Discovering Gospel Riches in Portugal

In the land of Ferdinand Magellan and Vasco da Gama, thousands of converts are exploring new dimensions of spiritual life.

Young Portuguese architect Alcino Silva was working in his office that December afternoon in 1976 when he heard a radio news report about a group of American missionaries who had just arrived in Porto, principal city of northern Portugal. When two of them knocked at his door that evening, he was surprised that they had found his family so quickly.

From the beginning, he and his wife, Nazaré‚ were receptive investigators. They immediately began living the principles the missionaries taught them, including the law of tithing. Nazaré‚ reared in the dominant faith of their country, had “never dreamed there could be another church.” But, she adds, “all that the missionaries taught fit with what I already believed. When they said the family could be eternal—not just for this life—for me it was the most marvelous thing I could have imagined.”

Then came the invitation to be baptized—and Alcino said no, they were not ready to make that kind of commitment.

Nazaré felt some inner turmoil over his decision, since she had already prayed about some of the missionaries’ teachings and had received a witness of their truth. She didn’t know then that Alcino himself was feeling a battle going on inside his heart and mind. As the missionaries left the Silva apartment that Monday night, he was torn by conflicting desires: “Call them back. … No. … Yes, call them back. … No.”

The missionaries were to return on Friday. But at midweek they felt impressed to visit the Silvas again. “Well,” Alcino told them, “since you’re here, perhaps we can set a date for our baptism.”

Baptized in February of 1977, the Silvas joined a comparative handful of Latter-day Saints in Porto. Both Alcino and Nazaré have gone on to hold a variety of leadership positions as the Church has grown in their area. Alcino is now president of the Porto Portugal Stake, the second in his country.

Perhaps the Silvas are the kind of members Elder Thomas S. Monson of the Council of the Twelve had envisioned when he dedicated Portugal for missionary work on 22 April 1975. At a windswept spot in the hills outside Lisbon, surrounded by a few missionaries and newly baptized Portuguese, he prayed for blessings upon “those members who have assembled here this morning. In a very real sense each one is a pioneer, … showing others the way to follow. Grant, Heavenly Father, that our membership may increase.”

They stood that day not far from Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point in Europe, where the blue-green Atlantic spills over deep black shoreline boulders, frothing into white patterns like delicate Portuguese lace. In his prayer of dedication, Elder Monson said: “We recognize, Father, that from this land went navigators and seafaring men in days of yore and that the Portuguese people have had an adventurous spirit, as they trusted in thee, as they looked for lands unknown. Grant that they may trust in thee as they now search for those truths that will lead them to life eternal.”

The prayer offered by President Monson, now Second Counselor in the First Presidency, is being amply fulfilled as growth of the Church in Portugal accelerates.

Latter-day Saint missionaries first arrived late in 1974, after approval was granted by the Portuguese government. In July of 1975, there were just one hundred Portuguese Latter-day Saints. By 1978, the Church had more than one thousand members in Portugal. By mid-1984, there were some five thousand, and since then, the membership has more than doubled. It is estimated that there will be more than eleven thousand Latter-day Saints in the country by the end of 1987. The Portugal Lisbon Mission was divided this year, and the new Portugal Porto Mission, covering the northern part of the country, began functioning in July.

The timing of the gospel’s arrival was perfect, says Vitor Martins, president of the Lisbon Portugal Stake. Many Portuguese, undoubtedly prepared by the Lord, were ready to receive it, he explains. President Martins was among those early converts.

The Portuguese, he says, are very humble, and many will listen open-mindedly to the missionaries. His countrymen are also “very giving, and eager to help others.” That makes many of them strong in Church service. President Martins lists a number of examples in his own stake, including Antonio and Mae Leme.

The Lemes were also among the LDS pioneers in Portugal. Natives of Brazil, they moved to Europe in 1965 when Antonio, a pilot, was hired by the Portuguese national airline. Mae Leme was trying to help her son obtain his Eagle Award when she met Geraldine Bangerter, who was working with a group of Scouts. Mae soon learned that Sister Bangerter was the wife of Wm. Grant Bangerter, mission president in Portugal for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Elder Bangerter was called to the First Quorum of the Seventy in April of 1975 while serving as mission president.)

Mae expressed a polite interest in learning more about the Church, and Sister Bangerter sent the missionaries immediately. The Lemes investigated carefully—for seven months. The Church in Portugal was still only a handful of members meeting in a Lisbon hotel room when they joined.

Antonio Leme is now bishop of the Oeiras Ward, created in a Lisbon suburb early this year. “I really believe if you are called to do something, God gives you the means to do it,” he reflects. After reaching the mandatory age for retirement from flying, he was so busy in Church callings that he felt as though he had not retired at all. But, he adds, it is a privilege to serve. “I never get tired of giving my time to the Church.”

One of the difficulties members face in Portugal, Bishop Leme comments, is finding transportation to meetings. Relatively few own cars, and even public transportation is costly. Home and visiting teaching can be difficult for some, and for many members the chapels seem too far away to walk to meetings.

Bishop Manuel Joao Correia Teles of the Lisbon Fourth Ward puts the tip of his finger down on the center of his ward map and says, “If I could have a chapel here, attendance would double.” At the beginning of 1987, Lisbon, a city of approximately one million people, had just two widely separated chapels for its four wards. Like most chapels throughout the country, they were originally built for other uses and have been remodeled as meetinghouses. Two new chapels have recently been completed—in Vila Nova de Gaia, across the Rio Douro from Porto, and in Alvera, north of Lisbon. Several others are underway or in planning stages.

First LDS chapel constructed in Portugal

First LDS chapel constructed in Portugal, at Portimao.

“The Church is growing fast, and sometimes you just have to run to find rental facilities,” says Jose A. Teixeira, regional manager of finance and records for the Church in Lisbon. Several LDS chapels are under construction in Portugal, he says, and more were scheduled to begin this year.

Brother Teixeira, a missionary in Portugal during 1980–82, notes that the Church is still comparatively small in Portugal, but a chapel can be a reassuring symbol of stability for investigators. “If you see a church with a building, you see a permanent church,” he says.

Buildings, though, seem far less critical to growth than the strength of members like Brizida Inocencio of the Faro Branch, Algarve District. Converted through her son’s contact with an LDS friend, Sister Inocencio takes opportunities to share the gospel often. A mix-up in communications, for example, brought Brizida into contact with another woman with the same unusual first name. Sister Inocencio began fellowshipping the woman and taking her to church. “She isn’t a member—yet,” Sister Inocencio says, smiling.

Brizida Inocencio is just one of the members who contribute to a spirit of love and unity in the Algarve District. Areas in Algarve, the country’s southernmost political subdivision, could be used for promotional photos of “sunny Portugal” in travel brochures. Ripening citrus fruit adds dashes of color in February to dark groves of trees surrounding family and vacation villas. The beaches and quays of Faro, Portimao, Albufeira, and Lagos are crowded with tourists from many countries in the summer. Not far inland, against the backdrop of a whitewashed village on a hilltop, sheep graze among cork oaks.

Portimao is the site of the first LDS chapel constructed in Portugal. The city also has its pioneer members, like the family of Filomena Simao. Sister Simao was a teenager when her family heard the gospel. “I could feel the Spirit so strongly” when the missionaries were in their home, she says. She readily accepted the principle of modern revelation, because she knew a loving Heavenly Father would provide the truth to his children in all time periods.

There was some opposition from a few of her peers after she was baptized, but she retained many friendships by continuing to love others whether they accepted the gospel or not. Later, a full-time mission in England provided her with a well of spiritual experiences from which she still draws.

It can be difficult to be young and a Latter-day Saint in Europe, says eighteen-year-old Carla Duarte Figueiredo of Oeiras. Carla was born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), but has spent about a third of her life in Portugal. She also lived six years in Spain when her mother’s work took them there. (Her parents are divorced.) An outgoing young woman whose red hair frames a ready smile, Carla speaks English, Spanish, and Portuguese.

“One has to be strong, very strong to be a member of the Church,” she says. Not only do young people face the common teen temptations of alcohol, drugs, and immorality in Portugal, but also indifference—and sometimes antagonism—toward their spiritual standards. “I know I should obey the Word of Wisdom because it is for my good,” Carla explains. But when friends or acquaintances ask her reasons and she tries to explain, “they stop their ears.”

Fifteen-year-old Carlos Teixeira of Porto says activities can draw a core group of active LDS youth and provide an opportunity to involve non-LDS friends as well. Dance and drama are popular, along with athletic activities. A table tennis tournament on a rainy Saturday, for example, attracts a small but intense group of participants and spectators to the stake center. (The building, a large converted dwelling, is well used. In another part of it, there is a baptismal service, and in an upper room a planning meeting for a ward Relief Society activity.) Church members in Porto “try hard to bring our brothers and sisters to the truth,” Carlos says.

About 40 percent of the missionaries serving in Portugal are Portuguese or Brazilian, and young people from throughout Portugal have responded to the challenge of missionary work. There are sacrifices involved. Mandatory military service can cut a mission short. Universities are unsympathetic to interruptions of schooling for religious service, so readmission can be difficult.

Despite the sacrifices, says Jose Teixeira (no relation to Carlos), “It was the best decision I have made. It was there I established my Church foundation.” It was a foundation for leadership. Now he serves as first counselor in the presidency of the Lisbon Portugal Stake. Throughout the country, the Church is bolstered similarly by the strength of other young returned missionaries.

The Setubal District, with about 1,800 members, usually has some twenty young people serving missions at any given time, President Melo says. Setubal is a port city about forty-five minutes south of Lisbon. Branches in the district are widely scattered. But “missionary work is going well here. The members help a lot,” says district president Octavio da Silva Melo. There were 380 baptisms in the district during 1986—approximately 20 percent of the total for Portugal.

“The Church is going to grow in Portugal. The people are good, and it only remains for many of them to hear and accept, to open their hearts and be touched,” President Melo adds.

That same missionary spirit is felt in Coimbra, about three hours north of Lisbon. A city whose roots go back to Roman times, expanding Coimbra climbs up the hillsides in every direction. Older streets wind and twist through the heart of town, narrowing to alleys and then opening onto broad plazas or avenues. Buildings ascend like stairsteps from the River Mondego. The Portuguese say that one goes to Coimbra to study; one of its universities dates back to 1290. The city is steeped in traditional religion, but it also has four LDS branches and about 450 Church members.

“I always like to help the missionaries. Others need to know the gospel. They need to be happy,” says Irene Marques. She is a diminutive, dynamic Gypsy woman who sells clothing in the marketplace. Among the silver rings on her fingers is a child’s CTR ring, a gift from one of the missionaries she aided. Unable to join the Church for several years because of opposition from her family, she nevertheless introduced many other people to the missionaries and the gospel. She has retained that same missionary zeal since her baptism three years ago by an old friend, Joaquim Jose da Silva Aires, president of the Coimbra District.

President Aires is a friendly, outgoing man who radiates genuine love for people. But he was a skeptic—an atheist from a family of atheists—when he met the LDS missionaries. The missionaries first contacted his wife, Domitila, who warned them her husband would not want to hear their message. So they made three visits without discussing religion, getting to know him, before he asked what they wanted. As predicted, he told them he was not interested, but he gave permission for them to teach his wife. During the third lesson, however, the gospel message began to reach him, too. He and his wife were baptized in July of 1977.

Brother and Sister Aires were the first Portuguese couple called to serve as missionaries, in 1984. Maturity and ability with the language gave them advantages over younger missionaries. They benefited, too, from knowledge of Portuguese society and culture, especially in dealing with married couples.

The Aires live in a convenient ground-floor apartment in one of the many modern buildings in Coimbra. (Most urban Portuguese live in such apartments; few can afford to own or rent a single-family dwelling.) Behind the building, the garage space allocated for a car is used for storage and houses the tropical birds Brother Aires raises.

Brother and Sister Aires are part of what might be called the “African Connection” for the Church in Portugal. They lived for twenty-five years in Mozambique, one of Portugal’s former African colonies. Like the Cabrals in Faro, the Simao family in Portimao, and President Melo in Setubal, they were among the hundreds of thousands of retornados—Portuguese, or descendants of Portuguese—who left Africa for Portugal when the colonies were given independence in the mid-1970s.

People with ties to those former colonies are widely represented in the Church. Ask Church members, with or without African roots, why this is so, and you will probably be told that many Portuguese who formerly lived in the colonies are more open to new ideas. They were also humbled by their change in life-style and the loss of most of their material possessions when they left Africa.

“We lost everything we had,” recalls Arnaldo Teles Grilo, patriarch of the Lisbon Portugal Stake. “And it was a good thing.”

Involved in banking in Angola, he had owned four houses and several cars. Now he and his wife, Eugenia, live in a small apartment in a suburb of Lisbon. They have a few artworks as mementos of Africa and, in one corner, a small portion of the fine library they once owned. “Life was very hard here when we returned from Africa, because we lost so much,” Brother Teles Grilo says. But, he explains, their situation compelled them to consider the greater importance of eternal blessings when the missionaries taught them the gospel.

The Teles Grilos were baptized in 1977 and later were sealed in the Swiss Temple. He dreams of the day when there could be a temple in Portugal. The cost and the rigors of the trip now keep some worthy Portuguese from traveling to Switzerland to partake of sacred ordinances in the temple there. It is approximately 2,500 kilometers (1,500 miles), and the trip takes two days and a night on the bus.

“But at the end of the journey, when we saw the temple,” Brother Teles Grilo says, remembering their feelings, “what’s the sacrifice? What’s the journey?” More than 250 Portuguese members went on last year’s temple excursion.

For some, the temple is a goal that will not be denied. Adriano and Ana Maria Barros of the Porto First Ward were married there in 1985. During their engagement, they had kept a bank labeled “Temple Marriage,” putting money in it each day to save for the trip. She lost her job a month before the wedding, and it appeared they might not have enough for the temple trip and a start in married life, too. They considered postponing marriage rather than settle for a civil wedding. But, exercising their faith, they went to the temple, and while life has not been easy for them financially, they have been blessed with what they need.

Younger members are influenced by the high value adults place on the temple. Several young men and young women of the Porto stake have been setting money aside for a trip to the temple to be baptized for the dead. Like the Barros, many say they will not settle for marriage outside the temple.

Throughout much of the country, the influence of the gospel is being felt, even if only in small ways. Bishop Leme, of the Lisbon stake’s Oeiras Ward, says, “I feel a difference in Portugal. The Church is still very small. But the Lord is doing something for this people.”

Many Portuguese members are grateful for recent reassurances that the growth President Monson pleaded for in his dedicatory prayer twelve years ago will continue. During the organization of the Porto Portugal Stake on 2 November 1986, Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Council of the Twelve told members that there will be many missions in Portugal and that it will one day be covered with stakes.

Before that day comes, Brother Teles Grilo says, Latter-day Saints in Portugal will probably face opposition as the adversary attempts to halt the spread of the gospel.

“But I believe,” he affirms, “as our leaders have foretold, that the Church will cover all the country.” Like Brother Teles Grilo, thousands of Portuguese Latter-day Saints are looking forward to the fulfillment of that destiny.

[photos] Photography by Don L. Searle

[photos] Left: Small fishing and pleasure boats at anchor in Faro Harbor. Far left: President Alcino Silva, Porto Portugal Stake, and wife Nazaré. Below: Adriano Monteira de Barros, Porto stake clerk, and his wife, Ana Maria, second counselor in their ward’s Young Women presidency.

[photos] Left: Lisbon is a bustling mixture of old and new. