John Edward Rocha was born in Portugal (probably in the Azores) in 1876 and emigrated to Hawaii in 1880 with his parents Manuel and Elzida Rocha. He married Mary Carvalho, Hawaiian-born daughter of Portuguese immigrants, in about 1905, and in rapid succession four children (sons Marseillaise/Marcy and Harold, and daughters Cecilia and Olga) were born.
Rocha was a tailor, and operated his own designing and tailoring business in Honolulu, where he employed several other tailors. On returning to his business one day in 1913, he found one of his employees mending an old coat. Rocha was angered by the sight – his business served some of the finest families in Honolulu, and he ordered the employee to drop what he was doing. They were not in the business of patching and mending old clothes, he said.
He repeated that angry remark when a young man came in later in the day to pick up the coat “for Mr. Woolley” (probably Samuel Edwin Woolley, then president of the Hawaiian Mission; the young elder’s name is not recorded). The young man apologized for the misunderstanding, identified himself as a Mormon missionary, and asked Rocha if he could explain a few of his religious beliefs. For some reason, Rocha agreed.
As he later put it, Rocha was “much impressed by the sincerity and sweet, humble spirit of the young elder” … and somehow his upper-class ladies’ and gents’ tailoring business developed an unexpected sideline: Rocha, a Catholic, began willingly patching and mending the worn clothing of the Mormon elders who called on him from time to time.
In the summer of 1916, Rocha’s business took him to New York City, via San Francisco and Salt Lake City. He called on some of his young friends in Salt Lake City, and was introduced to President Joseph F. Smith and other Church leaders. On Sunday he was even invited to speak from the pulpit of the Tabernacle, where he told his audience of the respect and friendship he had for their sons and daughters in Hawaii.
Rocha traveled on to New York City. There he chanced to pick up a copy of the September 2 issue of a Brooklyn newspaper, The Chat, and read a harsh article denouncing the planned construction of the first Mormon chapel in New York, to be located in Brooklyn at the corner of Gates and Franklin. The newspaper called the Mormon project a menace, bringing polygamists into the neighborhood who would corrupt, perhaps even abduct, their children. Rocha immediately drafted a letter in response:
Brooklyn, N.Y., Sept. 6, 1916.
Editor Brooklyn Chat:
Reading your issue of September 2nd, I came across an item of news regarding the erection of a Mormon Tabernacle on the corner of Gates and Franklin avenues. After reading the article I came to the conclusion that I could not let such statements pass by without making some friendly criticism toward the people living in that neighborhood. Therefore will you permit me a little space for the publication of the following:
I am not a Mormon church member but I am a Christian in spirit. I am visiting the city of New York for the first time in thirty-five years. These years I have been a resident of the Hawaiian Islands, located in the center of the Pacific Ocean. I am glad to state that we have had the Mormon church established in Hawaii since the year 1850, and from observances that I have made in all these years I find that I have nothing but the very best to say of the Mormon elders and the adherents to the Mormon principles of religion. I am positive that from all the different religious denominations that are working in Hawaii for the good and edification of the people, you can pick out the Mormon church as doing the most work with the best results. Now, for me to come to Brooklyn, N.Y., and read such an article as that published in your paper, I can but say that I am amazed at the Christian indifference manifested by the community surrounding the plot that the Mormon Tabernacle is going to be erected on.
I do not wish to create arguments or to censure the people, but I want to emphatically state that the people there should be very happy of the fact that they are going to have such an institution in their midst. If they have daughters or sons that they love, I am positive that these are perfectly safe among the Mormon elders, or anyone who will frequent that meeting place. I am thoroughly acquainted with the virtues of those elders; have had many dealings with them in social and in business life. I do not wish to meet anyone better. As a father of two boys and two girls, I want to state that when these children of mine have grown up to their own sense of reason, my heart will be grateful if I can look up to them and compare their lives with the lives of those young Mormon elders and those young girls, daughters of the Mormon people, who go out to the different parts of the world, sacrificing perhaps the best part of their life for the good that they can do to humanity. This absolutely without pay and entirely at their own expense, depending only upon the gratefulness of their followers.
How much better is a Mormon tabernacle erected on that conspicuous corner than is a “booze mill” with its hellish back door family entrance. I allow you to form your own conclusion, but I hope that you will agree with me, that in place of these “booze mills” that are so conspicuous on the various corners of the streets of Brooklyn, a Mormon tabernacle would be much better. If this were possible, what a difference there would be in the morality of the sons and daughters of Brooklyn parents.
As to the statement made of polygamy and plural marriages, if those dear people would only take a little time to investigate, they would find that there is the sum of $1,000 ready at any moment in Salt Lake City to be paid over to the one that can prove that there has been plural marriages performed or sanctioned by the Church since the enactment of the law against polygamy some twenty-five years ago. Furthermore, if instead of knocking, they would try to get acquainted with these Mormon elders, they would find them so congenial, their personality so strong, that they couldn’t help but make them their best friends. Their character and standing in life demands it. If they don’t believe this, let them be charitable of heart and try them.
The State of Utah at the present time is one of the most progressive States of the Union and in time to come will be the brightest shining star on the blue field of the Stars and Stripes. …
The Mormon elder, wherever he goes, the first incentive of his heart is to bring peace and consolation to those that will accept of his kindness. At all times, the Mormon elder will be the Good Samaritan; still his kind words are often cast aside, and the seed thrown on barren soil. However, no one can deny that he is giving the best that is in him. …
I could go on indefinitely and make positive statements about the good that the Mormon Church has done in the Hawaiian islands, but suffice it to say that I have given you enough information about these people that will satisfy you of the fact that no harm will come from the erection of a Mormon Tabernacle on the corner of Franklin and Gates avenues, or any other corner in the State of New York. The Mormon is no different to any other Christian, except that he is a little better; therefore, no fear should be had of having them in the midst of any civilized community. I only ask that the good people will have charity in their hearts and think of the words of Christ: “Live and let live, and love ye one another as I have loved you, and as my Father loves me.”
Rocha called at the mission home in Brooklyn before he returned home. He expressed his friendship for the Mormons, especially the missionaries, and accepted an invitation to speak to the Brooklyn branch the next Sunday.
On 16 February 1919, Apostle Reed Smoot dedicated the Brooklyn chapel at 272 Gates Avenue, and the mission home next door to it; the Church would meet in those buildings until they were sold in 1962. John Rocha went back to Hawaii; neither he nor any member of his immediate family ever joined the Church.