, and then rewriting the anecdotes for a broader audience. In addition, they wrote several completely new stories based on material they found while researching primary sources in the CHD digital archives. When they finally submitted the Pacific Story Index to the Area office—a day before the deadline—the collection included 43 documented accounts of people who trusted that the Lord would bless them as they exercised faith and kept his commandments. The next time you hear a Church leader share a story about someone from Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tahiti, Tonga, or anywhere else in the South Pacific, it’s likely that they got it from the Pacific Story Index that Nancy and Eva put together.

Nancy’s ability as a competent writer and hawkeyed copy editor quickly became apparent to everyone in the Church History Department with whom we work. Elder G, the director of the MCPCHC, assigned her to prepare the reports he sends up his management chain each month. Both he and Elder T have asked her to edit some of their personal writing projects. Impressed with the text she prepared for the initial proposal for the new exhibit, the museum team in Salt Lake City turned her loose on the text for the exhibit itself. The articles she wrote for the Pacific Story Index were well received. So when the member of the planning committee for the Auckland Temple groundbreaking who is tasked with recording the history of the event learned that Nancy was available, he didn’t hesitate to assign the writing to her.

According to the official guidelines, a temple history is supposed to include a ten-page chapter about the history and growth of the Church in the temple district; another ten-page chapter about how the property was acquired and plans were made to proceed—and about how local Church members responded to the announcement that a temple would be built in their area; and another chapter of similar length about the groundbreaking event itself. (Others will have to carry on with further chapters about the new temple’s construction and dedication because we will have left New Zealand before the building is completed.) Nancy received this assignment just before the lockdown began, so before we closed the office, she brought home a pile of not-yet-digitized books on the history of the Church in New Zealand so she could comb through them for details about the history of the Church in the Auckland area (and in New Caledonia and the Cook Islands, which will be included in the new temple district). She also assembled a contact list of former stake presidents and others who were likely to be good sources of information about the site acquisition and building approvals so that someone could interview them—and then she had to transcribe the recorded interviews to get the quotes she needed. Nancy has now become much more familiar with the history of the Church in Auckland, so she has been able to help the Pacific Area Communications Department prepare news articles and social media posts about that history and preparations for the new temple. And thanks to this assignment, both she and Michael were invited to attend the groundbreaking ceremony on 13 June—a real privilege because, due to COVID-19 restrictions, the invitation list was limited to less than a hundred.

As Nancy learned after she was invited to participate in one of the groundbreaking committee’s virtual planning meetings, trying to prepare for the event during the lockdown became a nightmare because government guidelines for public gatherings kept changing. When planning began months before COVID-19 took control of our lives, the committee intended to fill the stake center adjacent to the temple site to capacity—several hundred people. A large choir with participants from the thirteen Auckland stakes was to perform. A contingent of general Church authorities from Salt Lake City was scheduled to come and officiate. Church and community dignitaries from all over Auckland were to be invited, not only for the ceremony but also for the  VIP luncheon, which would be prepared and served by local Church members. Crews of security and traffic control personnel, parking lot attendants, and ushers were to be on hand to deal with the crowds who were likely to show up at the temple site.

Then, on 13 March, Russell M. Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, announced that all Church meetings and activities worldwide would be suspended until further notice. Ten days later, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that even more drastic measures were to be implemented throughout New Zealand. For several weeks, no one was sure whether the groundbreaking would be postponed, and then even when the committee received word that the event would proceed as scheduled so that temple construction would not be delayed, no one was sure what a safe, “compliant” groundbreaking ceremony might look like. Would it have to be accomplished by only three physically distanced people: the one giving the dedicatory prayer and then manning the shovel, plus two witnesses? Could a videographer be considered an “essential worker”? The luncheon was the first item scratched from the agenda. The choir director, still committed to providing appropriate music for the event but unable to hold any rehearsals, began instructing singers on how to participate in a virtual choir. But every time the government announced potential changes to its pandemic-response restrictions, the groundbreaking committee had to come up with new contingency plans: one if up to ten people were allowed to attend; another if up to twenty; another if up to fifty, and so forth. As it turned out, all government restrictions for public gatherings were rescinded a few days before the event took place. By then, however, the organizers had decided to stick with Plan F, so a hundred people received invitations, and a video recording of proceedings was made available online the next day.

General uncertainty similarly complicated plans to reopen the Matthew Cowley Pacific Church History Centre. Even as New Zealand’s government began lifting some restrictions at the end of May, the general leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continued to advise extreme caution. Our advisers in the general Church History Department recommended that Elder and Sister G follow the lead of our counterparts in Salt Lake City and keep the MCPCHC closed indefinitely, yet the Church’s Pacific Area ecclesiastical presidency was expecting us to reopen the MCPCHC along with its own administrative offices in Auckland on 2 June (the day after a national holiday celebrating the Queen’s birthday). The Church History adviser for the Pacific Area called several virtual meetings where we discussed how we might navigate between the conflicting recommendations. Thus we devised plans for reopening the Centre during limited hours, requiring both staff and visitors to sanitize their hands before entering, maintain 2-metres distance, and provide phone numbers or email addresses for contact-tracing purposes should anyone test positive for the virus. Nancy committed to cleaning the museum’s touchable surfaces several times each day. Because nearly all of our volunteers are in the high health-risk category due to age or underlying medical conditions, we made arrangements for younger, healthier volunteers—mostly repatriated young missionaries awaiting reassignment— to temporarily staff the museum’s reception desk. We did reopen on 2 June, after having posted signs throughout the building to remind everyone to sanitize, maintain physical distance, and stay home if they displayed any telltale disease symptoms. However, we had so few visitors during the month of June that our precautions hardly mattered. Traffic through the museum has picked up this month, especially during the countrywide two-week end-of term school break, but without any overseas visitors it’s still not where we would like it to be.

We are trying to encourage local church units to encourage their members to visit the museum and take advantage of the MCPCHC’s other resources. Since reopening, we’ve presented several special programs for ward youth groups. After local stake presidents unexpectedly announced that church meetings and activities could resume immediately, a few bishops, caught with nothing planned, realized that the museum could provide a handy “ready-made” youth activity and called to tell us they were coming. Thus, with only two days’ notice, Eva and Barry hurriedly designed a program for such groups that makes use of the museum, but provides more structure for teens who might otherwise spend the evening electronically coloring temples (one of our popular kids’ activities) or exchanging text messages. After a short introductory presentation in the theatre about how we hear Jesus Christ, Elder and Sister G invited pairs of young participants to go into the museum and find one particular story to study together, looking for ways the people in the story heard and responded to the word of the Lord. Then they gave each pair a chance to share their story with the rest of the group, also asking them to tell how the story could help them learn to hear the Savior and respond with faith when they face similar challenges. Eva has mastered the art of creating effective PowerPoint presentations, but what impresses us most is her and Barry’s shared ability to capture the attention of their listeners and engage them in thoughtful discussion. We are really grateful to have them as our missionary mentors—especially since they now have given us the opportunity to be the primary presenters for a few more of these youth programs.

Needless to say, both of us have learned more about the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the South Pacific from these special projects than we have from our day-to-day responsibilities. The stories of the people who lived and are living that history have made indelible impressions on us. We expected that serving a mission would change our lives, and since we’ve been here—because we’ve been here—we have been changed for good.