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John Edward Rocha: Non-Mormon Champion of the Saints

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 12, 2008

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.



8 Comments »

  1. For the sake of future Googling genealogists:

    John Edward Rocha, born 26 December 1876 in Portugal (probably the Azores), son of Manuel and Elzida Rocha. Married, about 1905, Hawaii:

    Mary Carvalho, born 23 November 1887, Hawaii.

    Children:

    Marcy/Marcia/Marseillaise, born 16 January 1906, Hawaii.

    Cecilia, born 22 November 1909 (although her gravestone reads 22 November 1915, the 1910 and 1920 censuses confirm 1909 as the correct year), Hawaii; married — Clark; died 4 May 1990; buried National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.

    Olga, born 29 August 1911, Hawaii; married — Crow.

    Harold, born 2 November 1913, Hawaii.

    The family may have moved to California in 1921.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 12, 2008 @ 7:26 am

  2. Wow, Ardis, that is quite a letter – and a testament that the Lord works in mysterious ways.

    Comment by Ray — September 12, 2008 @ 7:39 am

  3. This story is reminiscent of another friend of the Saints, Teddy Kollek, former mayor of Jerusalem, who helped BYU build the Jerusalem Center.

    Comment by Researcher — September 12, 2008 @ 7:48 am

  4. Did you do that just for me, Ardis. Thank you!!!

    Now, all I want is copies of the Brooklyn Chat. Both the original one that sparked Mr. Rocha’s letter, and the one in which the letter was published. Plus anything else you’ve found. By the way, where did you get the 1962 sale date?

    On a related subject, an old mission friend called today, and said he would be in New York next week. One thing he wanted to do was to go over to Nostrand Avenue, to take a photograph of the house where his father, a young German immigrant, lived after arriving in the U.S. in 1929, until about seven years later when he and his family moved west to Utah. A quick trip to google maps showed the address to be just a block off Gates Avenue, and Franklin, where the church was, is just two blocks down from Nostrand. I could almost imagine this German family walking the block down to Gates, and then the two blocks west to Franklin to join with their fellow saints for worship. They would have felt right at home–the Brooklyn Branch in those days was full of German immigrants, and a few stray Norwegians, including some guy named Haakon–did I spell that right, Kristine?–(maybe he was living elsewhere by then, but in the district/stake leadership so he still made it down to Brooklyn regularly).

    A quick look through my Brooklyn Ward Chapel 21st anniversary book showed a boy of the same surname being sustained as the teacher’s quorum secretary in 1935 or 35–I’ll have to wait until next week to find if that’s the father of my friend.

    I”m planning to have a 100th year anniversary celebration at the building in just 10 years and a few months. Maybe you should plan to come, Ardis. With this story as a starting point, you could tell us all the history of the building. We just need to get the stake presidency on board–not a problem, I expect–and hope that our stake patriarch, who may be the last person in Brooklyn who actually went to church in that building, will still be with us then. Oh, and we need to get the current owner of the building to agree to let us use the building for at least part of the celebration. If we can’t get a member of the twelve to come, maybe we could get a Republican senator from Utah to make the trip up from Washington.

    By the way, Google Maps street view pulls up a fine picture of the building. Google locates no. 272 Gates Avenue across Franklin Avenue from the church–click just to the west of Franklin, on Gates, and go to street view. The church is the white building on the corner–just to its west is the red brick home that was the Eastern States Mission Home.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 12, 2008 @ 10:38 pm

  5. It’s about time you read and commented, Mark! {g} While I didn’t write this just for you, I certainly imagined what your reaction might be, not just because of the Brooklyn connection but because you have indicated your appreciation for the Gates and Franklin chapel in other comments.

    I do have one wonderful correction to make to the original post, though: This morning I received an answer to a comment I left on one of the genealogical bulletin boards, from a granddaughter of Marcy (who used Marshall in adulthood). Olga (the younger Rocha daughter), and my correspondent’s mother (a daughter of Rocha’s older son Marcy) did join the Church in later life! The family, according to my correspondent, has heard nothing about John Rocha’s connection to the missionaries in Hawaii, or his speaking up for the Church in Brooklyn, and she tells me that this story will be of great interest to her mother and to more distant Mormon family members. (I can imagine how unexpected and how pleased I would be to learn of this unexpected connection in the life of one of my non-Mormon family branches.)

    I got the 1962 sale date from a timeline in Scott Tiffany, ed., City Saints: Mormons in the New York Metropolis (New York: New York New York Stake LDS History Committee, 2004). Does that date agree with your understanding, or do we need something else to confirm it?

    There will be another post — probably more — about this building in the weeks to come, including an account of its dedication, and some of the activities held there. And I’d *LOVE* to come for your anniversary celebration there, Mark!

    (If anyone else has an attachment to a particular building that is old enough that I might run across it in the kinds of records I read, please say so. I can’t guarantee to find stories set there, of course, but if I do see a story that has a personal connection to any Keepa readers, I certainly want to grab it.)

    Let us know how it goes with your friend’s pilgrimate to his father’s old home, and whether the younger teacher is your friend’s father.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 13, 2008 @ 8:19 am

  6. I glanced at your post early yesterday, saw how long it was, and decided I’d have to leave it until later. But what a wonderful surprise it was when I did get to it!

    I suppose Scott got the date right–”sometime in the early 1960s” is as close as I am to a date, and I’ll take a look at my City Saints book to check it. I may also give the stake patriarch a call and get his confirmation.

    And that’s great news about the Rocha family. How pleased they must be to learn of their father’s/grandfather’s early connection to the church.

    And, I’ll let you know what my friend discovers on his trip here next week.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 13, 2008 @ 9:38 am

  7. What a cool story!

    Comment by Tatiana — September 16, 2008 @ 4:03 am

  8. I just read a paragraph in the 24 October 1916 Liahona that I wanted to record here:

    [from Brooklyn district:] “Another interesting street meeting was held Sept. 19th, when Mr. Rocha from the Hawaiian Islands was one of the speakers. He told of the wonderful work that is being done by the missionaries in Hawaii and asked the people to open their doors to the elders, for their great desire is to bring the glad message of peace and goodwill to all mankind. He desired the people to learn to appreciate the sacrifice the ‘Mormon’ missionary makes for his religion.”

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — March 3, 2009 @ 9:05 am

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