LUCERNE, Switzerland — One couple dancing that night on the boat as it drifted around placid Lake Lucerne had scarcely heard of the "Mormon Church."
But they liked to dance, and out of respect for a new business acquaintance, had accepted an invitation to attend the 150-year celebration of the Church in Switzerland.
"We had just met to do business when he said he liked to dance," said Mark Prohaska, national director of Church public affairs in Switzerland, "so I invited him to our celebration.
"They attended the opening celebration in the renowned KKL Convention Center where they learned about the history of the Church, then joined other members for a night of dancing on one of three tour boats that sailed around Lake Lucerne in the moonlight.
"Afterward," continued Brother Prohaska, "he was very pleased at the quality of people in the Church and felt honored to be among them. He invited my wife and me to dinner at his home where he wanted to learn more about the Church."
The gala celebration July 4 to mark 150 years of the Church in this serene, central European country involved members from the three stakes in the German, Italian and French-speaking areas of Switzerland.
Not since the early 1850s when Thomas Stenhouse traversed the Alps and baptized the first converts in Switzerland have members had such an opportunity to celebrate their membership in the Church on a grand scale.
"I've been a member for 40 years," said one member after the gala events, "and I've never experienced such a great, professional and motivating event."
The celebration began in the concert hall of the KKL Convention Center which overlooks Lake Lucerne. Here, about 1,200 members from across the country joined 300 invited politicians, industry and educational leaders and other friends of the Church to enjoy a "light, uplifting program," said Brother Prohaska.
The program began with a 150-voice youth choir composed of young men and young women from wards and branches across Switzerland. The mayor of Lucerne then shared his enthusiasm for the celebration by addressing the congregation as "brothers and sisters." He thanked the members for service projects in his city, then donated 1,000 francs, about $700, toward the celebration.
Peter Gysler, patriarch and former president of the Zurich stake, presented a history of the Church in Switzerland, noting how hundreds of early converts migrated to Utah, their descendants now numbering in the thousands.
Francoise Schwendener led a rousing presentation on the importance of family values that stirred the attention of non-members and prompted some to learn more about family home evenings.
The audience was then invited to stand and sing the Swiss National Anthem, something which is not usually done in Switzerland. Many became teary-eyed, particularly during portions where the music makes a prayer-like plea for heavenly help.
A pre-recorded video address by President Gordon B. Hinckley was presented on a large screen. "I have in my heart a great love for the wonderful saints who reside in your good land," President Hinckley said. "You have been faithful and true. You have loved the Lord and sought to do His work. You have moved the Church forward in a magnificent way. It has not been easy. Missionary work has been rather difficult. But those who have come into the Church have been men and women of great integrity and great capacity. I wish I could be with you when you celebrate this great anniversary."
"President Hinckley was the absolute highlight of the evening," Brother Prohaska said. "Members were ecstatic. They whistled with excitement. Given the typically quiet, demure nature of the Swiss, their exuberant reaction was totally unexpected. Everyone was thrilled to hear his personal remarks to the Swiss members. Those who didn't understand English followed the German subtitles. Members particularly liked his 'Schwizerdütsch.'
"It meant a great deal to members to hear him," he said.
After acknowledging several yodelers and an alpenhorn player who had performed in Salt Lake City with applause, the audience turned again to the large screen where Lloyd Newell, voice of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, introduced the choir. They sang, "Happy Birthday, dear Switzerland. Zum Geburtstag viel Glück," while waving Swiss flags.
Some of the most endearing comments about the Church came from Daniel Steiner, press-director of the Swiss Olympic Committee. He noted how well-treated he was in Salt Lake City during the Olympics and how the Swiss athletes preferred to stroll Temple Square during their free time to talk with the beautiful lady missionaries.
He closed his comments with an affirmation he has expressed in several previous Church firesides since the Olympics.
"You are great people," he said. "We have become good friends. Stay the way you are."
Elder D. Lee Tobler of the Seventy and president of the Europe Central Area closed the evening by relating interesting stories of sacrifice from his ancestors who came from Switzerland.
A 600-page book detailing the 150-year history of the Church in Switzerland was prepared by Christian Graeub for the celebration. It is called "Chronicle" and is available online at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Following the ceremony, members and their guests boarded three boats docked by the Conference Center for a tour around the lake.
"The boat captains were concerned about 'Mormons' dancing on the boats," Brother Prohaska said. "They knew nothing about the Church and feared members were some weird group of people. But after meeting the members and learning how polite they were and no alcohol, they were very pleased and said they 'loved the group.'
"At one point, the three boats positioned themselves in the shape of a star and honked their horns, sending a symphony of sounds echoing through the canyons," he said.
"Enthusiastic comments continue to come in," Brother Prohaska said. "Members say they have waited a long time for such an evening. It made them happy. They renewed their excitement for the gospel. One member said the only problem with the evening was that it was too short.
"One single mother who is not a member said she felt more at home in Church than with her friends.
"A dean in the Catholic Church had read a negative article about the Church in the local newspaper the day of the celebration. That evening, after attending the activities, he asked a journalist from the newspaper how such falsehoods could be published," said Brother Prohaska.
Prior to the celebration, local Church leaders, including Louis Weidmann of the Bern Switzerland Stake, and Elder Tobler met with Swiss President Pascal Couchepin, making this the first visit with the president of the country by a delegation of Church leaders.
There are more than 7,000 members in Switzerland divided among the three stakes of Geneva, Bern and Zurich. In his report on the history of the Church, Brother Gysler noted the accomplishments of a German missionary from Hamburg who served in Switzerland named Georg Mayer.
"He didn't become discouraged, even though he was imprisoned for eight days in Zurich. He was an instrument in many baptisms, including Maria Bommeli, the great-grandmother of Elder Henry B. Eyring of the Quorum of the Twelve," he said.