History reaches far back into time in this city some 30 miles east of the border between France and Switzerland. Founded between 1220 and 1230, it has been a city subjected to political alliances, occupied by Napoleon, and is now a center for the famous Swiss watch industry.
With such a diverse past and booming present, its residents – some 70,000 in number – bring together an enchanting blend of cultures. Biel is a bilingual city, with the majority of its citizens speaking either German or French.Latter-day Saints – about 250 from Biel and surrounding towns and villages – harmoniously unite, drawing upon the strengths of their cultural and national backgrounds. A hymn board in the chapel of the ward meetinghouse reflects members' efforts
to learn from and accept each other. The board has two columns for hymn numbers, one under the heading of German, the other French. (The hymn numbers are different in the French and German hymnals.) Many members speak English in addition to German and/or French.
In a Church News interview, Bishop Klaus Piotrowski spoke of the history of the Church in Biel: "According to the reports of some of our oldest members, the first members were baptized in 1880. After this time the branch then went through some changes regarding membership because a large number of members moved to the United States a short time after their baptisms.
"With the effort of missionaries and members, there almost always has been a small number of members in Biel after the Church got started here. In early days, meetings were held mostly in the apartments of members. They also met in rented facilities, such as restaurants. Because of World War II, the missionaries in Biel were called home on Oct. 8, 1939. The small branch was then without missionaries until Jan. 19, 1947. After this, the elders started again with their work here.
"During a tour through Europe, Elder Spencer W. Kimball, then a member of the Council of the Twelve, called the members of the Biel Branch together for a special meeting on Aug. 18, 1955. The total attendance of this meeting was 38 people. Members who attended this meeting tell me that President Kimball gave an inspiring and powerful talk, and that after his visit the branch made more progress than ever before.
"After the branch started growing, the leaders of the mission and the branch started making plans for our own Church building. After a site was acquired, construction of the building started on Jan. 2, 1957, and was finished in January 1958. The dedication of the building took place on June 7, 1964. Now, the ward is looking foward to building a new meetinghouse."
Bishop Piotrowski commented on the cultural diversity of the ward's population: "When the current bishopric, and a new elders quorum presidency and a new high priests group leader were set apart, we had an interesting situation. The bishop speaks German, the elders quorum president speaks French. The high priests group leader is from Zaire, Africa. We have German- and French-speaking counselors who love working and progressing together. It takes a lot of organization to keep things going. When we make announcements or give talks, everything must be said in two languages. But we work really well together; our members feel good about our ward."
Bishop Piotrowski said there are four full-time
missionaries laboring in Biel. The two French-speaking missionaries serve in the Switzerland Geneva Mission; the two German-speaking missionaries serve in the Switzerland Zurich Mission.
As is the case with several other ward members, Bishop Piotrowski moved to Biel already well-established in the gospel. His parents, Gustav and Elisabeth Piotrowski, came from what was once East Prussia as refugees during World War II. They had been members of the Selbongen Branch, which had the first meetinghouse constructed specifically for the Church in Germany. After the war, the town was ceded to Poland, and its name was changed to Zelbak.
Settling in West Germany, they continued to be active in the Church, rearing their children in the gospel. "When I was a young man, we came on a vacation to the Swiss Temple," Bishop Piotrowski reflected. "I did some baptisms for the dead. While on holiday in Biel, I attended a Church meeting and met Christine Oswald. We were married in 1980 in the Swiss Temple. We lived for five years in Germany. When I made some changes in my occupation, we decided to move to Switzerland. I liked it here, and thought it would be a good place to raise our family." Bishop and Sister Piotrowski have four children.
Among others who came to Biel and who have helped build the ward are Roland and Susanne Daetwyler. He is the stake patriarch; she serves as his scribe and as stake Young Women president. They are parents of seven children.
They were baptized in 1955. "We had just moved to Lucerne one or two months before the missionaries came to our door," Sister Daetwyler said. "We had no friends there. I let the missionaries in and spoke with them a little while and was impressed with what they said. I asked if they would like to come back that evening when my husband was home.
"We tried to read the Bible regularly. We were searching for something else in our lives. We attended a church, but weren't very satisfied. It was a good time for the missionaries to come to our door. Their message had real meaning."
Brother Daetwyler said: "I read the Book of Mormon right away. When I began to read, I felt like I had known it before. It was familiar to me, like the Bible. I was impressed by the explanation of Jesus Christ. We had never known a Mormon before. We had heard the name Mormon, but that was all we had heard. We had heard nothing good or bad about the Church."
Brother and Sister Daetwyler were members of the branch in Lucerne from 1957-58. They moved and lived in a Basel suburb from 1957 until 1965, when they moved to Biel. He has been a branch president in Biel, a district president before the Bern Switzerland Stake was created, and a counselor in a mission presidency.
He was ordained stake patriarch May 3, 1981, by President Ezra Taft Benson, then a member of the Council of the Twelve, who created the Bern Switzerland Stake.
He and three other Church members own a machine rebuilding business that employs 10.
Stina Jaeger, another ward member, moved to Switzerland from Finland with her family when she was 5. "We lived in Basel," she said, "when my parents met the missionaries, Elders Richard Wirthlin and Richard Farr."
She grew up among sons and daughters of mission presidents and other LDS leaders in Switzerland. As a youth, she attended an LDS camp, at which she met Urs Jaeger, her future husband. Before they married, however, she served a mission in France, and he served in Germany. They are parents of seven sons and daughters, one of whom is serving in the France Marseille Mission.
Members in Biel express gratitude for the growth of the Church in their area, and particularly for their close proximity to a temple. Biel is about 25 miles north of the newly reopened Swiss Temple in Zollikofen.
Bishop Piotrowski spoke of the positive impact of the open house held before the temple was rededicated in October. (Please see Oct. 24 and Oct. 31 issues of the Church News.) Some 32,900 people attended the open house. "The thousands of contacts made through visitors touring the temple have touched our members deeply," Bishop Pirtowski said. "That so many people attended the open house shows us that there are people who are interested in hearing about the gospel of Jesus Christ and His Church. We have all felt a great spirit, and feel that our ward will now move forward."