In the fall of 1956, Johann Wondra was studying architecture in Vienna. That fall, Wondra sympathized strongly with student protests in neighboring Hungary—and felt shaken when Soviet tanks crushed the uprising. As political refugees streamed into Austria, Wondra abandoned his plans for a stable, promising career in architecture and searched for meaning in the arts, especially theater. Two years later, Wondra met Latter-day Saint missionaries and joined the Church.
The Church in Austria had a tradition of involvement in the arts. Even before World War II, the Vienna Branch had its own orchestra. Wondra’s first Church calling was as leader of the branch’s theater group, which quickly became a mission-wide group serving all Austria’s branches. It was a welcome opportunity. “After I came to know the gospel,” Wondra later wrote, “art assumed for me a much great meaning.” As a young convert, he felt that the restored gospel could open new possibilities in the arts as completely as the discovery of a fourth dimension. Under Wondra’s leadership, the group produced classic plays that raised spiritual questions and attempted to foster a uniquely “Mormon drama” to share the spirit of the restored gospel. Along with plays like Goethe’s Faust, they produced a play called Paul in Ephesus, written by a Brother Muehlbacher of the Salzburg Branch. As they performed in the different branches, hundreds of people who were not members of the Church also attended. Wondra hoped the theater group could serve as artistic ambassadors for the Church in Europe just like the Tabernacle Choir in the United States.
Some local Church leaders, however, became concerned about the commitments the group’s ambitious production and touring schedule required. After their sixth production, the group was discontinued. It was difficult for Wondra to see the calling he’d put so much passion and work into end so abruptly. Wondra recognized, however, that his work had continuing worth. “What remained,” he noted,” were the experiences of the participants and our friendship.” Those relationships proved invaluable in his later Church service. In 1980, when the first stake in Austria was organized, Johann Wondra was called as stake president.
Wondra also continued to think about the role of art in the gospel. He had observed how art could be misused. “Evil uses art as a means of destroying men,” he observed, “in free democratic countries as a means of destroying morality and in authoritarian states as a tool for propaganda and force.” In contrast, he believed art could be used by people of faith to accomplish great things. “Ennobling art,” he wrote, “permits us to hope for a Zion where the Saints will live together in a culture of peace, of love, and of beauty.” In a world with both, Wondra encouraged Saints to seek the good and not simply shun the bad. He even felt that Church branches or stakes ought to consider creating a “Welfare Plan of Beauty” to inspire and protect the Saints. “We cannot isolate our young people from the influences of this world,” he said, “but we can teach them to differentiate.”