When Mercedes Yarn immigrated to Columbia from her native Spain five years ago, she joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Ellicott City. Yarn, who became a Mormon in 1980, was one of about five Spanish-speaking worshippers at the church. Although translations were provided, she struggled to participate.
But beginning Feb. 10, Yarn will be able to worship in her native language when the church adds a Spanish-speaking branch to accommodate the estimated 30 Spanish-speaking congregants who have joined during the past two years.
"It's always good to pray in your own language," said Yarn, a mother of two and a home day care operator. "More people will talk in the meetings. ... And we can help more."
The new branch is a sign of the church's continuing growth. Because of space limitations, the church houses three Mormon congregations, called wards, that meet at different times on Sundays. Each ward has about 200 to 250 congregants.
The Mormon presence in Howard County has grown since the first congregation was established there about 60 years ago. The Catonsville ward grew, split and gradually became the Catonsville, Laurel and Columbia wards.
Each ward is led by a bishop, a lay minister who leads the sacrament meeting or assigns one of his counselors to do so and assigns topics to be addressed. He also is responsible for staffing, record-keeping and overseeing the ministry's welfare needs.
A number of wards are organized into a stake, and each stake has a president responsible for its functioning. Stakes are organized into areas and led by an area president. The church's missionary headquarters is in Ellicott City, and its activities extend into parts of Baltimore and Washington.
"The church is growing at quite a good pace. ... When they hear the teachings of the church, they often embrace them," said stake President Clarence Johnson, who has been a congregant since 1979. "I think there is a resurgence in religion, and it has accelerated since Sept. 11."
Built in 1976, the brick church at St. Johns Lane and U.S. 29 contains a chapel, cultural hall, family history library, classrooms and basketball court. After the 70-minute sacrament meeting on Sundays, congregants divide for the next hour: Adults attend the Sunday School Gospel Doctrine, children attend Sunday school and newcomers participate in the Gospel Essentials class.
During the third hour, men and boys ages 12 and older attend a priesthood meeting, learning about the Gospel and about missionary, community and family service. "They receive instruction in what their responsibilities are and in preparation for life to come," said Lorin Lund, assistant executive secretary to Johnson.
Women ages 18 and older meet in the Relief Society, a worldwide women's organization in which participants also receive instruction in the Gospel and provide humanitarian relief locally and abroad. The group has made newborn kits for families in the Balkans and bandages for lepers, and gathered donated supplies for children of victims of the terrorist attacks Sept. 11. "We're part of a real-life community," Lund said.
Last month, Mormon Apostle Dallin H. Oaks, a former justice of the Utah Supreme Court, spoke to about 1,300 congregants from the Columbia, Catonsville, Laurel, Hampstead and Eldersburg wards at their semiannual stakes conference. Oaks discussed strengthening the family and facing life's challenges, and even urged the youth not to get tattoos. "He was delightful and inspiring," Johnson said.
The decision to add a Spanish branch was made in November. The group will split from the Columbia First Ward and conduct the sacrament meeting, Sunday school for adults and Relief Society in Spanish. "It's a tremendous step forward," said Steven Bailey, a Spanish-speaking congregant who joined in 1975.
Many of the Spanish-speaking congregants emigrated from South and Central America. Some joined the Mormon church in their native countries. Bailey moved to Columbia when he was 7 from Bogota, Colombia, with his father, Pat, who is Irish Catholic, and his mother, Maria, a Mormon from Lima, Peru.
"The Spanish members are so excited about the ability to serve in a much greater capacity. ... Once you're a believer, you want to give," said Bailey, who owns a lawn-care business. "This allows them to give of themselves freely and the branch to grow."
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Leadership: Clarence Johnson, president
Size: 700 congregants
Location: 4100 St. Johns Lane, Ellicott City
Date built: 1976
Worship services: The Columbia First Ward meets at 9 a.m.; the Columbia Second Ward meets at 1 p.m.; and the Catonsville Ward meets at 11 a.m. The Spanish-speaking branch will meet at 9 a.m. in a Relief Society room.
Children's program: Sunday school for ages 12 to 18 and primary instruction for ages 3 to 11 at 10 a.m. Seminary classes for high school students on the Old Testament at 6:15 a.m. weekdays. Youth activities are at 7:30 p.m. weeknights.