“France,” Liahona, May 1996, 32
Almost everywhere within the approximately 550,000 square kilometers of France, the dark soil gives birth to vegetation. Wild flowers bloom in the mountain valleys of the Alps and the Pyrenees, scarlet poppies set the rolling hills ablaze with color, and fields of lavender tinge the air with fragrance.
Nearly 60 million people live in this gardenlike country. About 20 percent of them live in Paris, virtually all of them in apartments. Other dwellings throughout the nation range from the ivy-covered stone farmhouses of Normandy and the cottages of coastal fishing villages to the red-tiled adobe homes of the Riviera and the chateaus of the Alps. Castles, hundreds of years old, still stand throughout the French countryside and serve as a reminder of the nation’s rich history dating from about 200 B.C.
Like flowers that bloom year after year, members of the Church willingly establish and maintain the gospel here. Today’s leaders, most of whom joined the Church in the 1960s, think of themselves as first-generation members. They have sunk their roots deep into the gospel, and second- and third-generation members are now blossoming.
The connections among three first-generation families serve as examples of a pattern that is repeated throughout France. The Simonet, Babin, and Caussé families joined the Church between 25 and 30 years ago in Nancy, Paris, and Bordeaux. A generation later, their influence is being felt in more than a dozen areas.
Jacquie Simonet of Nancy returned home one evening in 1969 and found his wife, Suzanne, weeping. A copy of L’Etoile, the Church’s French magazine, was in her lap. “I have been reading about eternal marriage,” she said softly to him. “We can never have these blessings unless you are baptized.”
Jacquie had attended church with his wife for four years and had listened to the missionary discussions twice. “I had not been baptized because I smoked,” he says. “My heart was touched as I talked to my wife that night, and I realized that I already knew the gospel was true. I love my wife, and I knew that I wanted to be with her for eternity. So I threw away my cigarettes and never smoked again.” Jacquie was baptized, and the following year the Simonets were sealed in the Swiss Temple. Today he serves as the president of the Bordeaux France Stake.
The Simonets reared five sons, a niece, and a nephew. Now grown, these children live in Paris, Thoiry, Bordeaux, and the United States, and nearly all are rearing a third generation in the gospel. The nephew, Christian Soulé, is a counselor in the Paris Stake presidency.
In 1967, a friend of the Simonets in Nancy, Francine Babin, and her children, were baptized. Her husband, Jean-Albert, was baptized six months later. “When Francine read the Book of Mormon,” says Brother Babin, “it was as though the sun exploded inside of her. She is normally rather quiet, but after the missionaries taught her the gospel, she could not stop talking about it.”
Like the Simonet children, the five Babin children are examples of the strength that second-generation members bring to the Church. They are bringing up their children and serving as leaders in Paris, Versailles, and Mantes-la-Jolie.
When members of two active Latter-day Saint families marry, the gospel foundation is strengthened. Valerie Babin married Gerald Caussé, a second-generation member from Bordeaux. Gerald serves as a counselor in the Paris France Stake. His parents, Jean and Marie Caussé, were baptized in 1963, and Jean Caussé has served as the bishop of the Eysines Ward.
And so the influence of the gospel continues to move outward to family after family, overlapping and intertwining, throughout the Church in France.
Since 18 June 1850 when Elder John Taylor organized the first mission in France, missionaries have been sowing gospel seeds. Gradually those seeds have germinated and flowered. The French Mission was the sixth to be organized in the Church, but government restrictions, which resulted in 57 years of mission closure, and two world wars slowed the growth of the gospel. Though it struggled, the Church survived.
“After World War II, most of the faithful members of the Church were older single women,” says the president of the France Bordeaux Mission, Richard M. Oveson. “Others were converted, and they made sacrifices just like the pioneers in the early days of the Church in America. But that was still the time of gathering to Zion, so many of them moved to America.”
Among those who remained in France were Louis and Marie Gaston of Nice. In 1950, Louis, searching for Christ’s church, systematically attended each local church. However, it was his wife who told him of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after she had learned of it from a friend at the market. Marie was touched when she heard the words “the church of Jesus Christ.” They rang true to her because she had often heard Louis say that the church of Jesus Christ must be on the earth.
The Gastons attended church the next Sunday. The meeting place was only a small room. Besides the Gastons and the missionaries, two other members were present. Louis’s heart was touched when he heard each member bear testimony of the Savior. After the meeting he stood on the sidewalk in front of the building and, with great emotion, said to his family, “This is the true church of Jesus Christ.”
On 22 December 1950, the entire family was baptized in the Turkish baths in Nice. Eight months later, Louis was ordained an elder, and in the fall of 1951 he was called to serve as branch president. He talked about the gospel to everyone who came into his scales repair shop. Marie cared for those who were old or alone or ill. Her service and loving spirit also helped spread the gospel. Within two years, more than 100 people were attending the branch in Nice.
After the dedication of the Swiss Temple in 1955 and the London Temple in 1958, more converts began staying in France instead of immigrating to America. These converts—many students and young people—eventually formed the backbone of the Church in France and were responsible for the gospel’s finally taking root here. In 1961 the French East Mission was created from the French Mission, and the following year, 1962, the first French meetinghouse was dedicated in Nantes.
In 1970 and 1974, mission boundaries were realigned, and a total of seven more missions were created from the French, French East, and Franco-Belgian Missions. On 16 November 1975, with Church membership in France at about 10,000, the first French stake—the Paris France Stake—was created.
Today the greater Paris area is still an important center of the Church in France, with 4,000 of the 26,000 French members of the Church living there. The gospel is well established outside Paris as well. Slow but steady growth throughout France has resulted in the establishment of 7 stakes and 7 districts. Three missions serve France exclusively, and two others serve parts of France.
Untiring missionary work is at the heart of the growth of the Church in France. Missionaries find that the French people value their privacy, and it takes time to build a trusting relationship with those they are teaching. But once a relationship is established and those being taught are baptized, the French members blossom in their loyalty and commitment to the gospel.
Robert Sorhaïtz is just such a man. Reared in the Pyrenees Mountains near the Spanish border, he is proud of his Basque heritage. But family traditions made gaining a testimony a challenge. “It was difficult for me to develop a testimony,” he says. “I gave my wife flowers when she was baptized, but the gospel was not for me. We attended church and prayed together for three years.
“Then one day we attended the baptism of a young man. I had been preparing, and I decided I wanted to be baptized, but I thought I would surprise my wife. So I left her side and found the bishop. He gave me an interview, I put on the wet clothes of the young man who had just been baptized, and I went forward. My wife cried with joy when she realized what was happening.” Since that time, Brother Sorhaïtz has been devoted to the gospel and has served as president of the Bayonne Branch three times.
The French way of life is a mix of pursuing high-achievement goals and leisurely enjoying life, of friendly socializing and yet intense privacy about some matters. The French value education and have one of the highest literacy rates in the world. Children begin school at age three and attend from 8:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. five days a week. Adults often enjoy good conversation with friends at a sidewalk cafe or with family over a five-course dinner that includes fruits, cheeses, and fresh bread. Intellectual and cultural pursuits are valued, as is self-sufficiency. Dependence on religion is not generally admired, and religious discussions are considered a private matter. However, when touched by the Spirit, the French people embrace the gospel with devotion and dedication.
For example, the day two missionaries knocked on Jacques Faudin’s door in Nîmes, Jacques, then an 18-year-old student, seemed an unlikely candidate for membership in any church—he was an active Marxist-Leninist atheist. “I invited the missionaries in only so I could fight with them and try to convert them to atheism,” says Brother Faudin. “However, after two discussions, I was shaken. These missionaries had a strength I couldn’t define. I stopped fighting and began to doubt my atheism.”
This was the turning point for Jacques. He decided to find out if there was a God. Still skeptical when the missionaries gave him a copy of the Book of Mormon, he decided to prove it wrong. After a constant two-week study, he had found no errors.
“I wanted a spiritual testimony,” says Brother Faudin. “In my heart I made a covenant with the Lord that if he would answer my prayers, I would give him my life. Soon I learned that Elder Howard W. Hunter, then of the Quorum of the Twelve, was coming to dedicate the chapel in Marseille. I went to the meeting fasting. When the missionaries introduced me to Elder Hunter, I handed him my program and asked if he would write something to me. He looked me right in the eyes, and then he wrote, ‘You will gain a testimony if you exercise faith and prayer.’ I took the program home and read his words many times. I continued to exercise my faith and to pray. Then one night, after fasting, I received my answer. I knew without any doubt that Joseph Smith was a prophet and that the Book of Mormon was true. I was baptized two days later on 27 July 1968.”
As promised, he has given his life to the Lord and has served in many important leadership positions.
Young men and women continue to join the Church today as they did in the 1960s. And more and more French youth are serving missions. French men are required to serve in the military for one year when they turn 19, and some school courses require several consecutive years of attendance. Even so, many young men and women are willingly making the necessary sacrifices to serve missions.
Frédéric Babin and his wife, Françoise, who met in 1979 as young adults at a Church activity in the Alps, set up a six-year plan in order to fit in military service for Frédéric and schooling and missions for them both before getting married. Most couples are not as formal in their planning, but the results are often the same: marriage is postponed until couples are between 25 and 30 years old.
