Czech Republic recognizes missionaries' contributions

Richard and Barbara Winder receive Czernin Palace Award

The ex-Eastern bloc nation had declared independence from the Soviet Union the year prior, and, in July 1990, officially became a democracy, shedding its communist past. The changing political climate enabled the Church to send President Richard W. Winder, who had been expelled as a missionary from the country 40 years earlier, to preside over the newly organized Czechoslovakia Prague Mission (now the Czech Prague Mission).

Barbara W. and Richard W. Winder display Czernin Palace Award presented by Jonathon Tichy, Czech hon
Barbara W. and Richard W. Winder display Czernin Palace Award presented by Jonathon Tichy, Czech honorary consul for Utah; Emily Samek, a Miss Czech-Slovak U.S. runner up, is at right. | Photo courtesy Owen Fuller

For his service there — before, during and after the Iron Curtain — President Winder and his wife, former Relief Society general president Barbara W. Winder, received the Czernin Palace Award from the Czech Consulate in Salt Lake City last February. The award is the highest honor bestowed by the Czech Republic Embassy to those who are not of Czech nationality. The recognition made the Winders the first Utahns — and members of the Church — to receive the honor.

Jonathan Tichy, the honorary consul of the Czech Republic in Utah who nominated the Winders for the award, said the honor recognizes the goodwill between Czechs, Utahns and, indirectly, the Church through its missionaries.

"It is hard to think of two people that have done more over a lifetime to foster positive ties between the United States and the Czech Republic than Richard and Barbara Winder," he said. "Their love for the Czech Republic (and the former Czechoslovakia) is nothing short of legendary."

Brother Tichy, who was officially installed as honorary consul in Salt Lake City two years ago, also served as a Czechoslovakian missionary in 1991 to 1993 under President Winder's leadership.

Missionaries made the difference

However legendary their service was, the Winders instead attribute their recent honor to the missionaries they directed as well as to those who continue to serve.

Brother Winder said, "We feel we didn't do so much as maybe some of the missionaries who have really done a great work. We feel that rather than us getting the award, they should."

Indeed, Brother Tichy added that "the Winders fostered a whole generation of missionaries and Church members, on this side of the ocean and that side of the ocean, who formed a strong bond and continue to be involved in [Czech affairs]."

One of those bonds was the formation of the Wallace Toronto Foundation, named after Czechoslovakia's first mission president. Each year the foundation, which is comprised of former Czechoslovak missionaries, travel to the country to give humanitarian service such as educational, physical or financial assistance.

"It's been very impressive to the Czech government," Brother Tichy said. "It's been a boon to the relationship between Utah and the Czech Republic."

He said it's easy to see the effects missionaries have had on the Church as well.

"Utah has more non-natural Czech speakers than any other state, especially considering [those speakers] don't have familial ties to the Eastern European country," he said.

Additionally, Czech leaders became increasingly aware of Salt Lake City and the Church during the 2002 Winter Olympics, Brother Tichy emphasized.

A checkered history

The Winders' contributions to the Czech Republic began in 1947 before they were married. President Winder, then a young Elder Winder, was one of the last missionaries to leave Czechoslovakia when the communist government placed heavy legal restrictions on all the religions that led to the imprisonment of two LDS missionaries for a month. Elder Winder was expelled in February 1950 and the mission officially closed two months later.

The closing began a period of "40 years of neglect," Brother Winder said, where existing Church members in the communist country had little contact with the Church or the rest of the world.

"It was difficult to communicate with those Saints during those 40 years," he said, adding that the Czech members were able to send out family names for temple work since they didn't have access to temples. "Overall, the Saints there were persecuted by the government."

A 'Wonderful reunion' in Czechoslovakia

By 1986, when the Iron Curtain started showing cracks in Czechoslovakia, President Thomas S. Monson, then second counselor in the First Presidency, approached Sister Winder, who was serving as the 11th Relief Society general president, and said things were "looking lighter behind the Iron Curtain," she recounted.

She said Elder Boyd K. Packer, now president of the Quorum of the Twelve, had been able to visit about two years earlier, and, because of her husband's prior experience there and her calling as Relief Society general president, President Monson wanted her to visit the sisters there who had been cut off from the rest of the Relief Society for decades.

