Saturday, May 3, 2008

Irving Wilson and the Canada Toronto Mission: A Personal Reminiscence

When I was a young missionary in the Toronto Canada Mission back in 1976 I ran into a very unusual man, Irving Wilson in one of my first areas. I think he might even have been a counselor to M. Russell Ballard in the mission presidency. My companion Elder Harry Lodholm kept talking about Irving Wilson and what an exceptional man he was and how he was an awesome member missionary. Lodholm was very impressed by him and said Brother Wilson had a lot of Church experience. He talked about him quite a bit. Lodholm told me Wilson's wife had died and he had married a woman about twenty or thirty years younger not much older than Lodholm who was about twenty-five. I wondered why a woman not much older than us would marry a guy in his 50s. I figured he would be pushing daisies in ten or twenty years. I also heard Brother Wilson had a lot of Mormon books and an extensive library of cassette tapes of LDS General Authorities. I was curious to find out about him and buy a few books. Back then I thought anyone over fifty must use Geritol and was ancient. Now that I am that age I find this humorous.

I was able to get a member to take me and Elder Lodholm over to Brother Wilson's house. It was a combination home with an office. Brother Wilson was sitting at his desk taking a call from one of his clients. Apparently Brother Wilson was a very wealthy and successful insurance agent. He as a service to members in area also had a Seventy's bookstore. Seventy's bookstores sold books to members from such publishers as Deseret Book, Bookcraft, and Horizon Publishers to raise money for missionary projects like buying Book of Mormons. I remember later after meeting Brother Wilson he and his wife bought thirty cases of gold-colored Book of Mormons and hired a photographer. Every person including us missionaries put our pictures in five or ten copies with a hand-written testimony. It was impressive to see someone put their money where their mouth was.

I was surprised when I met Brother Wilson because he was very active and charismatic for an old dude. I figured he must be quite a talker to convince a woman half his age to marry him. Being the brash young missionary I was I told him I heard he had married a beautiful young wife and what was that like. He told me how much he loved his first wife and a little bit about his church service and how special his wife had been.

I was very touched as he described the trials he faced as his first wife was dying and the difficulty on him and his family. He then told me of the spiritual experience he had in meeting his second wife. I guess she worked for him in his office. He said at first he never considered her because of the age difference but she convinced him to marry him. I asked him if the difference in age was a problem but he told me that he was vigorous and that he knew the spirit had directed him to his young bride. He told how he loved her a great deal. Looking at the light in his eye and the warmth in his voice I knew he was a lucky man. The guy was really in love. A few minutes later his wife came by and I was able to see how attractive she was and just why he loved her. She was gorgeous woman who was very down to earth and a straight shooter. I always liked go-getters and she was definitely a go-getter just like her husband.

Talking with Brother Wilson was a real adventure. He told me stories about when he was a branch president in St. Thomas and the key to being a successful missionary was to pray to the Lord to be directed to new members and then follow the Spirit.

Brother Wilson told me about his years of church service and the difficulties of building up the church in the 1950s and 1960s. He told me about how he built up the St. Thomas Branch years before. Apparently he had been a branch president back when Thomas S. Monson was mission president in Canada. He talked about how he had to clean out the beer bottles before services as a branch president in a lodge-hall. Apparently they had Saturday night dances and parties every week and they members had to clean out the place that stank of beer and cigarettes.

Thomas S. Monson has used the example of Irving Wilson in a few of his conference addresses and in other church settings. I think he does a better job of relating them since he is a master storyteller.

In a Greater Canada (CTM) missionary reunion in October 2007 Thomas S. Monson told a Deseret News reporter about Brother Irving Wilson's influence in Ontario: "As a measure of success, President Monson reported that in 1959, 57 percent of the branches and districts had missionaries presiding over them. At the end of 1961, all the member units had local leaders.

He spoke of some of those leaders, such as Irving Wilson, president of the St. Thomas Branch, who decided that if the branch were to move from its rented hall to a new chapel, they would need people to help build the meetinghouse. President Monson quoted President Wilson, who said, "We ought to have a building designed by a Mormon architect; and since we don't have an architect who is a member of the branch we need to convert one." President Wilson looked in the Yellow Pages under "Architects," and invited one to learn about the Church. He did the same so that the branch would one day have a Mormon builder, a Mormon mechanic, a Mormon brick mason, "a Mormon this and a Mormon that," President Monson said.

