If you asked any of several Latter-day Saint Americans who lived in Jamaica during the early 1970s what their larger purpose was in being there, you’d likely get one answer more often than any other: Victor Nugent.
A native Jamaican, Victor Nugent’s path to those associations began when, at the age of 31—already a husband and the father of two children—he became fed up with the late-night, hard-drinking lifestyle he had adopted. Disgusted with himself, he turned his eyes to the heavens.
“Oh God, if there is a God," he remembers praying, “please have mercy on me. Please help me!”
Immediately encouraged, Nugent turned that moment of self-awareness into the beginning of a new life for his family. Over the next few years, he gave up his vices and began an intense search for truth that led to a renewed, serious study of the Bible. He read it enthusiastically and often, even devoting his work-time lunch hour to his studies.
Paul Schmeil, an American co-worker, soon noticed Nugent's devotion. Asking Nugent about his religion and learning he had none, Schmeil quickly invited Nugent to learn about his.
Just a few years earlier, Schmeil had been baptized into the LDS Church in Jamaica, himself a product of a zealous and loving group of expatriate American members of the Church on the island. Though Nugent had often refused similar invitations, this time he accepted, later attributing his change of heart to Schmeil himself, whom he described as the “most Christlike person I had met up to, at that point in my life.”
Schmeil soon visited the Nugents' home and taught them the gospel, including a principle that was a major “fly in the ointment” for Nugent:
“That first night,” he later wrote, “Paul told me about the position of the Negro in the Mormon Church,” referring to a restriction on priesthood authority for those of African descent.
“My ego was hurt, but I had a strong feeling that the message was the truth, and more was involved than pride and vanity. I sought the Lord in prayer and the answer came back loud and clear. It was the truth!”
It was the only drawback Nugent, who is black, could see. Everything else, he remembers, “fit perfectly.”
“I shall never forget that evening,” he wrote. “It was as if a messenger from God had come to visit. The message he brought was exactly what I had been looking for. I eagerly read the pamphlets and went out in my backyard to meditate and reflect on what had been said.”
Yet the priesthood restriction was troubling.
“My ego was hurt," he wrote, "but I had a strong feeling that the message was the truth, and more was involved than pride and vanity. I sought the Lord in prayer and the answer came back loud and clear. It was the truth! I had received a testimony of the truth through the Spirit.”
The Nugents continued to learn the gospel from Schmeil and other members of the Mandeville, Jamaica, branch of the Church. They went to family home evening gatherings, read the Book of Mormon, prayed, attended Church, and were quickly absorbed into the group of Saints in Jamaica.
“The more I heard, the more my joy increased that I had at last found what I was seeking,” Nugent remembered. “We were convinced of its truthfulness, and our convictions grew stronger.”
Victor Nugent, his wife, Verna, and their oldest child, Peter, were baptized into the LDS Church on January 20, 1974.
“Rarely have I met a person who has such a resolute faith in the Lord and his servants,” wrote Richard Millett, who knew Nugent a few years later when Millett served as president of the Florida Fort Lauderdale Mission. “Victor Nugent is one of those rare individuals who not only understands the Gospel, but tries with all his heart to live its precepts. There is no question in my mind that he and Sister Nugent and their family are some of the Lord’s elect.”
For nearly three years, the small branch in Jamaica thrived as American families moved in and out of the area. But in time, circumstances took those families away without any coming to replace them. With Nugent restricted from holding the priesthood, no LDS Church authority was left on the island.
When the time came for their children to receive ordinances like baptism and baby blessings, the Nugents took their children to the mission home in Florida. Otherwise, they were on their own.
Yet somehow they stayed faithful. Along with another Jamaican, Amos Chin, who had joined the Church in Montreal, the Nugents gathered weekly to read their scriptures and worship as best they could without the priesthood. Through Victor Nugent's example and efforts, another family even joined them in February 1978: Errol and Josephine Tucker and their children.
One of the Americans who had helped bring the Nugents into the Church, Blaine Nichols, said the LDS families who had bonded in their Jamaican branch wondered at times what would become of the Church in that country.
“We wondered,” he later wrote, “with the great challenges they faced: What could ever result from the seeds we were allowed to sow in that Jamaican soil?”
But the questions wouldn't remain long. As Nichols wrote, “With the proper seed now sown, the nourishing rains just had to come.”
Those rains began to fall in June 1978 when the priesthood ban was lifted, opening the door to a whole new world for the Jamaican pioneers.
“I was at my office at Alpart,” Nugent said of that day. “It was two o’clock in the afternoon, six minutes past two in my records that I got [a message from Richard Millett] on the phone and I called back. He said, ‘Brother Nugent, are you sitting?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He told me, and I just couldn’t believe. If it wasn’t coming directly from the mission president, I probably would not have believed. I was just in shock, because it was the last thing I expected to hear. … I mean for quite awhile I couldn’t say anything. I was just stunned. It was the last thing I ever expected. I just said, ‘What is this?’ Of course, I knew exactly what it meant, and I just started to tremble. The tears came to my eyes.”
Before long, Nugent had received the priesthood and the Nugent family had recommends to go to the temple. They were sealed in the Salt Lake Temple in September 1978.
“It was just a feeling that it was out of this world!” Nugent said. “When I went through those temple doors I still wasn’t believing I was there. I felt I had gone to heaven and there were these angels walking around.”
Nugent took easily to his new priesthood responsibilities. Just a few months after his own ordination, he ordained Errol Tucker to the Melchizedek priesthood in a manner that Millett said bore the dignity of one who “had done it for many years.” Elder M. Russell Ballard, who had just dedicated Jamaica for the preaching of the gospel and was present for the ordination, later “commented several times ... of the manner in which Brother Nugent had performed the ordination of Brother Tucker. He said, 'You would have thought Brother Nugent had been a member of the Church for fifty years by the way he ordained Brother Tucker and pronounced a blessing upon his head.'”
Millett later credited the stalwart Nugents with being “singularly responsible for the progress of the Church throughout Jamaica.”
“Wherever the Nugent family has lived, the Gospel has flourished and the membership of the unit of the Church has grown. Their example and commitment to the Lord are rarely found anywhere.”
“I can sit here for days and tell you about these kinds of things that happened to firmly establish the Church in Jamaica and to get Victor Nugent into the Church. And then once that happened, everybody left.”
Indeed, the early strength of the Church in Jamaica rested in large part upon the Nugents. Victor often spent the hour before church meetings each Sunday driving his fifteen-passenger van around the area, picking people up for church. Afterward, he drove them all home.Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin recalled visiting Jamaica and Nugent in 1980, two years after the Church's mission was formally opened there, and receiving reports of 100 percent home teaching and visiting teaching in the branch. Sacrament meeting attendance was likewise perfect, and every member was a full tithe payer.
The Nugent family continued to be a foundation of the Church in Jamaica for more than two decades before immigrating in 2000 to the United States, where all five of Victor and Verna's children graduated from BYU.
Looking back on their time in Jamaica, Jay and Shirley Bills—two of the expatriate members of the Church who helped lay that gospel foundation for the Nugents—see one thing very clearly:
“I can sit here for days and tell you about these kinds of things that happened to firmly establish the Church in Jamaica and to get Victor Nugent into the Church,” Jay Bills said. “And then once that happened, everybody left.”