“Pioneers in a Land of Explorers,” Ensign, Apr. 1997, 42
Portugal is a country with a history of pioneers. In the 15th century, Portuguese ships began exploring beyond the known European world. A century later, Portugal had established its presence in many lands, particularly in Asia, Africa, and South America. The emigration of citizens from Portugal to these lands continued for hundreds of years.
In this country of explorers and pioneers, much of the Church’s foundation can be attributed to the efforts of people from the non-European world colonized by Portugal. Brazil, for example, supplied Portugal with many missionaries and converts, while Portuguese-speaking nations in Africa—including Angola, Mozambique, and Cape Verde—were a significant source of new members as people from those nations settled in Portugal.
On 10 June 1981 a memorable meeting occurred in the Roma Theater in Portugal’s capital city of Lisbon. Elder James M. Paramore of the Seventy had come to Lisbon to organize the first stake of Zion on the Iberian Peninsula.
A short six years had passed since Wm. Grant Bangerter, later a member of the Presidency of the Seventy, arrived in this historic city to preside over the newly created Portugal Lisbon Mission. That a stake would be organized after such a short period can be attributed to the hard work of Portuguese pioneers whose dedication to the gospel and commitment to the building up of the Church can be likened to the efforts of pioneers who established the Church in the western United States.
Sitting in the congregation during that meeting were three middle-age couples, born on three different continents and brought together by a similar experience. They had been touched by the Holy Ghost, had joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and had dedicated their lives to spreading the truth in Portugal.
Fernando dos Reis Amaral and his wife, Inês, lived in Lisbon most of their lives under the dictatorship of Antônio de Oliveira Salazar. When he came to power in 1932, Salazar supported Roman Catholicism as the state religion but limited both political and religious freedom.
Fernando and Inês were faithful to the state church, actively serving in charity organizations. They were satisfied with their faith and had no desire to change. Then, on 27 December 1974, Paulo Perisse, a young Brazilian Latter-day Saint missionary, knocked on their door.
Elder Perisse was one of four LDS missionaries in Portugal and was laboring under difficult circumstances.
It was not easy to introduce the Church to a nation going through the traumatic transition from dictatorship to democracy. Portugal was just emerging from a serious political crisis that had begun earlier that year when Portuguese military officers united to overthrow the dictatorship of Marcello Caetano, who had replaced Salazar in 1968.
Three weeks before the coup, President Spencer W. Kimball had said that the Lord would “open the gates and make possible the proselyting” of nations then closed to the gospel.1 In August of that year President Kimball sent David M. Kennedy, a special representative of the First Presidency and a friend of the new Portuguese leaders, to Lisbon to see how the leaders would feel if the Church came to their country. The meetings were productive, and the Church was granted official recognition.
In November, the month Brother Bangerter arrived with four seasoned missionaries who had been serving in Brazil, the country’s parliament adopted a statute permitting religious freedom. Nevertheless, the political situation led to heightened suspicion of Americans. Brother Kennedy, recognizing the insecurity of the situation, suggested that missionaries going to Portugal be carefully instructed on proper behavior. “Some careless statement or act could do serious harm,” he said.2
Fernando and Inês were contacted by only one missionary because it was felt that two missionaries together would attract attention and raise suspicions. The missionaries were careful not to do anything that might jeopardize the Church’s presence in the country. Elder Perisse had been in Portugal less than a month when he knocked on the Amarals’ door.
Fernando and Inês, secure in their religious beliefs, made an appointment in anticipation of an interesting discussion about a church of which they knew little. When the missionaries arrived, however, Inês was suffering from a chronic headache. When Fernando suggested that the missionaries return another day, Elder Perisse asked Inês if she believed in the power of the priesthood. Inês had faith in priesthood power, but she didn’t believe a blessing would help her. “If you have faith,” Elder Perisse responded, “the Lord can heal you.”
The elders then gave Inês a blessing. The next day, for the first time in years, her headaches were gone and never returned. When Fernando and Inês were baptized shortly thereafter, they became two of the earliest native Portuguese to join the Church.
