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Vienna Mission set stage for LDS growth

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VIENNA — On the surface, the LDS Church's Austria Vienna East Mission lasted a little more than four years, from mid-1987 to early 1992 — about the lifespan of a pair of two-year Mormon missionary terms.

And the name just didn't seem quite right, seeing how none of the assigned missionaries ever served in either Vienna or Austria but rather in adjacent countries and beyond.

But the mission's AVE acronym is fitting, since the mission served as a road to take gospel teachings to many European nations where The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had little or no previous presence.

And Vienna — long considered one of Europe's leading cities in politics, economics and the arts — was a fitting headquarters city, seeing it was surrounded on three sides by the Iron Curtain and was just a mere 20 minutes away from a world of suppression and Communist control.

It served as a good jumping off point for laying the foundation of missionary work in formerly closed central and eastern European nations, and a good welcoming point for refugees from neighboring nations.

"Austria was a neutral country, and we always had good relationships with these countries," said Vienna native Johann A. Wondra, a former LDS regional representative, mission president, temple president and Area Seventy.

In fact, recalling his being a university student of philosophies in Vienna in the 1950s, Wondra said watching the refugees arrive from communistic countries sparked a questioning of the purpose of life, which led to his joining the LDS Church and serving a mission.

The Austria Vienna East Mission began July 1, 1987, comprised central/eastern European and eastern Mediterranean countries that previously were part of the church's International Mission — Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Greece, with Egypt, Cyprus and Turkey added two months later.

The mission had a president — Dennis B. Neuenschwander, a former BYU and University of Utah professor of Russian languages who was working for the LDS Church in establishing genealogical microfilming projects throughout central and eastern Europe.

"He could speak the languages — the Lord had the right person there," said Wondra of Elder Neuenschwander, an emeritus general authority whose mission tenure was followed with a call to the Quorums of the Seventy, including extensive assignments back in eastern Europe.

It also had 34 missionaries — 11 senior couples and 12 young elders.

But the AVE mission lacked a home and an office. Early on, the Neuenschwanders stayed in hotels and used the kitchen in the Austria Vienna Mission home as a makeshift office.

Missionaries spread out in the countries, often not wearing nametags and sometimes not even typical missinonary attire. They were starting conversations and making connections — investigating the cities and the possibilities as much as finding investigators.

And yet, the mission totaled 58 convert baptisms for its first six months.

As the Iron Curtain began to rust, the mission added the likes Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania and Russia. In 1989, previous to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Hungary opened its borders to Austria, and the Hungarians poured across the border — some to stay permanently, but most for a visit before returning home.

Wondra remembered greeting Hungarian Latter-day Saints among the scores of busloads of visitors. He asked them what they wanted to see, assuming it would be Vienna's vaunted world-class operas and theaters and such.

"They said, 'We want to see the Vienna First Ward chapel, the mission home — and we want to see the birthplaces of our mothers,' " he said. "They took the Book of Mormon and embraced it with tears in their eyes. This was a demonstration of their hearts — it had to do with the church."

By 1990, four separate missions were created from the Austria Vienna East — Poland Warsaw, Czechoslovakia Prague, Hungary Budapest and Greece Athens, with Moscow and northeastern Russia moved to the Finland Helsinki East Mission.

And convert baptisms practically doubled annually — 108 in 1988, 204 in 1989 and 421 in 1990 — not counting the 252 baptized in the Soviet areas of the Helsinki East mission.

More divisions followed in 1991 — Bulgaria became an independent mission, Romania was assigned to the Hungary mission, and Yugoslavia was reassigned to the Austria Vienna Mission. That left the AVE with Ukraine — but only long enough until a new mission president, Howard L. Biddulph, could relocate to Kiev and lead the newly created Ukraine Kiev Mission.

Officially, the Austria Vienna East Mission closed Feb. 3, 1992.

"It fulfilled its duty in four years, and it was a very good time," recalled Elder Neuenschwander. "It was a time of laying foundations and groundwork."

It was the result of an effective trio plowing into new ground. Elder Neuenschwander directed the missionary effort in the same countries where

Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and Elder Hans B. Ringger of the Quorums of the Seventy were meeting with government

officials to gain official recognition for the LDS Church.

"It was a good team," Elder Neuenschwander said. "We worked to establish a foundation upon which the church could build."

A good team at a good time, as former Communist countries discovered new political and religious freedoms.

On the 20th anniversary of the creation of the Austria Vienna East Mission, Elder Neuenschwander counted some 20 current LDS missions in 2007 covering the regions previously under AVE care.

"Elder Ringger once gave me the instruction to 'go destroy your mission,' " he said with a wistful, reflective smile. "And it took four years to accomplish his directive."

Beyond the Iron Curtain: Church blossoms in USSR

Besides being the year the LDS Church dedicated its first temple inside the former Soviet Union, 2010 marks several key LDS anniversaries in countries once behind the Iron Curtain — the 25th anniversary of the Freiberg Germany Temple, and the 20th anniversaries of missions in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary and the first branch in Russia. Deseret News reporter Scott Taylor is taking a look at the LDS Church's past, present and future in these countries in a series of stories this week.

Today: how the Austria Vienna East Mission served as a springboard for the LDS Church into numerous former Communist countries.