The Church in Austria: Sounds of gospel ring in Salzburg

Freedom of religion was still in its infancy at the turn-of-the-century in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was a time when even reading the Bible was restricted.

So when the first branch of the Church was organized with seven members in 1901, that fledgling group met – mostly in secret – on the rural farm of Johann Huber in Haag am Hausruck.In the beginning, many people in the area were interested in the new religion, and out of curiosity, attended meetings. But traditions were strong and persecution was quick to follow. Eventually, most stayed away.

Since those early days – when policemen confined the preaching of the gospel to park bench conversations – the Church in Austria has grown steadily.

The baroque city of Salzburg, for instance, located in the center of the country, is a city where Mozart still reigns as the musical master. It is a city nestled amid the splendor of the lakes regions of Berchtesgaden across the German border, and the Salzkammergut to the east.

It is a city where the landscape stirs the soul with music, and where the sounds of missionary work still resound among the pure in heart.

The history of the Church in German-speaking Austria is a story of devoted members who recognized the strains of the gospel, and who, despite the din of tradition and centuries of suffering in the name of religion, patiently gained a witness, said Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Seventy and president of the Europe West Area. These testimonies have not come quickly or easily, but once gained, members have been pillars of quiet strength and steady devotion.

It was 116 years after Orson Pratt and William Ritter entered the country as the first missionaries in 1864 that the first Austrian stake was created in Vienna by Elder Ezra Taft Benson, then of the Quorum of the Twelve, in 1980. Pres. Ronald Oberhuber now presides over the Vienna Austria Stake, which covers the eastern half of Austria.

Seventeen years after the Vienna stake was created, a second stake in Austria, the Salzburg Austria Stake, was created Jan. 19 of this year by Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin of the Quorum of the Twelve, who served in Salzburg as a missionary in 1937. The stake covers the central portion of Austria and was the 2,300th stake created in the Church. The western tip of Austria is part of the Switzerland Zurich Stake.

The new Salzburg stake stretches from Linz along the Danube River in Upper Austria on the eastern end of the stake, to Innsbruck on the west, to Klagenfurt near the Italian border on the south, to the city of Salzburg on the north.

"This second stake represents the work of priesthood leaders, members, missionaries and mission presidents in their steady dedication over many years in Austria," said Pres. Ned. L. Mangelson of the Austria Vienna Mission.

Even though the Church hasn't grown in Austria with the same rapid growth that it has in some parts of the world, Elder Wirthlin noted that Church membership has grown steadily here, and that the priesthood leaders, many of whom are third-generation Latter-day Saints, are spiritual, educated, intelligent and capable.

Among the leaders is Gerold Roth, newly called Salzburg stake president. He was 5 years old in 1955 when his father bid goodbye to his mother and younger brother, Erwin, one morning before going to work.

Disaster struck later that day when his father was killed in a train accident.

For the next several months – as a 25-year-old widow stricken with grief – Pres. Roth's mother prayed for guidance. A short time later two missionaries knocked at her door. Sister Roth readily accepted the gospel, and six months later on the day of her baptism in 1956, she put on her best clothes and with a "smile from ear-to-ear," rode her bicycle to the chapel.

Pres. Roth later served a mission in England and now lives with his wife, Traudi, and their six children, 15 miles outside Salzburg in Mondsee. The city is famous for the Hochzeitskirche, which is the church depicted in the wedding scene of the Sound of Music.

"The gospel is the power of God that brings joy to the people who believe it," he teaches.

Likewise, Pres. Roth's brother, Erwin, grew up in the strength of his mother's testimony and served a mission in Munich, Germany. No sooner did he return in 1977 than he was called to serve in the presidency of a new stake that was created by aligning Salzburg and Innsbruck from the Austria Vienna Mission with Munich in southern Germany. He now serves as bishop of the Salzburg-Flachgau Ward.

Within the ward boundaries is the "Holy Night Chapel" in Oberndorf where "Silent Night, Holy Night" was first performed by Joseph Moor and Franz Gruber.

In a land known for its storybook beauty, "our big challenge is to baptize," Pres. Roth said. "Austria is among the seven wealthiest countries in the world. People work long hours and like their vacations and possessions, and many go to the country for the weekend for their spiritual retreat."

Austria is also a land where the scars of two bitter world wars run deep, and where the implications of religion have left the people disenchanted with organized churches.

Although the gospel has been preached many years in Salzburg, the Church is still generally unknown. Pres. Roth and his wife, learned firsthand about the confusion of misunderstanding when Sister Roth opened a kindergarten in her home several years ago.

After the mayor of the city learned about the kindergarten, he warned the residents in a newspaper article to avoid the "Mormon Kindergarten." As a result, only two children registered for that semester.

To curb the misunderstanding, Sister Roth sponsored an open house where she bore testimony of Jesus Christ and the restored gospel, and then explained how her kindergarten would be based on the Christian principles of love and charity.

The kindergarten is now booked through the year 2000, Pres. Roth said. "Everyone knows we are members. The kindergarten is popular because of her personality, and because parents like the influence of biblical principles."

The success, in part, for the growth of the Salzburg stake lies in the retention of the youth. "We have a great hope for the youth," Pres. Roth said. "Right now 12 are serving full-time missions from the stake, and the next generation is very promising."

With a healthy economy in Austria, most youth are employed. And while drug abuse is less of a problem among Austrian teens (than other social concerns), drinking alcohol is a major concern. "Many start drinking at age 10," Pres. Roth said.

In a society of casual morals, the youth are finding, Pres. Roth explained, that the challenge of living their religion is actually a blessing of strength in their lives. The youth of the stake have a developed sense of camaraderie and turn to each other for their activities. Seventy percent of the 120 youth in the stake are active.

"There is something going on each week for the youth. They are fed with healthy recreational activity," Pres. Roth said.

Last year, the youth sponsored three major service projects to help orphanages in neighboring war-torn Croatia. They went door-to-door collecting clothing and toys and baked cookies. They also wrote letters to the children and spent a day helping priesthood leaders deliver the goods.

The Church in Austria is still comparatively small – approximately 4,000 members. But "with seven beautiful meetinghouses, and many full-time and stake missionaries, the future of the Church in Salzburg has all the ingredients of success," Pres. Roth said. "The people of Austria will soon sense a great need for truth."

Now that all of Austria and all the German-speaking area of Europe are covered by stakes, the sounds of missionary work are heard across the land.

"In Austria, and in all of Europe, we baptize," said Elder Uchtdorf.