Elder Dennis B. Neuenschwander has played a key role both in helping to redeem the dead and to save the living among the peoples of eastern and central Europe.
Now, his ministry has been expanded to include the Church and the world at large. Elder Neuenschwander, 51, is one of six new members of the Second Quorum of the Seventy sustained at the April general conference.Called in 1987 as president of the Austria Vienna East Mission, Elder Neuenschwander is continuing in that assignment, which was extended in 1990 beyond the three years that a mission president typically serves. He is scheduled to finish July 1.
Actually, the name of the mission is a bit of a misnomer. With his wife, the former LeAnn Clement, and two of their four sons, Elder Neuenschwander does live in Vienna. But his mission assignment in 1987 was not in Austria but in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Greece. In August of that year, it was expanded to include Turkey, Egypt and Cyprus, after the International Mission was dissolved.
Thus, Elder Neuenschwander has helped lead what may be considered one of the most thrilling events in modern Church history - the re-emergence of the Church in a part of the world where it had been virtually absent for decades.
When his assignment began, the mission had 34 missionaries - 10 couples and 14 elders, he said. "They were working in Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Greece. There were no missionaries at the time in Czechoslovakia. There was a couple serving in Egypt. But we had only military branches of the Church in Turkey, and nothing on Cyprus at the time."
Over the next three years, Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Council of the Twelve rededicated several eastern European countries for the work of the Lord.
"It was very interesting to follow his work, and also that of the area president, Elder Hans B. Ringger of the Seventy," Elder Neuenschwander said.
"And as political and social changes took place in east and central Europe, we were able to place additional missionaries. Of course, the Church continued to grow, so that in 1990, five, and in a way, six new missions were operating in eastern and central Europe. Poland was established as a mission, as were Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Greece. And the Finland Helsinki East Mission was established to comprise part of the Soviet Union.
"The Austria Vienna East Mission, then, was left in 1990 with Yugoslavia. Then we were assigned Bulgaria, Romania and the southern portion of the Soviet Union - the Ukraine, Byelorussia and parts of the Russian Republic."
Elder Neuenschwander tends to downplay his role in the progress of the Church in those parts of Europe, citing instead a "confluence of factors": political, social and economic change; the work of Elders Nelson and Ringger; and the dedication of the missionaries who were sent to the mission.
"The greatest changes have been in the individual lives of the people as the missionaries have gone into their homes and have borne witness of the restoration of the gospel," he said.
"Decades of atheism and repression of spiritual matters could not, did not destroy the people's desire to believe, the desire to do good, the desire to serve and be happy, to feel comfortable in one's family, all of the things the gospel represents. As the missionaries brought that message into the lives of numerous people, they have responded and responded quickly. There is marvelous growth of the Church throughout eastern Europe. Attendance is high all over."
Various events in Elder Neuenschwander's life prepared him for the role he would eventually play in spreading the gospel.
Born in Salt Lake City to George Henry and Genevieve Bramwell Neuenschwander as the second of four children, he moved with his family to Ogden, Utah, during his junior high school years. Sports were one of his major interests in school, community and Church. In addition to his parents, his Church basketball coach, Norm Smith, was a major influence in his life, he said.
Standing 5 feet 10 inches, Elder Neuenschwander is quiet-spoken, somewhat reserved and not given to overstatement. He has a serious bearing, but frequently displays a broad smile.
After graduation from Ogden High School, he enrolled in a course in Russian at Weber State College taught by his cousin. That gave him the foundation for an ability with languages that would serve him well as he served the Lord.
From 1959 to 1962, he served a mission to Finland, which gave him an additional language skill, as well as a sound background in gospel knowledge. He learned Finnish well enough to be called as a language instructor and spent much of his mission teaching new missionaries as there was no missionary language training center in those days.
During an appointment with an eye doctor after his mission, he met his bride to be.
LeAnn Clement had been born in Payson, Utah, to George Leland and Catherine Ann Mendenhall. The family had moved to Washington Terrace, near Ogden, where LeAnn spent most of her childhood, enjoying association with many young people, supportive parents and good teachers, she said.
She graduated from Weber High School and obtained a degree from Weber State College in cosmetology. She was working for an optometrist when she met Dennis Neuenschwander, who had come to have his eyes checked. Six months later, on June 13, 1963, they were married in the Salt Lake Temple.
