The first member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to visit Austria was Orson Hyde, who was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. When he was sent to dedicate Palestine in July of 1841, his journey to Jerusalem took him through Vienna, where he spent a few days. As far as anyone knows, he did not engage in any missionary activity at this time.
On his return journey, in December of 1841, his ship was quarantined in Trieste. At that time, Trieste was part of the Austrian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. (Today, Trieste is in Slovenia.) Elder Hydes ship was not allowed passage until January of 1842. He spent that time in Trieste and in Vienna, where he spoke to many Jewish people, urging them to return to Palestine.
John Taylor supervised the first translation of the Book of Mormon into German, and it was published in 1852.4
Missionary work in Austria began on January 18, 1865, when Elder Orson Pratt and Elder William W. Ritter arrived in Vienna to open missionary work in the Austrian Empire, which at this time was much larger than present day Austria. It included present-day Austria and Hungary, and portions of present-day surrounding countries. It extended as far east as The Ukraine. When he was called in 1864, Elder Pratt wrote home to his wife, "Austria is one of the largest empires of Europe, and is situated on the east of Germany, being about 800 miles long from east to west and 500 miles broad from north to south....The population is about forty millions ... the empire consisting of many kingdoms, but all under one head who is called an emperor. The religion is Roman Catholic; all other religions are strictly prohibited by law, except in one or two small provinces, where the Lutherans and Calvinists are tolerated. German is the prevailing language.... The whole country swarms with police officers whose duty it is to put about one hundred and one questions to all travelers."
The Emperor was very dedicated to Catholicism, so the religious climate was not very favorable to missionary work.
Elder Pratt and Elder Ritter dedicated the land for proselyting in April 1865. Shortly thereafter, they were driven out due to religious intolerance, but not before Elder Orson Pratt bore his testimony to the authorities. By September, they had left the continent altogether and gone to England.1
On January 22, 1870, Joseph A. Oheim became the first Austrian convert when he was baptized in Munich by the German mission president, Karl G. Maeser.
In October of 1883, at a conference in Salt Lake City, Elder Thomas Biesinger, a German convert, and Elder Paul E. B. Hammer were set apart as missionaries to Austria. They left Salt Lake City on October 16, 1883 and arrived in Bern, Switzerland on November 13, 1883 to report for duty to the president of the Swiss and German mission. They decided to split up on their way to Vienna so that Elder Biesinger could visit his parents in Wurtemberg, Germany.
The two were supposed to meet in Vienna on November 25, 1883. On that day, in Lambach, Austria, Elder Hammer baptized Paul Haslinger, the first convert baptized in Austria. In the meantime, Elder Biesinger did in fact arrive in Vienna by train. When he failed to find his companion, he rented a room.
He spent each of the next eight days at the train station waiting for Elder Hammer and talking to the people he met along the way. On December 3, 1883, he finally found Elder Hammer, who had been there a week, and who had also rented a room on the same street as Elder Biesinger's.
They began holding small meetings in people's homes. The first meeting was held on Sunday, January 6, 1884. Elder Biesinger described it as follows, "We held our first meeting at the home of the Widow Mahrburg of Stiftgasse. Only six persons besides Brother Hammer and myself were present. We opened our meeting in the usual way by singing and prayer, after which we spoke about thirty minutes on the first principles of the Gospel." They met often in Frau Mahrburg's home after that, until the police started warning her to have nothing to do with the Elders. On February 2, 1884, they baptized two more people, in the Simmering Canal. These two were P. Cholewa, a Pole, and Josephine Jelenik, an Austrian.
In addition to the trouble they were already having with the police, the city of Vienna was placed under martial law when the authorities learned of a potential socialist uprising. Because of this, they decided to move on to other cities in the Empire. They also decided to split up so that if one was arrested, the other could keep working. Elder Biesinger decided to go to Prague, and Elder Hammer remained in Vienna for a short time and then went on to Hirchberg, Silesia. (Both of these cities were in the Austrian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the Empire was broken up after World War I.)