Church meetings, held in a rented hall at a local hotel, were conducted in English by Ray E. Caldwell, a Canadian diplomat who had been set apart as the leader over Church members in Portugal. Missionaries from Brazil interpreted talks given in English. At first Brother and Sister Amaral were not comfortable with this arrangement, but they had testimonies of the gospel. They not only accepted this temporary arrangement as necessary but were willing to do all they could to help the Church grow.
Fernando soon received the priesthood and was called as a counselor to President Caldwell. Despite their language barrier, President Caldwell and Fernando grew close as they worked together to strengthen their small branch, which grew to more than 100 by July 1975. Three years later, membership in Portugal exceeded 1,000.
Missionary work began in Brazil in 1928. By the mid-1970s, when work began in Portugal, the Church in Brazil was strong and growing. As a result, there was a large number of Brazilians who could be called to serve missions in Portugal, using teaching materials that had previously been translated into Portuguese for use in Brazil.
Two members of Portugal’s first branch were Antônio and Mae Leme from Brazil. They had met and married in São Paulo during World War II. Antônio, a Brazilian air force pilot, left the military after the war and began flying for South America’s largest commercial airline. Eventually he accepted a position with an airline company in Portugal and moved to Europe.
“We loved Portugal and adapted very well,” Mae recalls. “We found it to be a very beautiful country with good, kind people.”
The couple’s children attended an English-speaking school, where their sons became involved with the Scouting program. During a Scout meeting, a mother of one of the Scouts introduced herself as a member of the Church. Sister Geraldine Bangerter indicated that she and her husband had recently come to Portugal with the responsibility of opening a mission.
Mae had heard only negative things about the Church, things that clashed with the friendly spirit of Sister Bangerter. After the meeting, she approached Sister Bangerter and asked to know more about the Church. She was impressed with what she learned.
“I found that what they talked about was marvelous because I always had many questions that were never answered, such as where we had come from and why we were here on earth,” she recalls after the missionaries’ first visit. “I realized in that first hour that what these young Brazilian missionaries were saying was true.”
Antônio was skeptical at first. He believed strongly in his own church, and he was not interested in changing. But with study, time, and prayer, the Spirit worked its influence on him. After seven months of lessons, discussions, and Church attendance, the family was baptized.
With only a few members attending the fledgling branch, all were called to serve. Inês Amaral, called as the branch’s first Relief Society president, asked Mae to be her first counselor.
To accommodate membership growth, the branch soon began a transition from an English-speaking congregation to a Portuguese-speaking congregation. By the end of the first year a small but strong foundation of Brazilian and Portuguese members held most branch callings. The completion of the language transition was important because the Church was about to experience unusually rapid and surprising growth.
“Watching the Church grow as fast as it has in this small country has been a blessing,” Brother Leme later recalled. “That growth and the principles of the gospel will bless the entire country.”
Much of that early growth had its genesis in events occurring in Africa.
The early converts who gathered in hotel ballrooms for meetings held in English and Portuguese were soon meeting in Church-owned chapels as the Church expanded to all parts of the country as well as to the Azores Islands and later to the Madeira Islands, Portuguese territories located several hundred miles off the coast of Portugal in the North Atlantic Ocean. Church growth was especially rapid among retornados, as Portuguese returning from Africa were known. More than half of those who joined the Church in its early years in Portugal were retornados.
Hernaldo and Eugênia Telles Grillo considered themselves Africans, though they were of Portuguese descent. Both were born in the Portuguese colony of Angola. Their only visits to Portugal were for vacation or education.
After studying agronomy in Portugal, Hernaldo returned to Angola to work in tropical agriculture. In the 1970s he found a job with a bank, working in agriculture development.
Eugênia loved Angola’s beauty. “That is where I wanted to live,” she says. “It was my home.” Hernaldo and Eugênia grew concerned, however, when a movement in Angola to gain independence from Portugal sparked unrest in the 1960s.
“We were Angolans, and it never entered our minds that we would have to leave,” Hernaldo recalls. “We loved Angola too much to go.” Increasing violence only strengthened the family’s resolve to remain in Angola.
Portugal’s change of government in 1974 resulted in a plan for independence, but unrest continued in Angola as factions fought for government control. For many black Angolans, an independent country would not include whites. Many whites, fearing for their lives, left. Hernaldo and Eugênia stayed as long as safety permitted.
