Forty-two years ago, Elder Richard W. Winder was among missionaries expelled from Czechoslovakia as Europe was embroiled in conflict that remained even after World War II.
He returned nearly a year ago (in July 1990) with his wife, former Relief Society Gen. Pres. Barbara W. Winder, and a new mission assignment: president of the Czechoslovakia Prague Mission.Between the time he left until the time he returned, missionaries were not allowed here as this noble country was locked into strict government control. The struggle for freedom was slow and guarded until striking events of the past couple of years opened the doors to the preaching of the gospel.
"We are happy to return," said Pres. Winder of the re-opening of Czechoslovakia to missionaries. "Our Czech members never gave up."
He spoke of one such member, Otakar Vojkuvka, who, in the 1940s, was branch president in Brno. "He is now an older man, but a very active and good missionary," said Pres. Winder. "His son, who was a little boy then, is now branch president.
"Many members from the post-war period have moved, some have died. Those who remain have struggled with oppression and hardship so they don't have the strength they once had. Plzen Branch, for example, had 40 members; it was one of the nicest branches I could ever imagine. When we came back, we found four active members there. But, now the branch is starting to grow again. The members endured a great deal; it is remarkable what they have been able to maintain. Those who have remained faithful are exceptional Latter-day Saints. They are people of conviction."
With the reopening of the mission, a small corps of missionaries returned, including Elder Fred Goldthorpe who served here in the 1940s and is again a missionary in Czechoslovakia, this time serving with his wife, Ann.
"We are attracting well-educated people," Pres. Winder explained. "Students, teachers, scientists, people who read well are being taught by the missionaries. One missionary said, `I can't believe how many people we are baptizing who have titles like doctor or who are engineers.'
"Those are the kinds of people we are attracting. These people love reading and are very fascinated with learning new things. They know a good deal more about us than we know about them. They know about history and are very much aware of what is going on. We are reaching those who are open to suggestions and a new way of life - the curious and those willing to listen. This is what is so good and so exciting."
Joseph Novak is among members in Czechoslovakia with interesting beginnings in the Church. He visited the New York World's Fair 25 years ago. He went to the Mormon Pavilion at the fair and signed a registration card. The card was kept on file because no missionaries were available to preach in Czechoslovakia. When the mission opened, the card was sent to the mission and contact was made.
"He accepted the gospel and was baptized," explained Pres. Winder. "Many people gathered at the lake side to watch. His daughter, Katerina, and her husband, Paul Buzek, have also been baptized. His wife, Vlaspa, is preparing for baptism. Both Brother Novak and Brother Buzek hold the priesthood and are lending strength to their branch."
Pres. Winder spoke of another experience that lasted over a period of years. "Back in 1948, Marva Jean Peddersen of Willard, Utah, became a pen pal with a little girl living in Czechoslovakia. The two continued to write through the years. They grew up and had families, and continued the correspondence as best they could. They wrote about their weddings, and of their children. Each woman's first child - each a boy - was born on the same day.
"The Czech woman became a doctor and married a doctor. It was then that the government told her she could not write letters to America any more. However, as the years passed, she did visit Marva Jean Peddersen in Willard for a month. The friendship was cemented.
"We got a call from Sister Peddersen before we left Salt Lake City," Pres. Winder continued. "She told us about her friend, and we wrote to the friend when we arrived here. We received a warm letter back. She doesn't live close to Prague, but she came to visit us."
Sister Winder said, "She is a wonderful lady. We felt close to her, and recently we returned the visit and stayed with her. She was so warm and friendly; she seems like she is a member. We talked a lot about the Church. When we were ready to leave, she asked, `What do I have to do to be a member of the Church?' "
Pres. and Sister Winder described the Czech people generally as friendly and hospitable "even to the point that sometimes it is difficult to give the missionary lessons because they are serving food.
"We are not having trouble finding people to teach. People are willing to listen and our missionaries are busy. Yet, we need to move slowly and develop leadership in the branches. The branches need help because they were out of contact for so long. Here the branches are like little families. New converts are taken in and given assignments. They are home teachers and visiting teachers and are growing in their callings.
"We started with four missionaries from Portugal and four from Austria. These elders had been out about a year and were given a crash course in the Czech language. Because they were experienced, they did very well. The number of missionaries was doubled and we keep growing as we need to."
Sister Winder said, "When these people think of church, they think of a cathedral. When they come to an LDS Church meeting in a home or rented place, they have to adjust."
Pres. Winder described a branch meeting they attended recently in a home. "It was just jammed with people," he said. "They held the three meetings and had a little break between, but they couldn't move around the room because it was so crowded. I guess there were about 50 people in that little room. They decided to rent a hall. We move a little at a time, but eventually we will have meetinghouses."
Pres. Winder said there are many who are being baptized who are "giving great strength to the Church. This is a new day for Czechoslovakia."