Elder Biesinger left Vienna on February 25, 1884. On March 30, 1884, he was arrested in Prague for preaching and distributing literature without a license. He spent his first 48 hours in jail with nothing to eat. Four days after his arrest he finally received a hearing. During this hearing, he was able to testify of the Church, but he also learned that the local newspapers were claiming he was there to trap people into Mormon slavery.
During his next week in prison, he received a letter from Elder Hammer. Elder Hammer had smallpox and was so sick, he was writing to let Elder Biesinger know where his effects should be sent when he died. Elder Biesinger tried to get permission to go to Elder Hammer, but was only able to get permission to send a letter. He promised Elder Hammer "in my letter in the name of the Lord Jesus that he would return to his family in Utah alive."
Elder Hammer did recover, and he returned to mission headquarters in Bern to recuperate. Elder Biesinger spent a total of 68 days in prison. Shortly after his release, one of his accusers, police offical Anthon Just, asked for baptism. Elder Biesinger baptized him on June 21, 1884 before catching an evening train from the city.
At this time, Elder James E. Jennings was sent from the Swiss-German Mission to join Elder Biesinger. They soon had to return to Bern.
On February 18, 1885, Elder Biesinger and Elder Jennings arrived in Budapest, Hungary to begin another attempt to teach the gospel in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. No record of any success was reported, and the two returned to Bern in April.
Other missionaries later served in other parts of the Austrian Empire. By 1889, a branch with 19 members existed in Reichenberg, Bohemia. This city is near Hirschberg, Bohemia, where Elder Hammer had worked.
In a later attempt to establish missionary work in Austria, Johann Huber from Haag-Rottenbach (near Haag am Hausruck) was baptized on April 27, 1900. Members began meeting in his barn, and the first branch was organized there in 1901 with seven members. By 1902, about 30 members were meeting there. The missionaries serving there then were soon banished. They ordained two local elders to preside over the branch before they left.
In 1909, a second branch was organized in Vienna. The members of this branch acquired and furnished a meeting hall. In 1914, the government confiscated their property and dissolved the branch. In that same year, the missionaries were withdrawn from Austria (and all of Europe) due to the outbreak of World War I.
Unlike the later withdrawal of missionaries during World War II, during the first World War, the mission presidents (and their families) were able to stay in Europe, providing some leadership.
During the war, members in Austria held secret meetings in their homes. In Vienna, all the brethren in the branch were called into the army. Sister Mathilde Either took charge of the branch. From time-to-time, one of the brethren would return on leave and administer the sacrament to the branch.
When World War I ended, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was broken up. Austria became a democracy. This brought a freedom of religion that allowed the Church to begin to grow in Austria. The first district of the Church on Austrian soil was organized in 1920. In 1921, a branch was organized in Linz. That same year, the first womens organization of the Church in Austria was organized in Vienna.7
Salzburg got its first branch in 1928 (or by 1922). The first church building was built in Haag am Hausruck in 1937.7
In 1923, Elder Thomas Biesinger, 80 years old, and serving once again as a missionary, was called to Vienna. By the end of 1924, five missionaries were serving in Austria.
The German-Austrian Mission was created on August 23, 1925.
On January 1, 1938, the Swiss-Austrian Mission was created. Later that year, Hitlers army entered Austria, and Austria became a part of the Third Reich (and therefore, a part of Germany.) In June of 1938, the Swiss-Austrian Mission was closed. At that time, eight missionaries were serving in the Austrian District. The Austrian district was assigned to the West German Mission. Presiding over that mission were President M. Douglas and Sister Evelyn Wood.
On August 25, 1939, the Church decided the impending war made it necessary to evacuate all LDS missionaries in affected countries. The European area presidency notified President Douglas Wood, and telegrams were sent to all of the missionaries in the West German Mission, telling them to evacuate to Holland immediately. Each set of missionaries was to send the code word "Quickmere" back to the Mission Office in Frankfurt to let the office staff know they had received the instructions and were leaving. Many of the missionaries had intense experiences getting out of Germany. (The book, Mine Angels Round About, by Terry Bohle Montague, tells many of these experiences, and is the source of the following story.)
