The central Salt Lake City chapel was overflowing Sunday, July 14 — packed with nearly 300 people attending what would be the final sacrament meeting of the German Speaking Ward and filled with the accompanying emotions as they contemplated the end of an era.
An increase of post-World War II immigrants from Europe to Utah prompted a need for language-specific units. In its late-1960s heyday, the German Speaking Ward boasted 400-plus members. It has since dropped to a total of 60 members.
Anticipation also filled the air. Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf had been invited to the ward’s final sacrament meeting, but it was uncertain if the German member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles would attend. Members hoped he would, as he had been known to show up on special occasions, like the ward’s 50th anniversary back in 2013.
Many had arrived an hour early — to prepare for sacrament, mingle with each other and read through a commemorative booklet prepared for the day.
As Elder Uchtdorf and his wife, Sister Harriet Uchtdorf, walked in just before the meeting’s start, a feeling of joy and fulfillment swept through the room as people stood in reverence for the apostle.
The discontinuation of the German Speaking Ward means a new chapter in its members’ lives in the gospel — a chance to move in faith to new wards.
“It is only this very small little core group of aged ones — 98, 95 years old — who now finally say, ‘You know what? Even we at our age will now go into the English-speaking wards,’” Elder Uchtdorf said of the German Speaking Ward. “How wonderfully typical it is for members of the Church, even in their high nineties, to willingly adapt to change. From now on these German-speaking members will support their English-speaking wards. I think that is an impressive show of testimony that the gospel is more than language.”
Calling it a historic day, Elder Uchtdorf said it could also be seen as a normal day, with transitions and changes a part of everyday life for those living the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Following World War II, many members of the Church moved from Europe to Utah. On Feb. 4, 1963, Elder Spencer W. Kimball and Elder LeGrand Richards — both of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — organized the branch to help ease the transition for German-speaking Latter-day Saints immigrating to Utah.
On Jan. 25, 1965, the branch was reorganized into a ward, and 266 members attended the first sacrament meeting held on Feb. 17, 1965.
Bishop Volker Diethelm Hagen and his wife, Sister Gisa Hagen, have been in the ward for over half a century. Sister Hagen moved from Germany to Salt Lake City and was a member when the branch was created in 1963. Bishop Hagen moved from Germany to the United States in 1965 and moved two years later to Salt Lake City and began attending the German Speaking Ward. It was there where they first met, leading to the Hagens’ marriage in December that year.
Called on Sept. 19, 1993, as the sixth bishop of the German Speaking Ward, Bishop Hagen has been serving in that capacity ever since — nearly 26 years, and spanning the tenure of four different stake presidents.
“We have had many enjoyments over the years,” Bishop Hagen said. “The support of the members has been incredible. I hope that we will all be able to stay in touch with each other.”
One of the ward’s most-anticipated traditions is the annual summer picnic at Washington Terrace Park in Parley’s Canyon. The event usually drew more than double or triple the ward’s average sacrament meeting attendance. The reason: family.
This year’s ward picnic was held Saturday, July 13, the day before the final Sunday meetings. Nearly 200 people gathered to enjoy food, music, games, activities and the good company of friends and family.
“They all come back for this,” said ward clerk Douglas Juras. “It’s like a big family reunion. This ward is like a big family.”
While the German Speaking Ward’s membership tilts to the older generation, every age group was represented at the picnic, including many ward members’ children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren.
Most of Sunday’s sacrament meeting — with the family-focused fellowshipping continuing from the previous day’s activity — was carried out in German.
President Richard B. McKeown, the president of the Salt Lake Central Stake, conducted the business of discontinuing the German Speaking Ward, releasing the bishopric and those who held other callings. After the sacrament ordinance, members of the bishopric then had opportunity to express their thanks and bear testimony.
Elder Uchtdorf began his concluding remarks in German. After 20 seconds of speaking in what he called “the celestial language,” he made a symbolic transition from speaking in his native tongue to speaking English — a reflection of the transition the ward members are making as they begin attending English-speaking wards.
Referencing a past General Conference address, he shared the story of when he and other ward members in Germany struggled to move a grand piano from the chapel to the cultural hall. One brother offered the advice that not only helped them successfully move the piano but also inspired others who heard the story shared by Elder Uchtdorf.
“Lift where you stand,” he said, “is what you will be doing in your new wards. Don’t look back in sadness. Look back with gratitude for the experiences you’ve had, and look forward with faith and hope to the future to all that God will grant you. Lift where you stand. Lift where the Lord is putting you right after today. Lift with the excitement and beautiful commitment you have shown in your membership and many years of service in the German Speaking Ward.”
Elder Uchtdorf said members leaving the German Speaking Ward can be a powerful example for others in showing that transition can be navigated at any age and that change is less about organizational structures and exclusive groups and more about changing individual lives through gospel principles and the Savior’s Atonement.
“This is the Church of Jesus Christ,” Elder Uchtdorf said. “It doesn’t matter which building I am in or which group I am with. It is the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s a matter of maturity and moving forward on this plan of salvation, which doesn’t end here at our doorsteps of the chapel or even at the end of this life. It continues on.”