Claire Teihotaata: A Story of Faith and Courage

"The gospel was her sole source of peace"

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The story of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in French Polynesia is not only a story of great faith and devotion but also one of hardship and personal suffering. Perhaps one of its most difficult and challenging moments came on May 23, 1963 on the remote South Pacific island of Maupiti.

On that fateful day, a group of Latter-day Saints had traveled from their island homes on Maupiti to the nearby island of Huahine to witness the dedication of the new Haapu Chapel by Gordon B. Hinckley, a senior leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The boat that would take them was the Manuia, which ironically means “happy” in Tahitian. It had been chartered by a young American Latter-day Saint missionary serving in the Tahiti Papeete Mission. Unfortunately, the group’s tragic return trip was hampered by rough seas and a captain who took needless risks.

According to the accounts of survivors reported in the Journal of Tahiti (May 27, 1963), the Manuia was tossed about by large ocean swells, rolling and then capsizing before reaching the reef that surrounds Maupiti. The survivors reported that the accident happened so quickly that they were thrown into the waves breaking near the reef’s passage before they even realized what had happened. Several passengers were pulled under the surf and drowned immediately while others attempted cling to the reef only to be pulled away by the force of the waves.

The survivors reported witnessing heart-wrenching attempts to save those struggling in the turbulence. One survivor’s account described a small boy slipping from the arms of his mother and quickly disappearing into the sea. In the violence of the crashing waves, the roof of the boat had been torn from its hull, providing a makeshift raft, and a chance at survival, for those who could reach it.

                                                          

Among the passengers on the boat was a nurse named Claire Teihotaata, who also was returning to Maupiti from Huahine. In the confusion and chaos, she was unaware of her own serious injuries and was quickly losing consciousness when someone tossed her a life jacket. Eventually she would be pulled more than two miles out to sea before being rescued, nearly nine hours later, according to the newspaper report.

The newspaper described the sad scene as families gathered on the beach to anxiously await news of any survivors and to mourn their dead. Eventually nine adult bodies would be recovered by search crews. According to authorities, those individuals most likely lost consciousness and died because of the injuries sustained as the boat capsized.

In all, the Maupiti Latter-day Saint congregation lost 15 members that day, mostly women and children.

By the time news of the accident reached Hinckley, he had already left Huahine. He immediately arranged for the use of an old PT boat and quickly raced to Maupiti to comfort the survivors. Accompanying him, was Elder Kent Hughes, the missionary who had chartered the Manuia for the members.

Despite her own injuries, Claire, who was not a member of the Church at the time, helped care for the wounded. Because nurses were the only means of medical care in the more remote parts of French Polynesia, they knew all the inhabitants of the islands. Claire recognized that a large number of the passengers on the Manuia that day were Latter-day Saints. In fact, it was Claire who had sent the first telegram to local Church leaders informing them that their members had been involved in the tragedy.

A day later, Gordon B. Hinckley and Elder Hughes would return by boat to Bora Bora and then back to Papeete. As fate would have it, Claire was aboard that boat as well. When word reached Hinckley that the nurse who had sent the telegram was on that same boat, he sought her out.

“He wanted to thank her for what she had done and asked if he could give her a blessing,” her grand-daughter explained during a recent interview. “Even though she didn’t really understand what a ‘blessing’ was, my grandmother accepted his offer.”

During this return trip, the Gordon B. Hinckley and the nurse formed a friendship that would overcome language barriers and last a lifetime.

Upon her return to Maupiti, Claire took lessons from the Latter-day Saint missionaries. “My grand-mother was really touched by the love the missionaries had for the people of the island and their willingness to serve and to help the people,” Hina Loane said. “That was an important factor in her conversion.”

On July 1, 1963, Claire was baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“My grandfather was furious with the missionaries,” Hina said. “But when he saw her come up out of the water and saw her face, he was touched by a powerful force. He immediately went to the missionaries and said, ‘baptize me right now.’”

Claire and her husband were unable to have children of their own. They would eventually adopt Hina, the child of Claire’s daughter from a previous relationship.

In a life already tested by one tragedy, Claire would face another.

On April 14, 1985, Claire would lose her only daughter (and son-in-law) when their plane crashed on the island of Hao, also killing three others. Hina was only 12 at the time and living with her grandmother, whose home was now in Papeete.

In 1997, Gordon B. Hinckley returned to Tahiti and personally requested that Claire participate in a conference that was attended by more than 7,000 members of the Church. During that meeting, Hinckley retold the story of the tragedy of 1963.

                 
                

    

At a 2005 meeting with local senior leaders, Gordon B. Hinckley, now president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, asked Elder Jean Tefan, serving in French Polynesia, about Claire.

He reported, “…Claire is still alive. She is a rather elderly woman, but still faithful in the Church.” A letter containing the good news was sent to Kent Hughes who lived and had raised his family in Orem, Utah.

“My grandmother had a strong personality, but a really big heart,” Hina said. “She was very generous.”

Throughout her life, Claire served in a variety of Church callings, and was one of the very first seminary teachers when that program was initiated in French Polynesia. She would eventually help pay for the missions of many of her former students.

              

At the age of 70, Claire suffered a stroke which left her paralyzed on her left side. Still determined to provide meaningful service, she poured her efforts into family history work and temple service.

“My grandmother told me that ‘Lord has given me this challenge, but thanks to this challenge I can save many people,’” Hina explained. “Every time my grandmother faced a hardship or challenge, she would find refuge in an activity of the Church.”

“She told me that the Gospel was her sole source of peace.”

Claire passed away in November 2016, at the age of 92, leaving behind a legacy of faith, devotion, and courage, which she shared with her grand-daughter, who still lives today in the house built by her grandfather in Papeete, Tahiti.

Article by Steve Thomsen, Newsroom Contributor

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