Two missionaries, Nephi Henry Duersch and J. Robert Gillespie, serving in Frankenburg and Haag, Austria, did not receive the telegram on August 25th. This area was somewhat isolated and the two were unaware of the extent of the tension in Germany. They were traveling from one village to another on their bikes, visiting members and teaching the gospel to those who would listen.
In the meantime, the office staff was prepared to evacuate. The border to Holland was due to be closed to refugees and they couldn't afford to wait. They sent additional messages to the two, but did not hear back. As President Wood prepared to leave Germany, he left final instructions with the two German women who worked at the office to continue to try to reach the companionship.
The Elders did not return to their apartment until September 2. The next day they finally received one of their messages. When they called the Mission Office to find out what was going on, they were surprised to learn all the missionaries had left the country. They were told to go to a neutral country immediately.
By this time, Holland had closed its borders, so they knew they had to head to Switzerland. They hurried to the train station to get tickets to Stuttgart, and then hopefully, from there, to Basel, Switzerland, where the Swiss Mission Office was.
When they reached the station, they found many other people trying to reach their destinations before the borders closed. They managed to get tickets, and to find a westbound train that had just arrived, but only because it was two hours behind schedule.
At each stop, more and more people pushed their way onto the train. Several times between stops, their train was stopped to allow troop trains through. At these times, no one was sure the train would be allowed to continue. Elder Duersch tried to relieve the tension by playing his harmonica, but one German man saw this as too light-hearted for such a serious moment, so he stopped.
When they reached Stuttgart, they learned of a train leaving for Basel just few minutes later, so they hurried to board it. When they reached Basel, the Swiss Mission President found them a place to stay. Only two hours later, they learned the Swiss border had just been closed.
They worked with the Swiss missionaries for a couple of weeks, and then were told to go to Bordeaux, France and catch a ship to the United States. They had similar difficulties with trains running off schedule and being stopped as they crossed France. What was normally a journey of about nine hours took two-and-a-half days, but they eventually reached their ship and sailed for home.
The war ended in May 1945. Allied troops divided Vienna into sectors, each patrolled by troops of different countries. Amongst the troops patrolling the American sectors were a number of LDS servicemen. They made contact with the Austrian members and attended services with them.
As Christmas approached, these servicemen wrote home to ask for supplies, which they could share with the Austrian members. Arrangements were made so that servicemen would visit each LDS Austrian family for Christmas. A signal was arranged for the safety of the members and the servicemen: the servicemen would whistle an LDS hymn from the street. If it were safe to come in, the members would whistle a hymn in return.
One of these servicemen, Lynn Pinegar, told his of experience through an article in the December 1986 New Era. (pp. 12-13) He and Captain Gibson were assigned to visit the Branch President and his family in the Russian sector. They arrived in a neighborhood that was so damaged that no street names or numbers remained to guide them. Captain Gibson had been there before, and recognized the place to stop.
They pulled over, and Captain Gibson whistled "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam." After several tense moments, a window was opened and they heard the song whistled back. Despite the difficult circumstances, they enjoyed Christmas dinner together. Brother Pinegar reported, "It seems strange to say we feasted on salmon loaf and artificial orange drink, but feast we did. And more than food, we feasted on love and companionship. We feasted on the knowledge that God's son was born into a weary world to bring it hope and light. We feasted on the firm belief that with war's end the gospel would again be preached in Europe and that the Saints would again be free to gather and worship."
On July 1, 1987, the mission was split. Until that time, the mission had covered Austria and many of the Eastern Block countries. (Several of the Eastern Block countries allowed some limited missionary activity, and such activity was coordinated through the Austria Vienna Mission offices.) By 1987, religious tolerance was beginning to increase in several of the East Block countries, and the increased amount of permitted activity made it necessary to have a separate mission. The mission now became the Austria Vienna Mission and the Austria Vienna East Mission.
The Austria Vienna East Mission covered the Eastern Block countries and Greece. Austria Vienna Mission covered six of Austria's nine states, corresponding to the Vienna Stake. (The other three states, on the western edge of Austria, were part of the Munich and Zurich stakes, and were therefore part of those two missions.)
