Most early converts to the Church in Brazil were German immigrants. But rising anti-German sentiments before World War II led Brazilian officials to outlaw the use of German in public. The Church began holding meetings in and translating materials into Portuguese. Much of the Church literature in German was destroyed. “That was like tearing part of the soul out of the German Saints,” one missionary recalled. Some German members soon stopped attending church.
World War II led to a sharp decline in the number of missionaries sent to Brazil and to the closure of the Brazilian Mission in 1943. Local members were called to lead the branches. Claudio Martins dos Santos and his wife, Maria, were baptized just days before the mission closed. The Sunday following his baptism, Santos was called as branch president in São Paulo. At the time, nearly all the branch members were German. For three years, Santos spent evenings in the mission offices preaching the gospel to the Portuguese-speaking population and teaching Portuguese to the German Saints. “I got along well with the German members,” Santos recalled, “even to the point that they started to teach me to sing in German. It was a happy time.” Together, they maintained the branch and strengthened the Church during the war.
But the transition from German to Portuguese was not easy. In Joinville, the oldest branch of the Church in Brazil, only two German families continued to attend. In São Paulo, while some German members had stopped attending, those who remained worked to learn Portuguese and to support new converts and leaders.
The mission reopened after the war, and the Church grew among the culturally diverse people of São Paulo. Occasionally personality differences caused contention. In 1950 Walter Spät, a German furniture maker, and his wife, Edith, joined the Church. Soon after, Walter became a leader in the Church. But some members viewed Spät as severe. “Walter was strict,” recalled Jose Lombardi, another Church leader. “He was perceived as a hard man.”
On one occasion, Spät and Lombardi argued while on a Church assignment. Returning to his Sunday meetings, Lombardi felt that he could not partake of the sacrament with such angry feelings toward Spät. Just before the sacrament was passed, Lombardi felt a hand on his shoulder. “It was Walter,” Lombardi recalled. “He wanted to apologize so we could take the sacrament with good feelings.”
In May 1966, when the São Paulo Brazil Stake was organized (the first stake in South America), Elder Spencer W. Kimball of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles called Walter Spät as president. Fearing his German background would stir negative emotions, Spät balked at the call. Kimball assured him that the members in the area had expressed their confidence in him. Through faith and cooperation, the Saints of Brazil successfully transitioned from a predominantly German-speaking Church in the 1940s to a multiethnic Church operating in Portuguese by the end of the 1960s.