Five or six organists played at the first meeting held in the new chapel, President Monson said. When he asked President Wilson where the organists came from, the branch president replied, "We baptized them." He had done the same thing with musicians as he had with people in the building trade; he found people with musical talent or interest and invited them to Church where they learned of the gospel." (Gerry Avant,
Time vanishes: Pres. and Sister Monson reminisce with former Canadian missionaries, Church News [Saturday, October 20, 2007]: 4).

In his address while dedicating the Toronto Canada President Monson related this story about Irving Wilson:

One story of faith occurred when President Monson visited the St. Thomas Branch of the mission, situated about 120 miles from Toronto. The branch met in the basement of a decrepit lodge hall, and only 12 of about 25 members were in attendance.

The branch president, Irving Wilson, told President Monson the St. Thomas Branch needed a meetinghouse like one built in Australia, pictured in The Improvement Era.

President Monson told him they would have to grow in numbers first.

The branch president responded by requesting six additional missionaries and set out to begin further missionary work.

"President Wilson took the (Yellow Page telephone directory) in hand and observed, 'If we are ever to have our dream building in St. Thomas, we will need a Latter-day Saint to design it. And since we do not have a member who is an architect, we will simply have to convert one.' "

The branch president continued down the list until he stopped at one name. "This is the one we will invite to my home to hear the message of the Restoration," he said. The branch president followed the same procedure for other craftsmen needed to build a meetinghouse.

"The individuals were invited to his home to meet the missionaries, the truth was taught, testimonies were born, conversion resulted,'' President Monson said. "Those newly baptized then repeated the procedure themselves, inviting others to listen. Week after week and month after month the procedure continued.

"The St. Thomas Branch experienced marvelous growth. Within 2 1/2 years, a site was obtained, a beautiful building was constructed and an inspired dream became a reality. That branch is now a thriving ward in a stake of Zion." ('Days Never to Be Forgotten' Recounted Faith, Confidence in the Lord Reflected at Dedication of the Toronto Temple,"
Church News [ Saturday, October 13, 1990]: 18).

In his 1990 Conference address Thomas S. Monson said about the growth in the St. Thomas Branch:

"Another evidence of faith took place when I first visited the St. Thomas Branch of the mission, situated about 120 miles from Toronto. My wife and I had been invited to attend the branch sacrament meeting and to speak to the members there. As we drove along a fashionable street, we saw many church buildings and wondered which one was ours. None was. We located the address which had been provided and discovered it to be a decrepit lodge hall. Our branch met in the basement of the lodge hall and was comprised of perhaps twenty-five members, twelve of whom were in attendance. The same individuals conducted the meeting, blessed and passed the sacrament, offered the prayers, and sang the songs.

At the conclusion of the services, the branch president, Irving Wilson, asked if he could meet with me. At this meeting, he handed to me a copy of the Improvement Era, forerunner of today’s Ensign. Pointing to a picture of one of our new chapels in Australia, President Wilson declared, “This is the building we need here in St. Thomas.”

I smiled and responded, “When we have enough members here to justify and to pay for such a building, I am sure we will have one.” At that time, the local members were required to raise 30 percent of the cost of the site and the building, in addition to the payment of tithing and other offerings.

He countered, “Our children are growing to maturity. We need that building, and we need it now!”

I provided encouragement for them to grow in numbers by their personal efforts to fellowship and teach. The outcome is a classic example of faith, coupled with effort and crowned with testimony.

President Wilson requested six additional missionaries to be assigned to St. Thomas. When this was accomplished, he called the missionaries to a meeting in the back room of his small jewelry store, where they knelt in prayer. He then asked one elder to hand to him the yellow-page telephone directory, which was on a nearby table. President Wilson took the book in hand and observed, “If we are ever to have our dream building in St. Thomas, we will need a Latter-day Saint to design it. Since we do not have a member who is an architect, we will simply have to convert one.” With his finger moving down the column of listed architects, he paused at one name and said, “This is the one we will invite to my home to hear the message of the Restoration.”

President Wilson followed the same procedure with regard to plumbers, electricians, and craftsmen of every description. Nor did he neglect other professions, feeling a desire for a well-balanced branch. The individuals were invited to his home to meet the missionaries, the truth was taught, testimonies were borne and conversion resulted. Those newly baptized then repeated the procedure themselves, inviting others to listen, week after week and month after month.

The St. Thomas Branch experienced marvelous growth. Within two and one-half years, a site was obtained, a beautiful building was constructed, and an inspired dream became a living reality. That branch is now a thriving ward in a stake of Zion.