President Dennis Neuenschwander was called to preside over the Austria Vienna East Mission and President Farrell M. Smith was called to preside over the Austria Vienna Mission. For a couple of months, both Mission Offices were at Fuerfangasse 4, until a new office in Vienna could be located for the Vienna East Mission.
President and Sister Smith still had four children living at home at the time of their call: two teenagers, David and Rob, and two younger boys, Jeff and Mike, who were five and seven. When Mike turned eight later that first year, he got to be baptized in the Donau.
During President Smith's presidency, much of the success in the missionary work came with the refugee camps. In 1988, so many Hungarian refugees had been baptized that a special sub-branch of the Wiener Neustadt branch was formed. Their branch president was called from the Wiener Neustadt branch, and all meetings were held in Hungarian, at the refugee camp. Prior to the formation of that branch, Hungarian speaking members came to Wiener Neustadt, where they were provided with ear pieces so they could hear a translator translating the meetings.
During this time, the Wiener Neustadt branch rented office space downtown for their meeting house. They had two upper floors for their chapel and classrooms. The bottom floor was a pet store.
During 1988, a church was under construction for the branch, due to be completed in October. This chapel was away from the downtown area, in a residential area. In September, as completion drew near, the missionaries serving in the branch (four Elders and two Sisters) spent several weeks canvassing the neighborhood, extending the neighbors a special invitation to attend an open house to tour the new chapel, and to meet the people that would be worshipping there.
President Kenneth Dudley and Sister Janet Reber were called to preside over the Austria Vienna Mission from July 1, 1990 to July 1, 1993.
By 1990, there were 3,700 members in Austria.
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir performed in Vienna (at the Grosser Musikvereinssaal) in 1991. General Conference was first directly broadcast to Austria in October 1992.7
President Swen R. and Sister Gretel Swenson were called to preside over the Austria Vienna Mission from July 1, 1993 to July 1, 1996.
By 1995, there were 4,000 members in Austria. On July 1, 1996, the mission was split to create the Austria Vienna South mission, with Johann Wondra as mission president. This mission was concerned with Yugoslavia, and was closed when that region became its own mission.
President Ned L. and Sister Ruth Mangelson were called to preside over the Austria Vienna Mission from July 1, 1996 to July 1, 1999.
On January 19, 1997, a second stake, the Salzburg Austria Stake, was created. Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin, himself an alumni of the Swiss Austrian Mission, had the privelege of presiding.
President Michael and Sister Karin Schulze were called to preside over the Austria Vienna Mission from July 1, 1999 to July 1, 2002.
A special event called "Austria Welcomes You" was held on Saturday afternoon, 2/9/2002 in Salt Lake City. It included members of the Austrian government, Austrian industry, Austrian Olympic Committee, and members of the LDS Church from Austria, as well as several former mission presidents and many mission alumni. See the Church News article for more details.
The Austria Vienna Mission was merged with the Germany Munich Mission on July 1, 2002.
1Millennial Star. No. 36, Vol. XXVII. Saturday, September 9, 1865, p. 572
2Millennial Star. No. 26, Vol. XXVIII. Saturday, June 30, 1866, pp. 404, 408
3Millennial Star. No. 26, Vol. XXVIII. Saturday, June 30, 1866, p. 411
4Millennial Star. No. 7, Vol. LXVI. Thursday, February 18, 1904, pp. 99-100
5Church News, Deseret News, January 1, 1970, p.3
6Church News, Deseret News, June 20, 1970, p.3
7Pietsch, Alfred & Elisabeth. The Church in Austria. http://www.ettl.co.at/mormon/english/at_hist.html
8Luschin von Ebengreuth, Immo. The Swiss Temple: spiritual heart of Europe. The Ensign, vol. 3, number 8, August 1973, p. 11
9The Church in Europe (Austria section). The Ensign, vol. 3, number 8, August 1973, p. 18
10Missionaries Reported Seeking Aid in Europe. Deseret Evening News, September 29, 1914.
© Lise Christiansen
Lise (Moyes) Christiansen