In 1892 missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), based in Salt Lake City and commonly known as the Mormons, proselytized in the eastern German Empire. They established congregations in Breslau and the town of Selbongen in East Prussia. Following World War II, border shifts brought Breslau and Selbongen within the new Poland. Germans were expelled westward to make way for Poles to populate the areas. But some Germans managed to stay behind. The Breslau congregations were depopulated and dissolved, but several Selbongen Mormons remained and continued to operate their branch in their little chapel.
The town, now in northeast Poland, was renamed Zelwągi, and in 1947 the communist authorities stopped the congregation's meetings, saying such gatherings had to use the Polish language. Undeterred, the members learned Polish and resumed services three years later. A 1958 Polish magazine article about the Zelwągi Mormons brought in a few new members, but by 1978 all of the congregants had reportedly immigrated to West Germany and the branch ceased to exist.
Meanwhile, in 1957 communist Hungary contacted LDS experts about preserving its vital records. The Mormons copy and collect genealogical records worldwide as part of its practice of baptism for the dead. They were allowed to copy records from church and state archives for their collection in America in return for their services. Poland made a similar deal in 1968. This brought church members into Poland, and they made a favorable impression on all who met them.
In the early 1970s the LDS began sending missionaries into Eastern Europe. Not sanctioned in Poland, they were harassed by the authorities but managed to preach and meet with people. In 1975 a small group of Polish Mormon converts began to meet in Szczecin, visited by members from Dresden, Germany.
It was in 1974 that LDS President Spencer W. Kimball decided that the church should try to establish itself in Eastern Europe. Church officials began to contact those communist governments and lobbied for recognition. Much of this was done by David M. Kennedy, former U.S. Treasury Secretary and foreign diplomat already known to Eastern European leaders. He visited Poland in 1975 and met with the Minister of Religion for negotiations. Two years later, Poland became the first Eastern European country to recognize the Mormon Church. This meant the LDS could own property, legally conduct services and distribute literature. But the Mormons could only "voluntarily" proselytize through a visitor center, and the presiding church elder had to be a Pole. Fryderyk Czerwinski of the Szczecin congregation was so appointed. Polish Americans Matthew and Marian Cembronowicz of Illinois became the first full time missionaries in Poland.
In late 1977 LDS President Kimball flew to Warsaw, where he dedicated Poland to the teaching of the Gospel. Seventy-four years earlier, the European Mission president had also dedicated Poland on a visit to Warsaw, then part of the Russian Empire, but no missionary work took place. Why did communist Poland, long at odds with the Roman Catholic Church, accept yet another denomination? It was precisely because of the conflict with the Catholics. It was hoped that other Christian groups would be more friendly to the government, and check the influence of the Catholic Church.
Spreading their faith in Poland has been a great challenge to the Mormons. A staunchly Roman Catholic country, Poles have considered Catholicism akin to patriotism, a defender of Polishness during years of foreign domination. And the people must be convinced that the American based Mormon Church is relevant to their own history and culture. In addition, there is the problem of secularization of society in Poland, as elsewhere. In 2008 the LDS Church in Poland claimed only 1550 members, the lowest proportional membership of any country in the former Soviet Bloc.
Today, it is referred to as the Poland Warsaw Mission and is divided into two districts, one centered in Warsaw and one in Katowice. Branches operate in most large cities, the strongest being in Warsaw and Łódż. There is only one chapel in Poland, opened in 1991 in Warsaw. Congregations elsewhere meet in rented space or homes. The nearest Temple is in Freiberg, Germany, seventy miles from the southwest corner of Poland. Polish Mormons must travel there for certain sacraments such as marriage, that can only be dispensed in a Temple. They are hoping for their own Temple to be built in Poland.
Many Polish Americans have converted to Mormonism, though no breakdown of ethnicity within the church is available. People involved in genealogy have found the Mormons to be helpful in researching their ancestries through LDS Family History Centers, which make microfilmed genealogical records, including those from Poland, available for use by people of all faiths. Recently, it has been reported that the Roman Catholic Church has stopped cooperating with the Mormons' efforts to film those records in Poland and elsewhere due to the practice of baptism for the dead, which the RC Church finds offensive.
More than 1000 Mormon missionaries have served in Poland, almost all from the U.S. They have included several people of Polish descent. Missionaries undergo intensive training in the Polish language before and during their two year assignments. Some become fluent. At least one Polish-born Mormon has served as a missionary in the U.S.
Douglas F. Tobler, president of the Poland Warsaw Mission from 1998-2001, describes the attitude of the Polish people toward the missionaries primarily as disinterested, but courteous and friendly.
Says Tobler, "All the missionaries I know love not only Poles, but the beautiful country itself. It is a spectacular country. Being a historian, I found myself in a historian's paradise. We also loved the food, the hospitality and the general friendliness of the Poles to us as Americans. The truth is, that the overwhelming majority of us acquired a strong love and affection for Poles which will, I believe, continue throughout our lives."
Many of the former missionaries maintain contact with friends they made in Poland, both Mormon and non-Mormon, and some have returned for a visit. Mission alumni have sent over $10,000 worth of aid to needy Polish children. Altogether, the LDS has contributed more than a million dollars in charitable aid to Poland.
Written by Martin S. Nowak. The article was published originally in Polish-American Journal