The following year, he obtained an associate degree from Weber State College, then transferred to BYU, graduating in 1966 with a degree in Russian.
During eight years of graduate school at Syracuse University in New York, Elder Neuenschwander taught Sunday School and served in a mission presidency, among other callings, while his wife filled leadership and teaching roles in ward auxiliaries. During this time, three of their four sons were born. The youngest would come along in 1975, a year after Elder Neuenschwander received a doctorate in Russian literature.
He taught at the University of Utah and BYU for a year each. Then, in 1977, a need developed in the Church Genealogical Department (now called the Family History Department) that Elder Neuenschwander was eminently qualified to fill. The department was expanding its microfilming in eastern European countries. He went to work for the department negotiating for the acquisition of records throughout the countries in that region.
In connection with the work, the family lived in Germany for five years.
"We met many wonderful people in the national archival systems as well as in the various churches," he said. We began a very productive microfilming project with the Catholic Church in Poland. It has expanded greatly since then. We saw the beginning of microfilming in what was then the German Democratic Republic, and also in Greece and Yugoslavia. We did some work in Hungary, but most of the filming there had been done earlier."
Living abroad was a good experience for their sons, Sister Neuenschwander said.
"We did a lot of things as a family. We bought a little fold-out camper and took the boys with us quite a bit as we traveled. So they had an opportunity to see a lot of area. They attended an international school and had a good Church experience. And they gained a great appreciation for different cultures and languages, for different ways of thinking and working. I think that's been a very important part of our lives.
Elder Neuenschwander described his family as "very communicative."
"We talk a lot, he said. "We enjoy board games. We have our traditions, as every family does. And we have high expectations, not only of ourselves, but also for our sons as well, and we talk about them a lot."
Returning to Utah in 1982, Elder Neuenschwander, worked five more years for the Acquisitions Division of the Genealogical Department. Then came his call as mission president, and his full-time focus shifted from work for the dead to work for the living.
The fact that his call was extended in 1990 is evidence of the value the Church places on his expertise. He speaks Russian, German and Finnish fluently, and has some knowledge of languages in the countries of eastern Europe.
"The field is truly white," he said of the future of the Church in that area. "There are many instances where members of the Church have influenced their friends and families. An interesting example is Hungary, where a family from Leningrad in the Soviet Union visited their friends in Budapest and were told about the gospel. The missionaries taught the family and baptized them in Budapest. They went back to Leningrad, and from that the Church began to grow in the Soviet Union. We've seen that in Bulgaria, where people have gone outside, joined the Church, come back and were able to build the Church in their own country."
The future is bright, he remarked. "By and large, the governments realize the mistake of destroying the spiritual side of the people. They are asking for the ethical and moral influence of the gospel in the people's lives."
Missionaries have been involved in charitable and educational projects in Romania and Bulgaria, he said, and that has enhanced the image of the Church among leaders in those countries.
As for his own approach to service in the kingdom, Elder Neuenschwander recalls a question asked of him after he returned from Finland by George Handy, then his bishop: "Are you converted?"
He has often reflected on that question, and feels he is, indeed converted. Referring to himself with a plural pronoun, he said, "We believe in the moral power of the gospel and its ethical strength, and we are happy to be in a position to influence the expansion of the principles of the gospel wherever we are assigned."
Elder Dennis B. Neuenschwander
Family: Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, Oct. 6, 1939, to George Henry and Genevieve Bramwell Neuenschwander. Married LeAnn Clement June 13, 1963, in the Salt Lake Temple. Parents of four sons: Jeffery Dennis, 25; Michael Clement, 23; Bradley George, 18; and Stephen Brent, 15.
Education: Received associate degree from Weber State College, Ogden, Utah, in 1964; bachelor's degree in Russian from BYU in 1966; master's degree in 1970 and doctorate in 1974 in languages from Syracuse University in New York.
Military Service: U.S. Air Force Reserve and Utah Army National Guard.
Employment: Manager of International Area of Acquisitions Division, Church Genealogical Department, 1976-1987; visiting professor of Russian at BYU, 1975-76, and at University of Utah, 1974-75.
Church service: President of the Austria Vienna East Mission, 1987-present; former counselor in mission presidency, high councilor, seventies group leader, ward executive secretary, Sunday School teacher, Cubmaster.