When I reflect on the town of St. Thomas, I dwell not on the ward’s hundreds of members and many dozens of families; rather, in memory I return to that sparse sacrament meeting in the lodge-hall basement and the Lord’s promise, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matt. 18:20.)" (Thomas S. Monson, “Days Never to Be Forgotten,” Ensign, Nov 1990, 67).

Irving Wilson knew I had a great interest in LDS Church history so he selected a few books from the bookstore and sold them to me at a reduced price. It is interesting that reading those books helped me develop my interest in the Church History as one of them was the Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Probably the most important thing that he shared with me was a tape by Spencer W. Kimball talking to the Finnish missionaries that was one of the things I listened to Sunday after Sunday on my mission. It was before President Kimball fell among cut-throats. when he had his voice-box removed and he a melodious voice instead of the harsh rasping one. Irving Wilson provided me with such tapes as Hugh B. Brown's God is a Gardener, Paul Royale, and Matthew Cowley. I really owe Irving Wilson a lot he even taught me about the Mormon underground where you could get such gems as the Kimball tape. The Paul Royale one talked about husbands calling their wives and children out of the grave which is hard to find since so little is found on priesthood holders role in the resurrection.

I tried to keep track of Irving Wilson over the years. His nephew was a Vice President for Dynix Library Automation Systems. When he came to Missouri to help me install the line for my new system when I was working at Central Methodist College I asked him since his last name was Wilson if he ever heard of guy named Irving Wilson. I figured his being a Mormon there was a remote chance. Lo and behold not only did he know Irving Wilson but he was his uncle. He told me a few stories of Irving Wilson and I told him a few of my missionary memories. The nephew was an owner of the company had come out and was wearing a three-piece suit as we worked. The guy later made several million bucks when Dynix was sold. I think Irving was still alive in 1992.

I heard about his demise in the late 1990s. I was sad to hear it because Irving Wilson was an extraordinary man and one of the greatest member missionaries I ever met.


Neil Bardsley said...

I was interested to read your blog entry on Brother Wilson. I served in the Toronto Mission from 1988 to 1990. I came into contact with Brother Wilson while serving in the Oakville Ward. The missionaries washed their clothes, every p day, at the Wilson’s home. I think his business had changed from insurance to diamonds. The stories involving Pres Monson seemed like a long time ago but I can remember Bro Wilson as a generous and kind man as I’m sure many missionaries will.

David Wilson - said...

Hi - Thanks for the kind words and recollections. Irving Wilson was/is my father...most of what you have related is quite true ..although he passed away 1990. Yes he was a councillor to Elder Ballard when he was a mission president in Toronto, My father was a consumate Member Missionary who help introduce the gospel to hundreds of people who joined the church. I run into many people all over who were introduced to the church through his efforts. He would pick up hitch-hikers and tell them about the church. I am proud to say that he is my father...although I fall far short of his missionary dedication.

His first wife (my mother) actually died when my younger sister was only a few days old (in 1954) which time my father was the Branch President of the St.Thomas, Ontario branch....he was left with 5 kids aged from @ 11 years to @ 11 days old... That didn't deter him from spreading the gospel and growing his branch and building the chapel.

He was a jeweller at that time and owned his own store ...and later went into insurance and then back into jewellery.. By the time you met him, was fairly well off but never extremely wealthy...but he did use what he had to further the gospel ... I in fact have most of the collection of taped talks that you refer to and still listen to them as I drive to work and back.

The 'first wife' that you speak of was actually his second wife and the younger woman was his third...

Thankyou again for your kind reminiscences and keeping his memory alive. Dave Wilson

Anonymous said...

I am Donna Marie, Irving's daughter and Dave's older sister.
I have so many missionary stories about how the St. Thomas Branch of the Canadian Mission, was built in the 50's!
President Melvin Toone, set my dad apart as a "full time missionary" shortly after his baptism in 1952.The missionaries we taken out of the area, due to a serious shortage of elders because of the draft in the USA for the Korean War. My father always joked, saying that since he had never been released, he still considered himself to be a full time missionary. And he was! I never knew a time when he wasn't enthusiastically teaching someone....right to the end of his life. From the Books of Mormon he carried in the trunk of his car to the business cards her handed out to folks he helped as he drove the highways, for work, he never missed an opportunity to spread the gospel. In lieu of monetary reward, those business cards read..." This service has been rendered by a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. If you would like to know more..." And of course there was the phone number of the Mission Home in Toronto to contact. I just thought you might like to hear how he spent all his days in crying repentance unto this people...