Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Wallace Toronto's Missionary Influence Lives On: The Widtsoe, Grant, Nelson, Uchtdorf, Bednar Czech Connection

Wallace Toronto served three missions to the Czech people and for 32 years was the longest serving mission president in the LDS Church, 28 years in abstentia. Today his family and friends have established the Wallace Toronto foundation that benefits poor Czechs and Slavakian members and non-member children. In order to understand the significance between his connection to all the men named you will need to read the whole post.

There is a brief biography of him in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism and in an Ensign article by Kahlile Mehr, “Czech Saints: A Brighter Day,” Ensign, Aug 1994, 46.

This is a brief synopsis of his involvement from the sources:

In 1929 Wallace Toronto was called to the German Mission and reassigned by John A. Widtsoe to be one of the first five elders to open the Czechoslovak Mission under then mission president Arthur Gaeth who had been serving in Germany.

In 1932 after his three year mission he returned home, married Martha Sharp and graduated from the University of Utah. In 1936 he was called as mission president to replace Gaeth. The worked moved slow and was difficult. In 1937 Heber J. Grant, president of the Church, visited and gave dozens of press conferences which helped gain attention for the missionaries. In September 1938 missionaries were pulled out due to the turmoil in Germany caused by Adolph Hitler and the rise of the Third Rech and the missionaries were reassigned to Switzerland. In October 1938 President Toronto and one of his missionaries Asael Moulton returned and began translating Talmage's Articles of Faith and assigned two local leaders to be in charge.

By February 1939 the missionaries returned but in March 1939 four missionaries were arrested by the Gestapo and subsisted on bread and water for forty days until President Toronto secured their release. In August 1939 the Church ordered the missionaries out of the country and Wallace Toronto boarded the last train in front of an all-out declaration of war.
He set apart 21-year-old Josef Roubícek to preside in his absence.

Roubícek keep track of the 84 members for almost seven before the church would be reestablished. In March 1946 Ezra Taft Benson representing the Church visited the country during a tour of Europe when he handled food distribution to starving members. While there he asked for official government permission to reopen the mission. On 28 June 1946 Wallace Toronto with two elders Victor Bell, and Heber Jacobs reentered the country. In the spring of 1947 he rented a mission home and brought his family. In 1948 there were thirty-nine elders serving. Unfortunately a communist coup occurred and missionaries were put under watch by the secret police. The secret police shut down the mission publication which had three thousand non-member subscribers and began visiting church services.

In January 1950 two elders were arrested and release was on condition of total evacuation of all missionaries. All missionaries left the country and the Czech government withdrew official sanction on 6 April 1950. For fourteen years Wallace Toronto tried to regain entrance in to the country but was denied admittance. In 1964 he and his wife reentered the country as tourist. Finally in July 1965 he returned on an official visa but was arrested by the very man who granted official clearance after giving a public interview. He was again denied official sanction and escorted to the German border where he was deported. Wallace Toronto died on 10 January 1968 having never been released as the mission president nor regaining official sanction. He had served by keeping in touch through mail and sending financial aid to the few members who survived all those years under communist rule.

Over the next couple of decades a few members were baptized in Germany and relocated to Czechoslovakia. In 1985 Eastern Europe came under the direction of Russell M. Nelson who traveled to the country and petitioned the Czech government each year for official recognition.

Finally in January 1990 the communist began loosening up restrictions particularly their religious restriction and granted religious freedom for all faiths. On the 6 February Elder Nelson rededicated Czechoslovakia by Karlstejn. On 1 July 1990 the mission officially reopened forty years after Wallace Toronto was evicted with sixty-four missionaries under Richard W. Winder.

Stefan M. Hogan reported 8 October 2005 in the Slovak Spectator a few more details about the church's involvement from 1990 until 2005:

"During Communism ... priesthood leaders often visited members one by one or in small groups to administer the sacrament, comfort and teach," the LDS Church News Archives states in an issue provided to The Slovak Spectator by Kahlile B. Mehr, author of Enduring Believers, Czechoslovakia, and the Latter-day Saints, 1884-1990. "Church materials that found their way into the country were typed on old typewriters with nine carbon copies at a time and then passed to members in different locations."

Then in 1990, following the Velvet Revolution, the LDS was granted recognition by the newly-elected democratic government. At that point, the church had 345 members and was growing at the rate of about 200 new members a year.

