The image of the Boston church, both among members and among the wider public, mattered to Romney.
In 1988, the local Boston talk show “People Are Talking” featured the authors of a book that recounted the church’s purchase of forged letters that purported to show that a magical salamander, and not the angel Moroni, revealed the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith. The forger’s cover-up led to murder and prompted a controversy that shook the church.
Romney called on Dennis Lythgoe, a historian he served with a decade earlier, to go on television to defend the church.
He then appointed Ron Scott, a former Time magazine reporter who worshiped in the Weston ward, as the church’s director of public affairs.
At Romney’s direction, Scott used the Mormon athletes playing for Boston teams at the time — Celtics star Danny Ainge often watched full-court pickup games at the Weston Stake Center — as a media draw.
“That was very successful at making the church seem more normal than it had before,” said Scott, who noted that Romney would play a central part in the events.
But Romney’s main focus was the church’s growth. At the time, the Boston mission president, Kem Gardner, who was later credited with persuading Romney to lead the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, proposed programs to make the church’s proselytizing efforts more effective. He suggested that Mormon missionaries engage in “street contacting” rather than just knocking on doors. Some more prominent members in wealthier neighborhoods expressed unease about the proposal, but according to Lambert, Romney said, “Look, this is why we are here!”
Hughes and Rosette Armand came to the United States from Haiti in the early 1980s and established themselves as one of the anchor families of a new Mormon community that met in a rented outpatient medical center on American Legion Highway. During his trips to the church’s Boston branch, Romney would greet Rosette in his rusty French, saying, “Sister Armand, bonjour. Comment ca va?” When he interviewed her to gauge her spiritual preparation for trips to the Washington Temple, he asked about her family life and if she believed in the church’s teaching. In one interview, Rosette complained that she often missed church because her employer never gave her Sundays off.
“Well, okay, Sister Armand,” she recalled Romney as saying. “Okay, for now, you don’t have to leave your job. You need your job. Pray about it. The Lord will help you.”
Soon after, Armand said she did get Sundays off, a development she attributed to divine intervention. More difficult to come by were work authorization papers. “I didn’t have it,” said Armand, who has since acquired her green card. She said she had been working “illegally.”
The church had turned a blind eye to the immigration status of its newest members for years, according to officials at the time, and while there was no church policy to assist those who were “illegal in some sense,” according to Williams, “informally” there was an effort to use the network of professionals in the Mormon community to come to their aid. New conservative leadership in Salt Lake City halted that arrangement, and in Boston, rumors ran wild among the immigrant Mormon community that bishops had banned baptisms for anyone without papers.
First as a counselor to Williams and then as a suburban bishop with a keen sense of the church’s void in the inner city, Romney knew of the church’s activities and plans for expansion in the immigrant neighborhoods of Boston. He told Hoffmire, the fellow Mormon at Bain Capital, that a church presence there was “important.”
On one early visit to the Boston branch, a translator whispered in Romney’s ear as the Armands addressed the congregation in French Creole. When it was his turn to speak, Romney encouraged the congregation to increase its attendance to justify a new Boston building to church headquarters. He gave a specific goal of 80 people over the coming months. Barely half that number sat listening to him.
Romney endorsed the branch’s practice of setting up more chairs than there were people to fill them and encouraged the local leaders to make several trips into the city to physically bring congregants to church.
Romney did his part, sometimes showing up on Sunday with as many as 20 of his relatives to help the congregation fill the seats. On occasion, his father, George, joined the ranks and told the diverse congregations that converts were critical to the church.
Two of his own children, including Mitt, he said, had married outside the faith. He talked about how he had personally helped convert Ann as a young girl and that her relationship with Mitt, and the faith, remained strong, according to Hoffmire.
The Boston branch showed the expanding church’s changing complexion. “The unity between the people was nice,” said Astrid Louis , one of the original Haitians in the congregation who decades later rented Romney some white robes to worship in the holy temple, where she worked the cash register. Under Romney, she said, the Haitian population “grew and grew.”
