It was a joyful day for Latter-day Saints in France as they celebrated the 20th anniversary of the creation of the Bordeaux France Stake and welcomed Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve — an apostle who was able to speak to them in their native tongue.
For Elder Andersen, accompanied by his wife, Sister Kathy Andersen, the assignment to France was much more than a regular visit — it was a return to their mission and the first return while on official assignment as an apostle.
"It has been a wonderful blessing for me to watch the Church in the French-speaking countries of Europe as it has progressed during the last forty years," Elder Andersen told the Church News. "You can imagine my great happiness in seeing Brother and Sister Jacques Brieu, the first member family I met as a young missionary. Looking at the progress over forty years, we now see many families in the second and third generations. We see a strength of commitment and testimony. How wonderful that President Monson has announced a temple to be built in Paris. France is not only one of the most beautiful countries in the world, but it is a country of devoted and committed Latter-day Saints. I love them very much."
Sister Andersen, also speaking in French during their travels, expressed her love and admiration for the French members. She told of her gratefulness for the spiritual lessons learned by the Andersen children when they were young from the devotion and testimonies of the members.
Elder Andersen has seen much of the Church's growth in the European nation, first serving in France as a young missionary in the 1970s and then again later with his family as he presided over the France Bordeaux Mission from 1989-92. It was during the time he was a mission president that the Bordeaux France Stake — the sixth in the country — was created on May 24, 1992, by President Boyd K. Packer.
During Elder Andersen's assignment to France, from Nov. 8-21, he met with congregations of Church members in Bordeaux, Lyon, Paris and Angers; he also met with stake presidencies and missionaries throughout the area. While in those meetings, Elder Andersen urged members to lift the light of the gospel to all around them.
Elder José A. Teixeira of the Seventy and Europe Area president said, "There is a renewed sense of purpose and urgency in the work in France and the French-speaking countries of the Europe Area to continue to build up the Church because of the visit of Elder Neil L. Andersen. [He] met with priesthood leaders and spoke and testified to them in their native language. This was a blessing that will be felt for a long time."
Members of the Church in France listened to Church leaders speak with conviction about the Savior Jesus Christ and the responsibilities of discipleship. For many, it was a joyful reunion of long-time friendships.
"As Elder and Sister Andersen joined the Saints of Bordeaux to celebrate 20 years since the organization of the Bordeaux stake, there was a wonderful spirit as Elder Andersen had been serving as president of the Bordeaux mission at the time the stake was established," said Elder Patrick Kearon of the Seventy and first counselor in the Europe Area presidency. "The youth performed in a celebration of music and dance to mark the occasion. During the stake conference, Elder Andersen commended the members for their faithful lives and encouraged them to further strengthen the Church in that beautiful part of France. The Saints of Lyon were similarly encouraged as they came together for a special meeting."
During their visit, Elder and Sister Andersen first went to the southwestern area of France: a place dear to their hearts because it was where they had lived in 1989 when he had been called to serve as mission president to the newly opened France Bordeaux Mission. At the time, the Andersen's had their four young children with them.
As mission president, he recorded the fervor of the mission, particularly as they set the goal to create a new stake. He said, "As members and missionaries are so wonderful to do, all embraced the desire to establish the Church fully in southwestern France."
In just over two years, then-President Andersen prepared the application for the district of Bordeaux to become a stake. He said, "We had seen the spirituality and unity of the members strengthened dramatically. … Membership had grown … active Melchizedek Priesthood holders had increased. … The hand of the Lord was very evident."
Five weeks before their mission would come to an end, the members and missionaries in Bordeaux witnessed the fulfillment of what Elder Andersen called an "adventure in faith" as President Boyd K. Packer created France's sixth stake on May 24, 1992.
Elder Andersen recorded the moment that the stake was sustained by its members, "There was a strong spiritual confirmation of what was happening." He continued, "The experience of seeing the Lord's hand at work in the creation of the Bordeaux France Stake strengthened us all."
Now, 20 years later, French-speaking Europe has 12 stakes, one district, two missions and more than 35,000 members. On July 15, 2011, the Church released an official statement from President Thomas S. Monson announcing plans to build a temple in France.
Many former missionaries from Europe, as well as a few from the United States, traveled to see the Andersen's during their visit.
Ryan and Minna Gold, who both served in the France Bordeaux Mission under the direction of Elder Andersen, live with their family in Sister Gold's native Finland and traveled to attend the events held in conjunction with the anniversary.
"We cannot express how wonderful it was to be back in Bordeaux to see the members and missionaries with whom we served," Brother Gold said. "The experience really brought to life the description of joy that Alma felt in meeting the sons of Mosiah to find that 'they were still his brethren in the Lord' (Alma 17:2). Although we hadn't seen each other in over 20 years, we were all amazed at how we still had an instant connection and love for one another that transcended time and distance."
Chad Fears, another one of Elder Andersen's missionaries, traveled from Henderson, Nev., to attend the meetings. Of his visit he said, "When I originally planned this trip to France, I planned several days in Paris. After this weekend, the thought of seeing the great things of Paris seems so minor and inconsequential. I would rather spend time with the former missionaries and members I love. ... My only desire this weekend was to take up that spiritual sickle and participate again in that great harvest among the French Saints."
In Paris, the Andersen's were joined by Elder Teixeira and his wife, Sister Maria Teixeira, and Elder Patrick Boutoille, an Area Seventy. Elder Kearon joined them in Bordeaux.
A significant moment during Elder Andersen's assignment was a special meeting in Versailles, with all of the French-speaking stake presidents and mission presidents in the France, Belgium and Switzerland areas.
"I have recorded carefully the spiritual nourishment I received," said President Matthieu Bennasar of the Lyon France Stake. "It will remain a treasure for me. … It will prove an invaluable anchor of faith for us."
In addition to their time spent in Bordeaux and Paris, Elder Andersen's assignment also included time in Lyon and Angers, where they met with faithful members and missionaries.
Blake Roney, president of the France Lyon Mission, recalled how personal Elder and Sister Andersen's visits with the members seemed to be.
"There were an unusual number of very faithful Saints who loved the Andersen family when they were here 20 years ago, and love [them] still today," he said. "All who listened were lifted and brought closer to their Savior."
President Roney said that Elder Andersen discussed the circumstances of this particular time and advised that this is the "dawning of a new day, a day when the Lord is blessing this special part of the world."