Walter Spät and the First South American Stake


Walter approached his callings as a leader in the Church in Brazil as he did his art—with an eye toward perfection.

Walter Spät was serving as president of the Centro Branch in downtown São Paulo, Brazil, in 1954, when the branch members held a bazaar to raise funds for the ward budget. The party included prizes—fine objects, beautiful paintings, and framed tiles decorated with scriptural quotations. “Hadn’t it been extravagant,” wondered some of the members, “to buy so many expensive and elaborate gifts for a fund-raiser?” They learned later that President Spät had created the gifts himself, using a minimum of expenses and a great deal of effort and goodwill.

Walter Spät’s major means of relaxation consisted of expressing himself artistically. In the years before his death in 1989, he completed literally hundreds of oil paintings. But for most of Walter’s life, the demands of family and Church took precedence over personal interests and ambitions. A young German immigrant who arrived with his family in the Brazilian state of Santa Catarina after World War I, Walter went on to become a successful designer of furniture and a master craftsman, a hardworking convert of the young Church in Brazil, and finally, president of the first stake in South America.

The Lord’s work began for Walter immediately after his baptism in 1950. His parents and brother and sister had returned to Germany with plans for Walter to rejoin them after he sold the family farm in Santa Catarina. But when World War II broke out, Walter stayed in Brazil, and in 1946, he married Edith Altman, a Swiss immigrant. They moved to São Paulo, where Walter worked as a furniture-maker and where the question of religion soon arose in their home.

Edith attended church services regularly, but Walter refused to accompany her. He would become a dedicated member of a church only when he could find the true church, he said. He had a feeling such a thing existed. So after Walter left for work every morning, Edith would kneel and ask God to show them the true church. Five months later, in November 1949, American missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints knocked on their door.

For five months Walter studied with the missionaries, read the scriptures, and attended Church meetings. He gradually became convinced that this was the true Church, and on 20 March 1950, Walter Spät was baptized. Edith joined the Church in October of the same year. Having been a member of a strict Protestant denomination, she had difficulty accepting certain aspects of LDS life, particularly dances held in the church building. “Only after I read the Book of Mormon several years after my baptism,” she says, “was I truly convinced that this was the Lord’s church.”

Walter’s conviction led him to devote himself tirelessly to the true church. He was called to serve as an elders quorum president, then became a branch president, a counselor to the Brazil Mission president, and a member of the district council—callings he filled, according to Jose Lambardi, his friend and co-worker in many Church assignments, “with a zeal and dedication that bordered on perfection. He really expected a lot out of people, because he expected so much of himself.”

As a leader, Jose says, “Walter was strict. He was perceived as a hard man.” But Walter often cried when he knew he had hurt someone’s feelings, and he was quick to ask forgiveness. Jose recalls an incident in which he and Walter argued while working together on a Church assignment. “I returned to my Sunday meetings just in time for the sacrament and knew I couldn’t take it, feeling as I did,” said Jose of the incident. “But right before the sacrament, I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Walter. He wanted to apologize so we could take the sacrament with good feelings.”

Not long after that, on a sunny morning in May 1966, something remarkable occurred in Walter’s life, and in the lives of all Latter-day Saints in Brazil and Latin America: The first stake in this part of the world was organized in the city of São Paulo, Brazil. It consisted of seven wards and three branches, and Elder Spencer W. Kimball proposed that they sustain Brother Walter Spät as their president.

The stake included far-flung regions of the largest city in South America, one of the most heavily populated in the world. President Spät relied on the strength of his high council to help the wards and to train new leadership. His efforts to establish and strengthen ward and stake leadership in an area that had been a mission earned him the respect of the members.

Mark Grover, a missionary in Brazil at the time Walter was stake president, recalls: “He didn’t show emotion easily, but he cared tremendously. He was an incredible stake president. He got things done—and made sure they were done right, and in the way the Lord would have him do it.”

By this time, Walter was also the father of a son, Osweldo, and a daughter, Gloria, and was busy at his own furniture factory. Gloria recalls that her father normally left for work before 6:00 A.M. “He was a good father to us, even though his time was very limited,” she says. “We often tried to get him to relax, to go on a vacation, but he just couldn’t stop. Art was his outlet, but he didn’t even have time for that until he retired.”

Walter told his family he would relax someday—“after my temple mission.” That didn’t happen until after he had served ten and a half years as a stake president. When the São Paulo Temple was nearing completion, he was called as a member of the executive committee for the opening and dedication of the temple. He designed exquisite furniture for the temple and later, after serving as a regional representative, he was called to be a counselor in the temple presidency.

In 1984, he retired from his business. For several years, he devoted much of his time to oil painting. Osweldo recalls that his father “loved to paint nature. He approached his art as he did his callings in the Church—with an eye toward perfection and a dedicated heart. He must have completed three hundred paintings before he died.”

Walter and Edith were serving a temple mission and had only a few months left when he became seriously ill with cancer and was bedridden for the first time in his life. During his illness, he reflected on his life. “He could see that he had accomplished much,” says Gloria, “but he also saw that he probably could have led a more balanced life. He softened at the end, in all of his suffering. The thing that made him happiest was that his family had strong testimonies of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Walter Spät died on 15 May 1989.

The city of São Paulo and its suburbs now includes two missions, fourteen stakes, and approximately forty-seven thousand members. Many Brazilian members recall “the early times,” when the Church was just beginning in their country. No one can ignore Walter Spät in any discussion of Brazilian pioneers.

[illustration] Walter approached his callings as a leader in the Church in Brazil as he did his art—with an eye toward perfection.

Neusa Longo serves as Relief Society president in the Santo Andre First Ward, Santo Andre Brazil Stake. Flavia Erbolato, a Liahona staff member living in São Paulo, Brazil, supplied much of the information for the article.