Pacific Pioneer: Aivao Leota

[Originally published in KALEO on April 3, 1997]

Connections to Samoa, Tonga and Hawaii


By Ipolani Thompson

As a little child, even before starting school, I’ve always loved and appreciated journals and genealogy. Always!  My mother, Vaiolini Leota Niko, was an excellent example of this for she was truly a record keeper. Her journals are filled with so much love, humility and gratitude to be able to pass on these treasures to her posterity. She always writes in her journals, “I pray that the Spirit of the Lord will guide me in my recordings in my journals, that whatever I record will benefit and inspire my children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, in our wonderful Gospel.” Well, Mom, we are so blessed and inspired by your works that I want to share it with others.

My grandfather, Aivao Leota, traveled on many missions as a boy, helping the missionaries across vast rivers and carrying their suitcases to different villages. In his youth, he used to watch the Mormon Elders, who came to preach the gospel, being chased by wild dogs and people stoning them. He knew nothing of the white missionaries, other than Mamona matitiva, meaning poor Mormons. And, he suddenly became very interested in them, partly out of curiosity, but mainly from a strange feeling of pity of the way they were being treated.

It was from one of these ordeals that my grandfather left his friends and ran to pick up one of the suitcases of the Elders, who were thrown out from that Samoan village, as they made an attempt to preach the gospel. Aivao Leota was from a strong family of Methodists, but from that day on, age 15, he went with the Elders. They took him to their headquarters in Upolu, and there he was baptized. He bore witness of a wonderful testimony of which he spent his youth serving the Lord and preaching the gospel throughout remote parts of Western Samoa. In those years, 1882-83, there were no horses or mules to help them clear the land to build churches, but because of their faith, they were given strength and power to clear the lands and build churches. Many who watched their efforts were converted.

Coconuts are plentiful in Samoa. They served a purpose in making copra to sell and help out financially. It was climbing the coconut trees that Aivao did also very well, but one day he fell. He relates this story: “I fell from a coconut tree about 37 feet or more, and died, only to come back to life because of the prayers of the Elders, who encircled me. In the short period that I died, I witnessed myself in a beautiful, vast, green land and walked along to search further but then opened my eyes. I was told then that each of the Elders had asked the Lord to spare my life for I had been instrumental in their hands in the work being done and much depended on me to carry out the gospel in Samoa.”

When the last prayer was offered, Aivao stood up and walked but fell to the ground for he had a broken spine and his legs from the knees down were both broken. In spite of his injuries, he knew that his purpose in life was to be a missionary. The Elders nursed him the best they could, for there were no doctors, and slowly he was able to walk with make-shift crutches. Nothing made him waiver in his belief in God.

He stayed on with some Elders, whom he dearly loved, but his condition from the fall, took a while to heal, so he finally went home where he could recuperate. His family was happy to have him back. His mother was very loving and understanding and was later baptized. Even after Aivao returned to the mission field, his mother was always eager to look after the needs of the missionaries who came later. Aivao Leota continued to serve the Lord through missionary work throughout his lifetime and eventually met his sweetheart, Matala Penita Fuataga, who also left her family and home to become a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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NOTE: Ipolani’s sister, Moana Hiram Hannemann, also contributed the following memories of her grandfather, Aivao Leota:

Moana Hannemann

As a young LDS Elder, Aivao was called to serve a mission to Tonga. He loved Tonga and the people, and he mastered the language. Later, when he married my lovely grandmother, Matala, they were called to serve a second mission to Tonga. They befriended Queen Salote, then age 15, and remained dear friends until their passing. While my grandparents served in Tonga, Queen Salote’s father was then King.

My grandmother’s first calling in Tonga was to teach the children as a regular school teacher. One of my aunts was born in the mission field and was carried in a basket as grandpa and grandma walked from village to village sharing the gospel.

One of grandfather’s desires was to serve in the Hawaiian islands and have his family sealed in the temple. The Lord granted their wish when a letter arrived in July 1922: “Dear Brother and sister Leota, You are both hereby called to serve in the Hawaiian islands to be interpreters and ordinance workers in the Hawaiian Temple.”  The letter was signed by the Prophet of the LDS?Church.

My grandparents made arrangements and necessary preparations to leave their beautiful Sämoa. This was the biggest transition in their lives. They bid farewell to loved ones and friends and sailed from Western Sämoa on a steamer called “Ventura.” After two weeks on the ocean, they pulled into a dock in  Honolulu. My mother, Vaiolini, was 8 years old when they arrived, and her sister Anna, 10 and Lorraine, 12.

My grandparents served diligently in the Hawaiian Temple for nearly 50 more years. They are both buried near the temple they loved so much, in the beautiful town called Lä‘ie.

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