As the date for independence approached, violence increased significantly, particularly against institutions of colonialism. The Telles Grillo’s 13-year-old daughter became nervous and asked to go to Portugal. Soon the family was one of only a few white families remaining in Angola. In October 1975, soldiers came to Hernaldo’s bank to tell him his life was in danger and that he and his family must leave the country as soon as possible. Within five hours, they had packed a few of their prized possessions and were on a plane for Europe.
The exodus of more than a half million people from Angola during the last few months of 1975 was tragic. Most, like the Telles Grillo family, took only what they could carry in a few bags.
Antônio Leme, who piloted many flights from Angola to Portugal, recalls, “It was sad to see. They were leaving behind much of their lives. Remembering those experiences made it difficult for me to sleep at night.”
Coming to Portugal under such circumstances was a shock for Hernaldo and Eugênia. In Angola they had enjoyed a large home with servants. They arrived in Portugal with nothing; even the money they brought with them was worthless. Within a few months Portugal’s population increased 10 percent.
There was little the Portuguese government could do to help all the retornados. After Hernaldo and Eugênia were provided a small hotel room, they decided to place their children with family members in northern Portugal. Hernaldo spent many months looking for work. “I cried every day,” says Eugênia.
Eventually they were able to afford a small apartment. After a year’s painful separation, the family was reunited. They had no furniture to put in their apartment, but they were happy to be together again. Material things had lost their importance.
“I had the sensation that I had died materially,” Eugênia says. “We had to begin at the bottom. I prayed very hard to the Lord, telling him I wanted to understand my new life and dedicate my life to serving him.”
Within days two missionaries were at the family’s door. The missionaries’ message was an answer to many family questions. Difficult times prompted Eugênia and Hernaldo to think about life’s purpose, and their temporary separation from their children caused them to contemplate what life beyond the grave would be without one another. They readily accepted the missionaries’ message.
“The idea that we would be separated at death made us very sad,” Eugênia says. “When the missionaries explained each part of the plan of salvation, especially that we could be together for eternity as a family, it brought incredible happiness to us.”
With their increasing gospel knowledge, family members sought the Spirit and found joy in gospel service. “After we lost everything we had, we gained a better outlook on life,” Hernaldo says. “We could lose everything again and not be bothered.”
“We truly learned the meaning of the scripture that says everything we have belongs to God [see Mosiah 4:22],” says Eugênia. “We were prepared to belong to the Church, and it was easy to accept Church callings. In everything I have done for the Church I find I have been fulfilling that which I had prayed for when I was in so much pain.”
The family’s commitment to their new life was formalized in the waters of baptism on 26 November 1977.
The turmoil Portugal experienced during the 1960s and 1970s was difficult for the nation’s nearly 10 million citizens. But as Church pioneers there learned, difficulty and struggle often bring forth blessings—including gospel growth.
Brother and Sister Telles Grillo, Brother and Sister Leme, and Brother and Sister Amaral gave many years of faithful service in Portugal’s pioneer Church. They served in stake presidencies and Relief Society presidencies, in Primaries and bishoprics, and as home teachers and visiting teachers. The three brethren eventually were called as patriarchs, a calling Brother Telles Grillo held when he passed away in 1988 and that Brother Amaral held until suffering a stroke shortly thereafter. Brother Leme, despite the challenge of losing his sight in 1993, continues in his calling.
These pioneer families, three of many, faced the challenges of joining the Church when it was small and unpopular. Despite misunderstanding and hardship in a country with an already strong religious tradition, they dedicated their lives to serving their brothers and sisters and sharing the message of the Restoration.
Pioneering generally evokes images of handcarts and covered wagons. In Portugal, pioneering has meant establishing wards and branches, building chapels, and defending the Church against detractors. It has also meant commitment—a commitment that has, in two short decades, resulted in the baptism of more than 34,000 people and the creation of five stakes and three missions.
“Portugal will be covered from north to south and from east to west with stakes of Zion,” Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said in 1986. “Chapels will be built in cities and towns throughout the whole land. And as a consequence of the growth of the kingdom of God, this nation will be exceedingly blessed and will become again a great nation as it was in times of old.”3
Thanks to pioneers in a land of explorers.