LDS Church in Poland has had long, hard journey

Published: Monday, Sept. 13 2010 1:30 p.m. MDT

Besides being the year the LDS Church dedicated its first temple inside the former Soviet Union, 2010 marks several key LDS anniversaries in countries once behind the Iron Curtain — the 25th anniversary of the Freiberg Germany Temple, and the 20th anniversaries of missions in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary and the first branch in Russia. Deseret News reporter Scott Taylor is taking a look at the LDS Church’s past, present and future in these countries in a series of stories.

WARSAW, Poland — The status of the LDS Church in Poland can best be described as ironic — a start dating back to the late 19th century, but a current membership totaling fewer than 2,000; and the predominance of the Roman Catholic Church allowing a Mormon presence in the then-ommunist country in the 1970s but serving as an obstacle to conversion today.

With the region's ties to Catholicism dating back more than a millennium, it's no wonder a popular refrain is often recited: "To be a Pole is to be a Catholic; and to be a Catholic is to be a Pole."

That national pride and heritage was solidified even more by one Karol Jozef Wojtyla — the native of Wadowice, Poland, is better known as the venerable Pope John Paul II, serving from Oct. 16, 1978, until his death on April 2, 2005.

Deemed one of the most influential leaders of his time, he is seen as instrumental in ending communism not only in his native Poland but throughout Europe.

With an estimated 90 percent of Poles considering themselves Catholic, Poland is the most devout country in ever-more-secularist Europe. It is a God-fearing, family-oriented, Sabbath-observing nation — but a tough Catholic shell to crack for other religions, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The area was more religiously diverse prior to World War II, including the 1890s, when missionaries first preached in the region's Polish and Prussian areas. The several congregations at the turn of the century multiplied over the next several decades, particularly in the Wroclaw area.

One of the most heralded branches was in Selbongen, when a young German convert returned to his home village in 1922 and helped establish a branch, with the members building their own meetinghouse, which was dedicated in 1929 by Elder John A. Widtsoe.

"The church was so strong back in the '20s and '30s," said Stanford W. Nielson, president of the Poland Warsaw Mission. "They had branches in cities we don't even have branches in now."

And these were branches with a full complement of activities, such as the Mutual Improvement Association, branch choirs and Scouting, he added.

Then came World War II, the latest in centuries of regional battles that have affected — and afflicted — Poland.

"The Poles have been battered around over history," said Douglas Tobler, a BYU emeritus professor of history and himself a mission president in Warsaw from 1998 to 2001. "If you've got Russians and Germans as neighbors, you don't need any more enemies.

World War II proved costly to Poland — besides the physical devastation and the death of more than 6 million Poles (half of them Polish Jews), realigned boundaries resulted in a smaller Poland and first the flight and later the expulsion of ethnic Germans and Ukrainians.

The Holocaust and the ethnic departures left the Catholic Church all the stronger, and it became a thorn in the side of the communist government during the Cold War.

After the war, many of the previous LDS branches in eastern Germany now resided in the realigned Poland, meaning many members soon left or were forced out. The branch in Selbongen – renamed Zelwagi by the government — earned a post-war visit by Elder Ezra Taft Benson in his nearly yearlong European welfare mission in 1946. More than 100 members and friends gathered for a quickly convened meeting.

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