“Servicemen in Europe Flock to Berchtesgaden Conference,” Ensign, Feb. 1978, 74–75
Berchtesgaden was the site of Hitler’s “eagle’s nest,” a complex of bunkers that he intended to use as his last stronghold in World War II. But for nine days in October and November 1977, Aaronic Priesthood holders passed the sacrament to sixteen hundred Latter-day Saints gathered there; leaders of the Church spoke to members and answered their questions; patriarchal blessings were given to numerous members; and many Latter-day Saints serving with the United States military in Europe had their first contact with other Church members in months.
It was the annual Servicemen’s Conference, divided into three sessions because of the large number attending. Held at Berchtesgaden, Germany, since 1955, the annual “retreat” is offered with the cooperation of the U.S. Army. When Chief Chaplain Kirtley of the U.S. Army in Europe visited a Latter-day Saint servicemen’s conference in Frankfurt in 1954, he was so impressed that he worked to have such an event made possible for all religious denominations. The result was the facility at Berchtesgaden—but because the Mormon gathering had given rise to the idea, Chaplain Kirtley offered the Church first choice of conference dates. And the Latter-day Saint conferences are still the largest of such events.
The first three days of the conference were attended by Saints stationed in northern and central Germany, Holland, Belgium, the United Kingdom, and Scandinavia. The second session of the conference was for unmarried Latter-day Saint servicemen in Europe. And the last three days were for families stationed in southern Germany, Spain, the Azores, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and North Africa.
The conferences have become a haven for the American military Saints in Europe. As one who attended the conference said, “It is an opportunity to remove oneself from rigorous military duties, from the coarse life in the barracks, from long, dirty, and difficult training in the field, to join together with other Saints as soldiers of the Lord.”
Although there are three servicemen’s stakes in Germany, providing many opportunities for interaction among the Saints stationed in those areas, many military members are assigned to isolated posts with no other members of the Church nearby—or in areas where they can only attend meetings conducted in a language foreign to them. For such individuals, fellowship with Saints in meetings conducted in their own tongue becomes a strengthening blessing.
One couple traveled “space available” for 2 1/2 days from Turkey to attend the conference, explaining when they arrived that it was worth the difficult travel just to be there. They live in a small community in Turkey where there are only four active priesthood holders—and because by law they can’t proselyte, they have little hope of increasing their numbers. The conference provided a needed uplift to their spirits.
And a mother with four Church jobs—and four children—came to the conference from a fair-sized ward in Germany. She had thought her work was hard, until she talked with a sister from Spain who lives in a small branch where she holds eight Church jobs—and has four children even younger than the other sister’s.
The conferences are also a missionary opportunity. Eighteen new members were baptized at the single adult conference held in May 1977. And this fall, one sister convinced her then-inactive husband to attend the conference, if for nothing more than to enjoy the spectacular scenery. He came to please her—but left his cigarettes home and attended the welcoming session and the social. He was so touched by the spirit and friendly people that he eagerly attended other activities. They began to study the scriptures together and had their first family prayer. This faithful sister, standing hand-in-hand with her beloved husband with tears of joy filling her eyes, was a testimony of answered prayers and an example of the special spirit found in these meetings and activities.
Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin of the First Quorum of the Seventy presided over the Northern Zone and Single Adult conferences, and Elder Charles A. Didier of the First Quorum of the Seventy presided over the Southern Zone Conference. Many other Church leaders from Europe attended, and Elder Thomas S. Monson of the Council of the Twelve made a brief visit and spoke at one of the sessions.
Elder Wirthlin summed up the purpose—and the achievement—of the conference when he said, “By nature of the job, the serviceman is different. He needs the best we can give.” And the military Saints, even in their difficult circumstances, have often achieved outstanding results. “The Church is able to provide the kind of leadership among our military members that will ensure your growth and progress in the Lord’s kingdom here on earth,” Elder Wirthlin told the Saints.
The conference also made an impression on local people. The manager of the General Walker Hotel, which is at the heart of the retreat facilities, says that the Saints are especially welcome in his hotel. Why? There are no alcohol-related problems, he points out—and no damage from carelessly handled cigarettes. But there are problems with serving a conference of Latter-day Saints: milk is required in quantities unheard of in Germany, where milk is regarded as baby food. And the Latter-day Saint conference is the only one held there that includes entire families, which taxes the nursery facilities to the limit.
Was the conference worth the effort and sacrifice involved in attending?
Ask Brother and Sister Orr, whose four-year-old son Christoff joined in the Primary children’s chorus that sang “I Am a Child of God.” Born with serious heart defects, Christoff was not expected to live.
“But he did live,” Sister Orr said, “and God proved the doctors wrong.”
Ask the Reed family, who came from Turkey to the Berchtesgaden conference. Where they live, their entire branch consists of the members of their family.
Ask Sister Freda Edwards, who at eighty years of age was told by her doctor that she couldn’t go to the conference at Berchtesgaden. She went anyway—and felt that the blessings she received as a result were worth it.
Ask Sister Presgrove, who had laryngitis the morning she was supposed to sing a solo at the conference. Her husband gave her a blessing—and she was able to perform.
Their answers will be the same: Where the Saints are gathered together in righteousness, the Spirit will also be. The Spirit of the Lord was with the Saints in Berchtesgaden, and many, tasting that experience, wished they didn’t have to leave.
But as one member said, “There’s always next year. We’ll be back.”