As attendance climbed and Salt Lake City warmed to the notion of a new building, Romney dispatched Hoffmire to a zoning board meeting, telling him, “You are to introduce yourself as the president of the Quorum of the Elders,” Hoffmire recalled. “He was very aware of how the church’s language is just a little bit different.”
On May 22, 1988, Romney, wearing a charcoal suit, addressed a small crowd in an unkempt lot surrounded by a chain-link fence. Amid a stand featuring a “What Do Mormons Believe” poster, Romney dug one of 12 shovels bearing gold bows into the earth for the groundbreaking of the new church. “It was such a joy,” said Celestine Benjamin, a founding member. Her friend Esther Corbin, like Benjamin from Barbados, took her shovel home and kept it for 25 years.
Days after the ceremony, Romney called Keith Knighton, a music teacher, to his house to discuss the Boston branch. “Keith, when I call branch presidents, I usually don’t give them any instructions. But I feel impressed to give you some instructions,” Knighton recalled Romney telling him. “My instruction to you is love them.”
A few days later, with Knighton’s family in attendance at the church headquarters in Weston, Romney laid his hands on Knighton’s head, blessing him with the keys of authority.
Romney then green-lighted and funded Knighton’s programs to increase attendance at the brick building, where Knighton introduced foreign-food Christmas dinners, simultaneously translated sacrament meetings and foreign-language Sunday schools. He also told Knighton to enlist the help of lawyers and social workers in the church’s wealthier congregations.
“Keith, you hire these people and you pay them professional wages,” Knighton recalled Romney telling him. “I don’t want this to be church service. I want this to be professional all the way.”
Knighton said that “everything I did I cleared with Mitt before I did it.” But Knighton insisted immigration advice was not one of the services the church made available. Missionaries in the branch at the time remembered it differently.
“There was a concerted effort to help out Haitians,” said Jim Fish, then a missionary fluent in French Creole, who said that “a very common situation” was one in which a Haitian family would come to the United States on a visa, overstay and have children born in Boston as U.S. citizens. Keeping the families together was paramount for the church, and Fish often urged families who suffered persecution back in Haiti to file for political asylum.
He also recalled that, at Knighton’s direction, he took the subway to seek the professional counsel of Mormon lawyers in tonier Boston suburbs so that they could “help someone with their immigration status.”
The branch’s population boomed, a growth that Knighton, Fish and other missionaries attributed in part to Romney, who then sought to duplicate that success among immigrant communities in other parts of Boston.
Marco Velasquez, an immigrant from Guatemala, said that under Romney the church held workshops to learn English and make gallons of inexpensive liquid soap. He also said that while he had papers, most of the other Latino members did not. Some came on three-month tourist visas and stayed. Many of the Central Americans, he said, simply walked across the border into Texas and made their way up to Boston.
“There is always a way to get papers — you had to pay extra,” said Velasquez, who added that he had a network in East Boston that could get people Social Security cards — “but they were not real.” A counselor in Cambridge before digging his shovel into the ground alongside Romney at the Boston branch’s groundbreaking, he said the church “had to know, but they didn’t say anything.” The same, he said, went for Romney. “He probably suspected that I was doing it.”
On March 20, 1994, Salt Lake City released Romney from his obligation as stake president as he ran for a Senate seat against Edward M. Kennedy.
Even as a candidate, Romney could not keep away from the church service that was so intrinsic to his personal identity and spiritual destiny. After a Sunday sacrament meeting, Romney loitered behind in the Belmont chapel outside his old office, where Grant Bennett, his former counselor and Bain colleague, had become the new bishop.
“Bishop,” Romney said, “I want you to know that I don’t have a calling and am very willing to do whatever you ask me to do.”
Bennett appointed him as a Sunday school teacher. During one of those Sunday lessons, Romney welcomed Leo and Marilyn Lee Brown, congregants of his old Longfellow chapel, who were in town for a visit. Leo Brown said Romney then taught a lesson about the perils of war, pointing the class to the Book of Mormon chapter depicting a battle between the scripture’s great tribes.
“I and my people did cry mightily to the Lord that he would deliver us out of the hands of our enemies,” Romney read from the scripture. “For we were awakened to a remembrance of the deliverance of our fathers.”