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Scott Taylor, Deseret News
The LDS Church's Freiberg Germany Temple, the church's first behind the Iron Curtain, was built and dedicated 25 years ago.

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.

FREIBERG, Germany — For years now, they've been flocking to the Freiberg Germany Temple, the LDS Church milestone that 25 years ago became the first Mormon temple operating inside the Iron Curtain.

They come to stroll the walkways in solitude or sit on the outside benches to ponder and pray.

They gather on the lawns for bridal photos and wedding-party snapshots.

They call it "our temple" — one leader recently boasted that "Freiberg has become world-famous because of the temple."

Oh, and "they" are the non-Mormons living in and around Freiberg.

And the leader? The current mayor of Freiberg, who joined past and present civic dignitaries and local leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a silver-anniversary celebration of not the temple itself but the neighboring LDS meetinghouse on the temple grounds.

The same grounds the locals call "Temple Square." Which besides the historic temple and adjacent meetinghouse also includes a third, longer building providing patron housing for the Latter-day Saints who travel long distances and require days to arrive.

For those living outside of eastern Germany, "going to the temple" means 60 people crowded on double-decker buses, traveling two-plus days, crossing two or three international borders, spending hours at each border while immigration officials scour passports and papers, and coming from as far away as Russia and Ukraine, Czech Republic and Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Moldavia and nations beyond.

Once here, the temple visitors are afforded beds and rooms, as well as a bathrooms, dining areas and a group kitchen with multiple stoves.

"They always come Mondays, even though the temple is closed," said temple president Frank H. Apel, who served for more than 20 years as the Freiberg branch president and was the first LDS stake president ordained in eastern Germany.

"They stay Tuesdays through Fridays, sometimes Saturday until noon. The youth come do baptisms, and the adults take turns caring for the small children (who stay in the housing units) or making evening grocery runs."

And now, with the opening of a new temple in Kiev, Ukraine, the Freiberg temple is facing a challenge that President Apel and the Freiberg temple leaders see instead as an opportunity.

The Freiberg temple — as well as its patron accommodations — is open 48 weeks a year, and Ukraine has traditionally filled about 22 of those 48 weeks annually. Now, with a temple in Kiev, the Ukrainians won't be coming, and neither will member groups living in areas where the new temple is closer than the Freiberg temple.

The temple will need more patrons from a smaller, realigned temple district.

"I'm really happy for the progress of the members of eastern Europe," President Apel said. "The church has progressed well and has become stronger, especially in Ukraine."

He bade farewell to the last Ukrainian and Russian groups a few weeks ago. "They cried as they left," he recalled.

Under the direction of two future LDS Church presidents, the Freiberg temple was dedicated in late June 1985 by President Gordon B. Hinckley, then a counselor in the First Presidency, and joined by then-Elder Thomas S. Monson of the Quorum of the Twelve.

The smallish temple was renovated and enlarged in 2001-02 — when it also received its own Angel Moroni statue and was rededicated by President Hinckley in September 2002.

With its Mormon roots dating back to 1896, Freiberg would seem to be a sleepy little town of 40,000 about a 40-minute train ride east of the larger, more renowned city of Dresden.

In fact, the location of a newly announced temple in the former German Democratic Republic was a surprise to Frank Apel nearly 30 years ago, when he was serving as executive secretary to Dresden Mission President Henry Burkhardt.

"As I heard a temple was going to be built, I was really happy, and I asked, 'Where? Leipzig? Dresden? In Freiberg! Oh, my goodness,' " said Apel, the Freiberg native punctuating his recollections by repeating a jump for joy, with arms stretched to the heavens.

The former auto dealer even moved his family from a central-city location to a home on Freiberg's northwestern edge. Not only was the family eventually sealed in the Freiberg temple, but all four of the Apel children have been married there, too.

But the Freiberg temple is blessing more than just the Latter-day Saints near and far. President Apel says the community is better because of its presence and influence.

"After the Berlin Wall fell (in 1989), many businesses in the country went down," he said. "But it is amazing how much industry has developed here — solar power, computer chips, education.

"Freiberg has one of the lowest unemployment averages in Germany," he continued. "We see that — the connection of the temple to that. The people in the area don't see it that way — they see it as their own strength."

But they still come to walk the grounds, pause on the benches, take wedding photographs.

And call the Freiberg Temple their own.

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