“The Church in Romania,” Ensign, June 2001, 30
The political revolution of December 1989 affected everyone in Romania, including an eighth-grade girl named Izabela Ticala, who lived in Oradea near the Hungarian border in western Romania.
“After the revolution I had the freedom to search out other religions and grow,” says Izabela, who grew up in a Romanian-Hungarian bilingual home. “I learned English mostly by reading Shakespeare and the New Testament. After high school, I had developed a desire to learn more about Christ.”
In December 1998, at age 21, Izabela met the missionaries, who gave her a copy of the Book of Mormon in English. “I promised I would follow Moroni’s words in Moroni 10:3–5,” she said. “After reading a few verses, I realized I had forgotten to pray. I knelt down, prayed, then went back to my reading. The word yes in Hungarian seemed to be in the background of the page. I didn’t believe it. I said to myself, It’s just in my mind. Later, when I prayed about Joseph Smith and the Church, the peace and warmth of the Holy Ghost came not only in my heart but also in my mind. Then I realized that the first answer was my answer.”
Izabela Ticala was baptized on 18 April 1999. In many ways, she is representative of those who gained a testimony of the gospel when religious freedom increased after the fall of communism. Her testimony is added to those of other faithful Latter-day Saints who are building a strong foundation upon which the Church can grow—line upon line, member by member. For in Romania, as throughout the world, “by small and simple things are great things brought to pass” (Alma 37:6).
“We are those small and simple things,” says Sister Ticala, who is serving a mission on Temple Square in Salt Lake City. “We can help bring about great things. Sometimes the Church is struggling in Romania, but I believe the Lord is preparing us for something big. We hope to have a temple and many more chapels here someday, so the adversary is working hard. But we won’t let him win. We have to be positive even if it’s difficult.”
The beginnings of the Church in Romania are linked directly to the revolution there in 1989. A brief political history shows why. Prior to 1948, Romania, which is located in the heart of Eastern Europe, provided enough grain for itself and surrounding areas. For years it was known as the “breadbasket of Eastern Europe.” With the advent of communism in 1948, the cities of Romania became industrialized. By 1960 Romanian communist leaders began to distance themselves from the USSR (Soviet Union). At first the economy grew, but by 1988, living standards had dropped dramatically with extensive food shortages. People revolted, and at the end of 1989 the communist government fell. The weakened economy collapsed, increasing the poverty. Nevertheless, the door was opened to the world.
On 9 February 1990, Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles dedicated Romania for missionary work and prayed that it would become a great citadel of spiritual strength and a beacon of light to neighboring nations. Now, as the gospel takes root, Romania is poised to spiritually feed itself and surrounding areas as it once physically fed them.
In the capital city of Bucharest, there are six branches—each with Romanian leaders. Recently, a new chapel was built there. Outside of Bucharest, the Church is established in Ploiesti, which also has a new chapel, and Brasov and Timisoara. In 13 other outlying branches, membership is small but growing. Each of these branches is part of the Romania Bucharest Mission and enjoys the support of several sets of missionaries. A decade after the first baptisms in 1991, there are nearly 2,000 members.
It is easy to see how the “small and simple things” done by Latter-day Saint humanitarian missionaries helped to establish the Church in Romania. In the fall of 1990 Beverly Cutler, Virginia Bruce, Harold and Enid Davis, Alvin and Barbara Price, and Reed and Dorothy Fife arrived in Bucharest—the first of several groups of humanitarian missionaries. They found that mass poverty had created desperate situations for many people. Thousands of parents, filled with hopelessness, left their children in orphanages because they could not provide for them. This was especially true for parents of children with disabilities. Eventually politics, poverty, and cultural attitudes caused the orphanages to swell to more than 200,000 children.
The Prices took an interest in children with disabilities and established the Special Olympics in Romania. The first games were held in June 1991 with more than 500 participants. A young Romanian girl in a wheelchair who had been shot during the 1989 revolution lit the Special Olympics flame.
“Everyone in the stadium was crying,” said Brother Price. “These games probably changed Romanians’ ideas about children who are handicapped more than any single thing that has ever happened.”1 The Prices trained the Romanians to carry on the Special Olympics, and the games have continued.
The Davises took an interest in the Bucharest Central University Library, which had been burned in the revolution. The people of Romania love learning so much that some say they will stand in line for books more than for food. In August 1991, Brigham Young University donated 20,000 books to the library. Dr. Ion Stoica, university librarian in Bucharest, visited BYU to express thanks.2
Other Church humanitarian missionaries taught people how to help themselves. A director in the Ministry of Education noted the success of this method: “The food gets eaten. The clothes get worn out. But what is taught goes on forever.’”