Patric Paoletti, a second-generation member who is the mission leader in the Montpellier Branch, did not serve a full-time mission. “Later I saw the need for a mission, so now I encourage all the youth in my branch to serve.” Brother Paoletti’s powerful pleas include his own story, often told with tears in his eyes. “I am so sorry I didn’t go on a mission,” he says. “I want the youth in our branch to enjoy the blessings I missed.” Nine full-time missionaries are serving from this branch of 200 members.
Growth also comes from member-missionary work. Sincere friendship and consistent example are the most important tools for this work. “The strongest converts will be those who are friends of members,” says the president of the France Marseille Mission, Galen S. Woolley.
Baptisms in Salon, which is near Marseille, are an example of successful member-missionary work growing out of genuine friendship. Jacques and Mireille Roth live up a winding mountain road in a large home overlooking a deep valley. Over the past 10 years, as neighbors have built homes nearby, the Roths have gone out of their way to develop friendships with them. As a result, several families in this neighborhood—a total of 57 people—have joined the Church. “When President Spencer W. Kimball asked us to share the gospel with our neighbors, I took him seriously,” says Brother Roth. “We have been blessed with wonderful neighbors, and we love them. Sharing the gospel is a natural outgrowth of that love.”
In addition to missionary work, the establishment of stakes has helped anchor the gospel in France. Through service, local members develop leadership skills. The diversity among the branches and wards of France is as great as that of the country gardens with their weedless rows of vegetables or the city apartment flower boxes filled with greenery, colors, and fragrances. In the Paris area, a look at the well-established ward in Versailles and the energetic branch in Clichy provides a glimpse of similar branches and wards throughout France. In rural areas, the Church is more likely to be small, like the branch in Montauban.
Versailles. Jean-Luc Magré, an IBM employee, is the bishop of the Versailles Ward. Bishop Magré and his wife, Beatrice, are the parents of four children. The Versailles Ward is one of the oldest wards in France and meets in a red brick chapel that also serves as the stake center for the Paris France Stake. Activity is high among the 260 members, which include many Japanese and American executives and their families who are living here temporarily. Many of the stake leaders come from this ward.
“Our biggest challenge is to know what we can do today to make things progress tomorrow,” says Bishop Magré. “We are grateful for the strength that our short-term members from other countries add to our ward, but the future of the Church here depends on strengthening the French.” A man of vision with creative solutions for the challenges of this ward, Bishop Magré uses local priesthood leaders as shepherds for small groups scattered throughout the large ward boundaries. This unites the people in that group and reinforces their testimonies by bringing the gospel to them.
“We can’t do things the same way we did them 20 years ago,” says Bishop Magré. “For example, traffic is very congested here, and our members often do not get home from work until 7:00 P.M. We try to integrate meetings together to save time. We do the best we can and then trust in the Lord to do the rest.”
Cécile Pelous, stake Relief Society president, agrees. “Even here where the Church is well established, many members hold several callings. We must be creative and juggle our callings. In Relief Society, one of our goals is to fortify the women through visiting teaching. The combined strength of Relief Society sisters is a powerful force in helping the gospel move forward.”
Clichy. Until recently, when he was called into the Paris Stake presidency, Christian Soulé served as president of the Clichy Branch. He and his counselors were single when they were called to serve in the branch presidency. They are all now married, and two of the couples have babies. This branch, which is filled with youth, energy, and spirituality, meets on the top floors of a newly remodeled building in a business section of town. At least eight different languages are spoken among the members, who come from France, the West Indies, the United States, Sweden, Germany, Trinidad, South America, and elsewhere. Sacrament meeting attendance has doubled in the last year.
“I think the Lord has a special purpose for us, and that’s why we are growing so fast,” says President Soulé. “We have learned that when we obey, the Lord will tell us what to do. We feel his love, and we will do his will.
Once I was at a business meeting, and I didn’t drink. One of our potential clients said, ‘If you don’t drink, we won’t do business with you.’ I thought a minute, and then I said to him, ‘Maybe I don’t want to do business with someone who thinks that what is in my glass is more important than what I can do.’ I thought he was angry, but the next day he called me and said they wanted to do business only with me because I wasn’t afraid to stand up for what I believed. When we know what is right, we should do it, no matter what.”
“We are united,” says Marie Sillon, Relief Society president. “In spite of the distances involved, our home teaching and visiting teaching are improving. Our members serve each other spontaneously, without being asked.”
