Claire Teihotaata wasn’t a member of the Church when she boarded Manuia, the name of a boat that was traveling to Maupiti, a remote island in Tahiti.
That all changed when tragedy struck, and the boat capsized, killing many of the passengers including 15 members from the Maupiti Latter-day Saint ward who were mostly women and children.
On that day in May 23, 1963, the group of members were travelling to witness the dedication of the new Haapu Chapel by Gordon B. Hinckley, an Apostle at the time.
Claire was pulled more than two miles out to sea before being rescued, nearly nine hours later.
Claire, who worked as a nurse, recognized that a large number of the passengers on the Manuia that day were Latter-day Saints. In fact, it was Claire who had sent the first telegram to local Church leaders informing them that their members had been involved in the tragedy.
President Hinckley immediately arranged for the use of an old PT boat and quickly raced to Maupiti to comfort the survivors. He also made an effort to find Claire.
“He wanted to thank her for what she had done and asked if he could give her a blessing,” her grand-daughter Hina Loane explained during a recent interview. “Even though she didn’t really understand what a ‘blessing’ was, my grandmother accepted his offer.”
A friendship between President Hinckley and Claire soon blossomed, that would last a lifetime.
Upon her return to Maupiti, Claire decided to take lessons from the missionaries.
“My grand-mother was really touched by the love the missionaries had for the people of the island and their willingness to serve and to help the people,” Hina Loane said. “That was an important factor in her conversion.”
Almost two months after the disaster, Claire was baptized a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on July 1, 1963.
“My grandfather was furious with the missionaries,” Hina said. “But when he saw her come up out of the water and saw her face, he was touched by a powerful force. He immediately went to the missionaries and said, ‘baptize me right now.’”
Throughout her life, Claire served in a variety of Church callings, and was one of the very first seminary teachers when that program was initiated in French Polynesia. She would eventually help pay for the missions of many of her former students.
On April 14, 1985, Claire would lose her only daughter (and son-in-law) when their plane crashed on the island of Hao, also killing three others. Despite this, Claire remained strong and faithful in the Church.
In 1997, President Hinckley returned to Tahiti and personally requested that Claire participate in a conference that was attended by more than 7,000 members of the Church. During that meeting, Hinckley retold the story of the tragedy of 1963.
At a 2005 meeting with local senior leaders, President Hinckley, who became president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, asked Elder Jean Tefan, serving in French Polynesia, about Claire.
He reported, “…Claire is still alive. She is a rather elderly woman, but still faithful in the Church.” A letter containing the good news was sent to Kent Hughes, the missionary who had chartered the Manuia boat.
“My grandmother had a strong personality, but a really big heart,” Hina said. “She was very generous.”
At the age of 70, Claire suffered a stroke which left her paralyzed on her left side. Still determined to provide meaningful service, she poured her efforts into family history work and temple service.
“My grandmother told me that ‘the Lord has given me this challenge, but thanks to this challenge I can save many people,’” Hina explained. “Every time my grandmother faced a hardship or challenge, she would find refuge in an activity of the Church.”
“She told me that the Gospel was her sole source of peace.”
Claire passed away in November 2016, at the age of 92, leaving behind a legacy of faith, devotion, and courage, which she shared with her grand-daughter, who still lives today in the house built by her grandfather in Papeete, Tahiti.