In June 1940 the First Presidency asked Gaston Chappuis [a Church member from Belgium], who alone had remained in Paris, to close the mission office there. In a letter he wrote to me he said, “You are the only active member of the priesthood in France. I know that you will do your best and will use the talent that the Lord has given you.”
With the advent of the Second World War in Europe came the departure of LDS missionaries and their mission president, Joseph E. Evans, from France. French members—few in number and widely separated from each other—had little, if any, priesthood leadership to support them through the trials of Church membership amid the trials of war.
But an unusual hero came to their aid: Léon Fargier. A true French pioneer, he almost single-handedly conducted the spiritual affairs of the entire country throughout the war. Whether on foot or bicycle, whether in the occupied zone or the free zone, he traveled to members’ homes on often-secret visits. With authority granted him by his priesthood leaders, he blessed, baptized, confirmed, ordained to the priesthood, held meetings, and many times risked his life in an effort to sustain his fellow Church members. His journal documents a faith that refused to go underground.
After France was divided in two, I traveled to give the sacrament to some sisters in Bouches du Rhône, to hold sacrament meeting once a month in Lyon and Valence, to visit the members in Lyon and St. Etienne, and to meet in their home. In Valence, our building being occupied by refugees, I held meetings in my home. During this period I was studying ways to get to the other side into the occupied zone in order to visit the members, but this was not always easy.
Léon Paul Fargier was born on 4 February 1893 in Asperjoc, department of Ardèche, in southern France, to Victorin and Victorine Teston Fargier. Because, he later wrote, “my parents [had] no resources but their work,” Léon lived with his maternal grandparents near the Cévennes Mountains until age eight. His parents then took him with them to the village of Antraigues, also in Ardèche, where the adventure, hard work, and dedication that marked his adult years also played a part in his youth.
I went to school for the first time in the village of Antraigues. At the age of thirteen I was sent to the silk factory to start working. At age fifteen I quit that factory in order to learn the trade of carpentry. At eighteen I decided to enlist in the service, and as I had an attraction for the sea, I became a sailor. … [In the port of Smyrna, Turkey] I was to meet my wife, Claire Magnifico, a good and very sincere Christian. The moment of liberation arrived after having put in eight years of military service, like my grandfather.
Claire (who was born in Greece of Italian origin) and Léon were married in 1919, in Ucel, Ardèche, where Léon took employment. Later, they moved to Valence, where in 1932 they joined the Church. LDS missionary work in France at the time was not progressing well. The number of missionaries in France diminished by two-thirds in 1932 due to lack of progress. In fact, the branch in Valence had only four members. But the size of the branch was not an impediment for the Fargiers. They were ready for the truth and recognized it when they found it.
It was in Valence that I felt myself attracted to God, and I was also led by his power toward the Mormon missionaries. Before meeting them, I had never had any knowledge of the Bible. At the time, in the morning, I was going to meetings of the Salvation Army, and in the evening to the meetings of the Church of Jesus Christ. After I had prayed, God revealed to me the truth that is found in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and I was baptized by Robert Hulle on 13 August 1932 and confirmed by him. My wife was baptized the same day by Ivan Jones and confirmed by Herbert Merrill.
After the Fargiers were baptized in a municipal swimming pool, Léon was called as a local missionary. He was later ordained a teacher, a priest, and then an elder by the new mission president, Octave F. Ursenbach, on 30 May 1936.
About this time, the Church in southern France received encouragement from a visit by President Heber J. Grant to Geneva. Léon shook the prophet’s hand and left filled with an inspiration that no doubt served him well in the difficult years to come. Perhaps as a result of this uplifting visit, in January 1937, the missionaries and members of Valence distributed more than two thousand tracts and presented the Book of Mormon in street displays.
But world events combined to weaken French missionary efforts. On 15 April 1939, not even a year after mission president Joseph E. Evans had arrived in France, the missionaries were called to leave France. Mission records state: “During the last week of August, while world peace seems lost, and in accordance with the wishes of the First Presidency, the missionaries in France are invited to go toward the cities that are ports or cities that allow contact with ports. Before leaving our meeting place in Paris on 3 September 1939, and after one of the most beautiful meetings, we read the alarming headlines in the newspaper that England had declared war on Germany in the morning and that France had followed suit in the afternoon.”
The missionaries and their new president left France in 1939. Several months later, Gaston Chappuis wrote to Léon Fargier to inform him that he was alone—a fact that propelled Léon into action. His visits and missionary activities soon attracted the attention of the Vichy government, closely allied with the Germans, which put him on notice to cease his activities.
I went to Besançon, to Paris, in 1944. I continued my visits to Nîmes, St. Florent, St. Etienne, and Grenoble, but the precariousness of the trains hampered things a great deal. On 12 November 1944 I recommenced the meetings in Grenoble, Nîmes, and St. Etienne … (14 March 1942). [I visited] Brother Bret in Montrigaud [to ordain him to the office of deacon], where I had to return on foot a distance of twenty-nine kilometers to Romans.
At this time, a major national daily paper, Paris-Soir, noted on its front page that “Mr. Fargier, the only Mormon pastor in the free zone, has baptized fifteen of his flock in the municipal swimming pool in Grenoble.” Of Léon’s activities, his former bishop and home teacher in Grenoble, Pierre Oger, said, “[As] the only representative of the priesthood in France [during the war], he traveled many kilometers by train, bicycle, and foot to bless, baptize, present gifts or bless the sacrament. … He was often arrested by the Gestapo and many times crossed the line of demarcation [between the free and occupied zone] at the peril of his life.”
Valence underwent intense bombing, and we had to take refuge along with Brother and Sister Margel in the home of friends in the country, where we stayed until Valence was taken by the Americans. … It is useless to mention all of the suffering endured throughout this war in which we have suffered hunger and the presence of the occupying forces. … I thank God for having preserved my family from all of these calamities.
When the war ended in 1946, Elder Ezra Taft Benson, then responsible for postwar Church welfare in Europe, came to Paris. There he met Léon Fargier and heard him bear testimony of his wartime activities. In 1948, Léon and Claire were called to be missionaries in their branch in Valence. Léon was called as the branch president in 1950, and in 1955 the Fargiers attended the dedication of the Swiss Temple, the first temple in Europe.
We received our endowments and our marriage was sealed for eternity on 14 September . From that time until … November 1957 we went to the temple seven times to do the work for those who have left us.
Léon and Claire spent their last days in Grenoble, where their humility and dedication endeared them to many. “Brother Fargier was an unselfish, generous man, who served the Lord without holding back,” said Bishop Oger. “He was a joker with a great sense of humor, humble, and endowed with a phenomenal memory. And Sister Fargier was a generous, devoted person who loved the gospel, prayer, her neighbors. [She] didn’t have the slightest trace of malice.”
As he aged, Léon suffered from Parkinson’s disease and was unable to travel. He also had difficulty pronouncing words, and Claire would often finish his sentences for him. Because of Léon’s health, he and Claire were often unable to attend church. On the days they couldn’t attend, the sacrament was brought to them.
“When we went to take the sacrament to them in their home,” recalled Bishop Oger, “we strongly felt the spirit of the Lord when Brother Fargier would sing the hymns almost without hesitating on even one syllable, in spite of the difficulty he had in pronouncing the words.” Léon’s favorite hymn was “Oh, How Lovely Was the Morning,” which he knew by heart and often sang with tears in his eyes.
One Sunday, Léon asked if he could bless the sacrament. Bishop Oger accepted the request and planned for Léon to do so the following week. “That [Sunday] was truly extraordinary,” Bishop Oger said, “for Brother Fargier blessed the bread and water without any mistakes and without stopping, and we again felt the presence of the Spirit on that occasion.” Two weeks later, on 17 June 1981, Léon Fargier passed away. His wife followed him two months later.
The legacy Léon Fargier left the Saints in France may not yet be fully appreciated. He was a pioneer in the truest sense, serving with humility, reverence, and quiet dedication under extraordinary circumstances. The consequences of his courage and faith will be felt for generations.