Montauban. With arched bridges spanning its waterway, the picturesque village of Montauban is located in the south central part of France on the Tarn River. The branch here is small but vibrant—about 40 active members and four full-time missionaries. Members meet in an immaculate new building on the main street of town. As is true in many small branches, several strong families serve as the backbone of the branch. In Montauban, the VanTonders are one such family. Basil VanTonder, from Johannesburg, South Africa, met Paulette, from France, at a stake ice skating activity in Johannesburg. They married two months later.
Now the parents of eight children, the VanTonders have lived alternately in South Africa and France. Warm and spiritual, they share the Spirit generously with others. Basil is the branch president, and he and his family bake bread, feed the missionaries, care for the elderly, and invite others to their home for holidays. Their tenderness and spiritual depth carries over into the meetings. People from the community love to come to activities at the church and formally honored the VanTonders as an outstanding family in Montauban in 1992.
Mireille VanTonder, now serving a mission in Utah, was branch Relief Society president before her call. “I had so much to do,” she says, “and sometimes my friends didn’t understand how I could say I was free. But I told them that what I did wasn’t a ‘must’—it was a ‘want.’”
Even with growth from missionary work, reactivation is a high priority everywhere among members and missionaries alike. Claude Gaston became less active while serving in the army. Though he married a Latter-day Saint, he rarely came to church. “After our second child was born, I began to watch my sister and notice the blessings of the gospel in her family,” says Claude. “My wife, children, father, and branch president encouraged me. I think it was pride that kept me from coming back.” Finally, after nine years, Claude began to attend church again. A year and a half later, he took his family to the Swiss Temple to be sealed.
“I have found a great balance and stability in my life as a result of living the gospel,” says Brother Gaston, who is now bishop of the Vitrolles Ward. “The love that unites my family makes us very happy. I am convinced that if I had not become active again, my family would have dispersed.”
Families here face considerable challenges. In Paris and other cities, expensive housing often results in mothers who work outside the home and couples who limit family size to two children. Latter-day Saint families face the same challenges and make great sacrifices when mothers remain home to bring up four or five children.
Jean-Aimé Durand, who serves as the stake president of the Nice France Stake, and his wife, Chantal, feel it is a great blessing to have children. “After we were baptized,” says President Durand, “we decided to have more children. We have always been grateful for this decision. Scripture reading, personal and family prayer, family home evening, and attending church give children a shield of faith. Because they are at peace with the truth, they are not troubled when they are faced with false doctrine.”
Sister Durand agrees. “Priesthood blessings can give protection to us and our children,” she says. “The gospel has totally changed the way I look at my children. I realized that these are Heavenly Father’s children, and I have greater respect for them and their ideas.”
Temptations abound for children; however, 10-year-old Guillaume Lafargue of Angoulême says, “I don’t do bad things because I made the promise when I was baptized. I know better.” He, like many other Latter-day Saint children, draws spiritual strength from the gospel and its programs. Patriarchal blessings, seminary, and church activities are great sources of courage.
President Soulé says, “We pray for our children. We have hope for them. For one of our youth activities we made sandwiches and then gave them to the hungry in the Metro. Our youth still talk about the light in the eyes of the people they fed.”
Temple attendance is a goal close to the hearts of French members. Those who live in Paris and in the northern areas of France attend the Frankfurt Germany Temple; the rest attend the Swiss Temple in Zollikofen (a suburb of Bern). Distance, expense, and time are the primary challenges facing them, yet they attend one to three times a year—more for those who live closer.
“The temple is like heaven concentrated on earth—there is nothing higher,” says Micheline David of the Eysines Ward. “When you begin to do family history and temple work together, it is like weaving a chain of love.”
Some members serve as temple workers on stake temple trips. André and Alice Lafargue, of the Angoulême Ward, have served as temple workers for years and love family history work. “The veil is thin when you do family history,” says Sister Lafargue. “I pray for help as I gather the names and dates of my ancestors, and I feel their presence when I perform their temple ordinances.”
With gradually increasing membership and strong local leaders, Church members in France have good reason to be optimistic. “I am confident in the future of the Church in my country,” says Jacques Faudin. “I can see progress. Even if it is difficult sometimes, things will work because the gospel is true. In five to ten years, we will have many third- and some fourth-generation members. Many families will be linked by marriage. When you have three generations of members, the gospel is rooted.”
Like well-tended country gardens, French branches and wards are flourishing. Local leaders and full-time missionaries carefully tend to the needs of each area like the gardener who weeds and waters his plants. French members who are rooted in the gospel are, in their strength and beauty, much like the hardy garden plants still alive in the warm light of an October sunset after surviving summer heat and autumn frost. They stand firm in the gospel, knowing that another dawn, another spring, another growing season are ahead.