In December 1990 the first proselytizing missionaries arrived, and in June 1991 Romania became part of the Budapest Hungary Mission. In January 1993 the Liahona Association was legally recognized by the Romanian government. Through it, the Church could obtain visas and enter legal documents. In July 1993 the Romania Bucharest Mission was created. Church humanitarian supplies arrived often during the early part of that decade for members and nonmembers as well. In September 1996 seminary and institute programs were started in Bucharest and Ploiesti. During the Christmas season of 1998, the first Romanian-language copies of the Book of Mormon arrived.
One year to the day after Elder Nelson dedicated Romania, humanitarian missionary Beverly Cutler was on her hands and knees scraping the floor of a remodeled house in Bucharest. “My heart was singing. We now had our own little chapel with a baptismal font.” The first three baptisms since the fall of communism were performed in this font on 24 March 1991: Octavian Vasilescu, Doina Boilaru, and Camelia Ioneascu, all of Bucharest.
Octavian Vasilescu was born in Bucharest to an academically oriented family—his mother taught physics and chemistry and his father was a financial adviser for the city of Bucharest for nearly a decade. Nevertheless, his father was arrested for possessing copies of American movies. He was jailed for six months waiting for his trial, pronounced not guilty, and released. Speaking of the time before the revolution, Brother Vasilescu, who is an engineer by trade, says, “Our parents learned what fear is. We learned what fear is.”
However, everything changed for him and his family in the fall of 1990 when he made a “small and simple” decision—he volunteered to drive an American Latter-day Saint to church. The meeting was held in a small apartment, so Octavian simply waited inside.
“I felt a good spirit in that meeting,” he says. “I heard the prayers and talks. They were from the heart, and I liked that. I watched them pass the sacrament. I thought, These people have good principles.” After the meeting, he asked for a Book of Mormon in English.
All three of the first Latter-day Saints baptized in Romania became leaders and helped with translation of early Church materials.
Though most people in Romania are happy with the change in their government, it is a challenge for new converts to make the transition from a passive religious life to an active religious life in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Gabriela Frunza remembers growing up under communism. “In school we were taught that there is no God. Our parents were at risk if they taught us religion. Even so, most people never lost their sense of the divinity of God.”
Consuela Icleanu is one who struggled with the change. In 1992 she fought her growing feelings that the gospel was true. “I had conscience problems,” she said. “It felt like treason to change. My great-grandfather had been a priest. How could I betray him and my Orthodox religion?” But she and her husband and two children received answers to their prayers about the truthfulness of the gospel and were baptized.
Sometimes doing “small and simple things” takes courage. In order to establish the Church, it was necessary to have some of the Latter-day Saints add their signatures to a registration application. “It took great courage to sign your name to a document that would go to the government so soon after the fall of communism,” remembers Elder Dennis B. Neuenschwander of the Seventy, who was mission president and was involved in gathering the signatures. “After one sister signed, she looked me in the eyes and said firmly, ‘This is my church too.’”
A great challenge facing Romanian Latter-day Saints is the economic situation and its impact on the family. In the early days of the Church, even asking a family to bring two slices of bread for the sacrament each week could mean a substantial sacrifice for them.
Cristinel Ciobanu was president of the Cotroceni Branch during those early years. “Many people had difficulty paying for food, electricity, and the rent,” he says. “A phone was a luxury. People tried hard to pay tithing and fast offerings, but it was a challenge. We continually taught self-reliance. My counselor and elders quorum president had jobs but needed to work nights, sometimes 12 hours a day, Sundays, Saturdays. I understood their situation very well. I had worked long hours also in 1995 and 1996, and that helped me to be promoted.”
Maria Ciobanu agrees with her husband. “With the men working such long hours, women usually did all the housework and cared for the children. Most families have about two children. It’s unusual for a woman to stay at home. We are hopeful things will get better.”
And things are getting better. The scriptures teach that the payment of tithing sanctifies both the individual and the land in which he or she lives. As more Romanian members live the law of tithing, they and their country are being blessed.
Life has improved for the Ion and Georgeta Alecu family as they have implemented the gospel into their lives. In 1993 they took the missionary discussions. “The Spirit was very strong with us from the beginning,” says Georgeta, who now serves as Relief Society president in the Obor Bucharest Branch, “but the Word of Wisdom and tithing were difficult points for us. Both Ion and I smoked and drank coffee. We committed to quit. The next week, I went to my mother’s house, and she offered me coffee. I said no, but she gave me some anyway. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, so I took a sip. I felt terrible. From that moment on, I never drank coffee again.”
Ion, who serves in the elders quorum presidency and also as Young Men president in the district, remembers their struggle with tithing. “One day we were discussing tithing on the bus, and we had a powerful personal experience that motivated us to pay our tithing. We have done so ever since.”
Georgeta remembers the morning in 1993 after they were baptized: “Even though apartments in Romania are so cold in the winter that you can see your breath, we didn’t even notice because we were so happy.”
Life has improved dramatically for the Alecus since then. Ion went to Italy to work in a tile factory. The owner was impressed that Ion didn’t drink or smoke. He noticed Ion’s work ethic and honesty. Finally, he proposed that Ion open a tile factory in Romania for his company, which he did with great success.
In August 2000 the Alecus were sealed in the temple and performed the ordinances for their grandparents and great-grandparents. They are among other Romanians who rejoice in receiving the temple ordinances, though the sacrifice to attend is significant.
Members usually plan two trips a year to the Freiberg Germany Temple. “We travel 36 hours by bus,” says Maria Ciobanu. “We arrive in Germany in the evening, go to the temple the next day at eight o’clock and spend all day, the next day also. The trip is always worth it.”
Madalina Icleanu, a young woman, says, “We went as a family so we could be sealed. Many came with us to share our joy. I also did baptisms. Now my parents are teaching a temple preparation class.”
Of the temple, one young woman says, “I don’t think there are words to describe what the temple meant to me. It is truly the house of the Lord. The peace that is there is like nothing else I have ever felt.”
“Small and simple” decisions abound for Latter-day Saint youth who are a tiny minority scattered among the millions of people in Romania. Alice Alecu is the only Latter-day Saint in her Bucharest high school. “It’s not easy, but I’m not ashamed to say that I am a member of the Church,” she says. “At first all of my friends lived near me. They had good hearts, but without the gospel they did things I didn’t agree with. Now my best friend is a member even though she lives an hour away.”
The Church tries to help the youth to feel a part of the larger Latter-day Saint population in Romania and get to know each other. Activities help—such as a three-day youth conference that was held in July 2000 in the mountains of southeastern Transylvania. About 70 teens enjoyed sports, lectures, a talent show, and a dance.3
“The Spirit was so powerful that everyone just forgot about the cold,” said one leader. “Many of the youth cried when they had to leave because they had become such close friends.”
As always, there is hope in the future as the youth gain spiritual strength. Missions help prepare them to become the next generation of leaders. When Dragos Tieru-Hatu was a deacons quorum president, he traveled a great distance to visit a quorum member who was ill. When others commented on the long trip, the young man said, “But he is in my quorum, isn’t he?” This young leader later served a full-time mission.
Overcoming challenges has made many of the members strong. Following are a few testimonies:
A young convert says, “After I was baptized, the sister missionaries gave me a copy of the Book of Mormon in English as a gift. I wanted to read it so badly that I attended the English classes taught by the missionaries. I studied the Book of Mormon three or four hours a day, and I loved it. That’s how I learned English.”
One young mother says, “We know this is God’s church but that people sometimes make mistakes. The Spirit is too powerful to deny. We are grateful to Jesus Christ for His sacrifice for us, so we remain active.”
A priesthood leader says, “My testimony is not based on people. I didn’t join the Church to change the Church. I joined the Church to change myself. In our callings, we follow the Church doctrine, principles, and rules. We rely on the Church Handbook of Instructions.”
Each testimony anchored in Jesus Christ is added line upon line, member by member, building a strong gospel foundation and leading Romanian Latter-day Saints into a brighter future.
“Romania is beautiful, and I love it so much,” says Alexandra Badea, a sister missionary who has returned to Romania after her Temple Square mission. “If I have a choice, I’ll live here forever because there are so many good things. People are wonderful. I know it’s hard sometimes, but if you want this life to be beautiful you can find it in the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Brasov, once known as Kronstadt, is located on the northern side of the Carpathian Mountains. The town was part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire for many years before becoming part of Romania. Beginning in 1903, Brasov was home to a small but faithful group of Latter-day Saints who were still meeting 30 years later.
In 1933 President Oliver H. Budge, mission president in Berlin, wrote to Helene Bammer Bernhardt, who had been a part of the group since she was a child, and asked her to tell him the group’s history. She responded in two letters, reporting that missionary Mischa Markow and his companion came to their city in August 1903. Several people were baptized, including her parents.
The group survived over the years with the help of missionaries. Some of the local men who presided moved to America and some died, eventually leaving this group without priesthood leadership, so they functioned as a Relief Society under the president of the mission. Helene kept a list of the names of the 48 missionaries who served in the area and the 30 people baptized between 1903 and 1933.
Of the effects of World War I on the group, Helene wrote: “The terrible war [was] making an end to everything. Long and dreary years now began for us all. We were isolated, no connection with the Church whatsoever, only dependent on ourselves. But this time also went by. The Lord was with us and did not leave us.”
In February 1926 the group welcomed two visiting priesthood holders. Helene wrote: “Can you realize what it means to be able to take part in the sacrament and to enjoy the spirit of a meeting after such a long time of 12 years? After a long, dark night the sun finally shone again for us.”
In 1933 President Budge visited the group. He wrote: “We administered the sacrament. They all wept for joy.”
On 5 June 1995, 60 years after Helene Bernhardt’s letters, Brasov opened for missionary work again as part of the Romanian Bucharest Mission, and today a branch is established there.