Benemérito de las Américas The Beginning of a Unique Church School in Mexico
Barbara E. Morgan
In a bittersweet ceremony on January 29, 2013, Elder Daniel L. Johnson, a member of the Seventy and President of the Mexico Area, announced the transformation of Benemérito de las Américas, a Church-owned high school in Mexico City, into a missionary training center at the end of the school year.1 To the emotional students and faculty at the meet- ing, Elders Russell M. Nelson and Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve explained the urgent need to provide additional facilities
for missionary training in the wake of President Thomas S. Monson’s announcement that minimum ages for missionary service were being lowered and the consequent upsurge in numbers.2 While The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has owned and operated other schools, this school was unique in the expansive role it played in Mexi- can Church history. This “dramatic moment in Church history,” as Elder Holland described it, was preceded by half a century of work by faithful, obedient, hardworking, sacrificing, and inspired people who made this day possible. This article highlights the significant policies, events, and people associated with the opening of the Church school Benemérito de las Américas, which became the “educational and cultural center for the Saints in Mexico.”3
- Paul Johnson, interview by author, March 6, 2013, Salt Lake
- Russell Nelson and Jeffrey R. Holland, Remarks at Benemérito, January 29, 2013, transcript and video in author’s possession.
- Harvey Taylor, “The Story of LDS Church Schools,” 1971, 2 vols., 2:14a,
- Tom Perry Special Collections, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.
BYU Studies Quarterly 52, no. 4 (213)
Banner at the last graduation ceremony at Benemérito school. The text reads, “Behold, I will hasten my work in its time. D&C 88:73. Missionary Training Center. Help us preserve the spirit and enjoy the graduation of Benemérito.” Courtesy Benemérito administration.
Background of Religious Education in Mexico
The Church has put high priority on educating its members since its organi- zation in 1830.4 Everywhere that Latter-day Saints established new commu- nities on the American frontier, they established schools.5 When the Saints established new settlements, they immediately organized a school—held in the open air, in adobes, in homes, or wherever else important lessons could be taught.6 During the late nineteenth century, stakes throughout the Church established thirty-six “academies,” or high schools.7
The story of Latter-day Saint education in Mexico started with the early settlements that are now known as the Mormon colonies.8 A history reports that as the Mormon colonists were “ambitious to have the best for their children, schools became their first concern.”9 For example, shortly after arriving in Mexico in 1885, Annie Maria Woodbury Romney started a school in her home.10 Then, a new community building was built with the dual purpose of serving as a school and a church. In 1897, Juárez Stake Academy, a Church high school, officially commenced operation.11 It and associated elementary schools provided badly needed education.
- This summary borrows heavily from Clark Johnson’s “Mormon Education in Mexico: The Rise of the Sociedad Educativa y Cultural” (PhD diss., Brigham Young University, 1976).
- Milton L. Bennion, Mormonism and Education (Salt Lake City: The Department of Education of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1939), 40–49. In his book, Bennion provides a list of the early settlements and the schools they
- Herbert Bolton, “The Mormons in the Opening of the Great West,” Deseret News, October 24, 1925, as quoted in Johnson, “Mormon Education in Mexico,” 6.
- Scott Esplin and Arnold K. Garr, “Church Academies,” in Mapping Mormonism (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press), 126.
- For more information on the Mormon colonies, see Nelle Spilsbury Hatch, Colonia Juarez: An Intimate Account of a Mormon Village (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1954); Thomas Cottam Romney, Life Story of Miles P. Rom- ney (Independence, : Zion’s Printing and Publishing, 1948).
- Albert Kenyon Wagner and Leona Farnsworth Wagner, The Juarez Stake Academy, 1897–1997: The First One Hundred Years (n.p., d.), 3.
- See forthcoming chapter on Annie Maria Woodbury Romney by Barbara Morgan in Women of Faith, 3, ed. Richard E. Turley Jr. and Brittany A. Chapman (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book).
- Wagner and Wagner, Juarez Stake Academy, 1897–1997, See also Ella Farnsworth Bentley, “Remembrances of Annie Maria Woodbury Romney,” unpublished manuscript, copy in author’s possession.
Barbara E. Morgan
A few years ago, I was surprised to find, in the middle of Mexico City, per- haps one of the best-kept secrets of the Church, Benemérito de las Américas. I was stunned not only by the faith- ful disciple scholars there, but also by how strongly I felt that this campus was a crucial part of the Latter-day Saint legacy of sacrifice, faith, obedience, and emphasis on education. During this and subsequent visits, I felt a responsibility
to help gather and preserve the history of that sacred place and its people. The recent conversion of the school into an MTC has “has- tened my work” and validated the school’s critical place in Church history. This article is foundational to a book I am currently writ- ing on the history of Benémerito de las Américas.
I was pleased to be able to assist in an exhibition about Ben- emérito at the Education in Zion Gallery at BYU. The bilingual exhibition, Hastening the Work: The Story of Benemerito, show- cases the school’s forty-nine-year history while illustrating the impact of education and the blessings that come from hard work and sacrifice. The exhibition will be open until October 4, 2014. Visit educationinzion.byu.edu and click on current exhibitions and Hastening the Work for more information.