Even though other tourists were able to get in relatively easily, Sister Winder said, "the Czechoslovak government had been refusing visas to us through the years because my husband had been expelled years earlier. He had a record."

However, when the assignment came from the First Presidency to visit the country, Sister Winder said, "We applied and it went right through. It was time. The time was right."

Conditions were deplorable when they arrived, Sister Winder said. "There was a particular clampdown on Czechoslovakia because there was a greater push back on communism. People didn't know what happiness was."

She, along with her husband and Elder Russell M. Nelson, who supervised the European area as an Apostle at the time, had to arrive separately or else people might suspect the Church was organizing illegally. It was only after their visit that the Winders learned that surveillance cameras and recorders had in fact been turned on them by government agents.

"Many of the Saints I had known had either died or escaped the country," President Winder recalled. "A few had remained faithful and met in secret in Prague and Brno."

Despite the conditions, Sister Winder remembers the first meeting with the Czechoslovakian members as "a glorious affair and a wonderful reunion.

"They wanted to know about women, about the priesthood, and were just hungry for the gospel," she recounted.

Because of the effects of communism through the years, "many of the Saints who were still alive and faithful there would quote Jacob 2:19," she said, "and would have a hard time thinking it was OK, even pleasing to God, to try and improve their temporal situations."

She said she told the Czechoslovak sisters: "You represent a circle of sisters and there is a larger circle of sisters all over the world who are praying for you and who will help you."

Some 20 young adults had converted in the country despite the mission's closure nearly four decades before.

Sister Winder met a particular convert, Olga Kovarova Campora, who had joined the Church as a 23-year-old behind the Iron Curtain. Sister Campora approached the Winders and said, in English, "I'm the Relief Society president."

"She didn't know any more English, and I didn't know any more Czech, and, unfortunately, my husband had become a rusty translator" since he hadn't been able to visit for so long.

Despite the language barrier, Sister Winder learned that Sister Campora, who had competed in the Olympics before, had attended yoga camps organized by a faithful Czech member in Brno who organized the camps as a way to introduce the gospel in a typically hostile, untrustworthy environment.

"Trust was almost unheard of over there," Sister Winder said.

If people seemed receptive to teaching about healthy living that came from the Word of Wisdom, they were invited to hear the gospel.

Sister Campora had been particularly interested. When she received a copy of the Book of Mormon, Sister Winder recalled, she sat up all night reading it and said "a light filled her room." She was soon baptized in secret in a lake late at night to avoid catching the attention of government officials or spies.

"When we heard the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, we just sat and looked at each other," President Winder said.

At the time, Elder Nelson was still supervising Church affairs in Europe. In passing at the Church Office Building, he told Sister Winder he had exciting news for her.

The Winders were the first missionary couple called to the country following the fall of communism in 1990. Sister Winder, who started serving as the general president of the Relief Society in 1984, was released that April general conference in 1990 to serve with her husband in Czechoslovakia.

"We were just overwhelmed that we would be going back," Sister Winder recalled. "We had no idea what we were facing. But we were so excited to meet that little band of Saints we had met earlier."

Future of Church in Czech Republic

After Brother Winder was released as mission president, he was an ordained patriarch of the Church for the Czech Republic in 1999. For several years he was able to return to the country so that the members there did not have to travel to Austria or Germany and receive their patriarchal blessings in a language strange to them.

Additionally, in 1991 the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performed in Prague — the country's capital and historically a cultural hub in Europe — and also returned for another performance in 1993.

Though no stake exists in the Czech Republic or Slovakia today, the Winders are optimistic for the Church's growth in that part of Eastern Europe. Together with the Slovak Republic, which is also covered by the Czech mission, the Church has roughly 2,500 members. Many of President Winder's missionaries, as well as many who have served there since, return to the Czech Republic regularly to perform humanitarian service.

That's why Brother Winder is so quick to recognize others besides him and his wife. "We consider [the recognition] a great honor but somewhat undeserved. We credit the missionaries and Saints who have done so much to [help the] progress [of] the Church and the country there," he said. In step, perhaps that's what led Brother Tichy to add, "Missionaries are ultimately the best ambassadors for Czechs here in the United States."

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