But when the Czech Republic and Slovakia split in 1993, the LDS was left without official recognition in Slovakia.

The LDS operated for years in Slovakia without official recognition by the government. This was due in part to the Church Registration Act, passed in 1991, which required minority religions seeking recognition to present a petition signed by 20,000 Slovaks in support of the new religion.

"In theory ... the law encouraged religious freedom, but made it impractical to attempt," Shaun D. Stahle wrote for the LDS Church News. "Church leaders concluded it was impractical to meet the demands of such stringent laws and felt it best to wait until the law was changed."

But in September 2006, with the law still in place, the church gathered all the missionaries it could muster and sent them around Slovakia's major cities to collect signatures.

While the petition drive was under way, Catholic bishops issued a statement urging believers not to sign it, saying Mormonism was "not in line with the doctrine of the Catholic Church".

The statement earned Archbishop Ján Sokol, the head of the Bratislava-Trnava diocese, a visit from American Ambassador Rodolphe Vallee.

"The LDS co-operated with the Catholic Church on several kinds of events and services, and still does," Slováček told The Slovak Spectator. "But everyone has the right to say what they believe."

The LDS gave itself a month to gather the signatures, and was delighted to find missionaries were collecting thousands each day.

"It took a little more than a week," said Baťková, who worked on the petition drive with her husband Viliam Baťka, who serves as the LDS's Public Relations Director. "It was really amazing."

In all, the missionaries gathered 33,000 signatures, which were immediately presented to the Slovak government for verification. The LDS was officially granted recognition on October 18, 2006.

Official recognition allows the LDS to build and operate religious buildings, as well as perform legally binding ceremonies, such as weddings.

"It also allows us to accept financial support from the Slovak state," Baťka said, "but we don't. That's not why we did it."

The LDS Church now has 5 branches and more than 100 members in Slovakia.

Today the mission has about thirty more missionaries with a total of around 100 and is administered by President Marvin Slovacek with 21 in Slovakia and around 80 in the Czech Republic . So the missionary force has been very lean over the years is about half of what most missions are assigned in most places in the world.

JonErik commented in a post on Eastern Europe on the blog LDS Church Growth:
Elder Uchtdorf dedicated Slovakia in a special dedicatory prayer on the hill overlooking the Trencin castle, on a spring day in April, 2006. About 50 members and missionaries joined him. In that dedicatory prayer, he said that while past growth had been slow in Slovakia, it would become a land of strength with many congregations of Saints. Elder Uchtdorf, himself, was born in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia - which is about 120 kilometers north of Trencin.

The Bratislava branch has about 30 active members - which is split almost evenly between native Slovaks and expatriate church members from USA and other countries, who are working/living in Bratislava. Branch meetings are conducted concurrently in both the Slovakian and English languages because of that mix.
The current mission president in the Czech Prague Mission is stayed closely linked with the Wallace Toronto family. In March 2003 the Wallace Toronto Foundation was set up with a goal to:
The Wallace F. Toronto Foundation sponsors community-based educational, goodwill, and humanitarian projects in the Czech and Slovak Republics. The foundation is a Utah-based 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Its namesake, Wallace F. Toronto, exemplified these values during his years of service among the Czechoslovak people.
According the Czech Prague Mission site:
The Foundation's purpose is to identify and support a small number of unique goodwill and humanitarian projects in the Czech and Slovak Republics. The Foundation embodies the spirit of Wallace Toronto, past president of the Czechoslovakia Prague Mission, and endeavors to promote the ideals and values that he exemplified. The Foundation offers an exceptional opportunity for former missionaries and current friends of the Czech and Slovak people to continue to build bridges of friendship and understanding. Please join us by making a contribution or becoming involved in one or more of the Foundation's programs.
Since 2003 G. Fred Yost Jr. and Marvin J. Slovacek Jr., the current mission president has worked closely with the Wallace Toronto Foundation. A few valuable projects the foundation has funded was a Slovakian Registration Drive that granted official recognition in Slovakia, the establishment of a Czech and Slovak Mission Fund, setting up an after-school mentoring program Rozlety (Taking off!) for Romany or gypsie children in the Czech Republic and construction of a park in Belusa, Slovakia.

The Slovakian Registration Drive succeeded in granting official sanction of the the Church in Slovakia:
Over a year ago I was asked by the Church to organize and spearhead an effort to obtain government recognition for the Church in Slovakia. This past September, we implemented a bold effort involving over 100 current missionaries, local members, and returned missionaries from the Czech Prague Mission to gather the signatures of 20,000 Slovakian citizens supporting the registration of the Church.

As you are probably aware, the kind-hearted people of Slovakia rallied to our cause in the spirit of Christian solidarity, and that effort was successful. And on October 18, 2006, I accompanied Elder David Bednar of the Quorum to the Twelve Apostles to a meeting with high-level Slovakian government officials where the announcement granting recognition to the Church was made. Earlier that day, we met with the U.S. Ambassador serving in Slovakia. I mention this, because in both of those meetings, the contribution of the Toronto Foundation was expressly acknowledged and commended for the singular part it played in the success of this project.

The Toronto Foundation provided not only significant administrative and logistical support, coordinating literally hundreds of hours of volunteer service by dozens of volunteers, including nearly 30 returned missionary volunteers who traveled to Slovakia to assist in the effort, but it also provided over $15,000.00 in financial support that paid for such things as travel, lodging, and other expenses for missionaries, local members, and other project volunteers. In one instance, there were a number of college-age young adult Church members from the Czech Republic who learned about the registration effort at a Church-sponsored activity and wanted to travel to Slovakia together to assist in this historic project. Most were holding down summer jobs in order to save money for the upcoming school year. The Toronto Foundation, however, was able to step in and provide them temporary work supporting the effort in Slovakia.

As the Executive Director of the Slovakia Registration Project, I would like to express my sincerest thanks to those of you who have supported the Toronto Foundation over the years. I do not hesitate to say that the support of the Toronto Foundation contributed significantly to the outcome of that effort in partnership with the Church Legal Department, the Area Presidency, and the Czech Prague Mission.

In addition to the acknowledgment of Elder Bednar, the Toronto Foundation was also specifically highlighted as a trusted and positive example by several other members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the Europe Central Area Presidency, and several current and former mission presidents, all who specifically expressed thanks for the Foundation’s support of the project in Slovakia.

In the end, however, the Toronto Foundation is nothing more or less than you, its loyal supporters. Please consider making a generous contribution to this wonderful organization that, in so many ways, is truly building meaningful bridges to the Czech and Slovak people.
Jonathon T. Tichy

In addition since 2007 they choose a deserving community charity to help in a beautification project. On 22 September 2007 the first in-country service project was completed:

On Saturday, 22 September, 2007, more than 120 volunteers gathered at the St. Luke Hospice and two senior care centers in Ostrava for the Toronto Foundation’s Annual Service Project. Volunteers performed grounds maintenance, painted fences and gates, washed wheelchairs and other medical equipment, helped remove graffiti from the area, pruned trees, and more. At the end of the day, the Foundation also contributed $6,000 for much needed medical equipment at the Hospice, including an autoclave and a patient lift.
The group worked with Caritas, the charitable arm of the Catholic Church, in donating 1,000 hours of service at two elder care facilities and one hospice in Ostrava, Czech Republic. In September 2008 the Czech Republic missionaries participated in an annual Toronto Service Project and worked weeding and painting fences.

The Wallace Toronto Foundation is a very worthwhile enterprise that helps out people less fortunate than many of us in the United States. I am going to put my money where my mouth is and give them a small donation.

If you would like to recognize the spirit of Wallace Toronto and give back something please make a donation also:

There are several ways to get involved or to contribute to the Wallace F. Toronto Foundation.

First, if you are interested in getting involved, or have questions about the foundation's upcoming projects or events, please send us an e-mail at or fill out the form below.

Second, you may arrange to contribute to the foundation directly on an ongoing basis with regular monthly deductions from you checking or savings account. Click here to find out more and to download the form to start contributing today.

Third, if you would like to make a direct one-time donation to the Wallace F. Toronto Foundation, please make checks payable to "The Wallace F. Toronto Foundation" and mail them to:

Wallace F. Toronto Foundation

175 East 400 South Suite 900

Salt Lake City, UT 84111

Personally I would prefer a Paypal button to pay with maybe the group should get a link for donations to expedite small donations.

I hope you enjoyed learning about Wallace Toronto and how he is influencing missionary work today.

No comments: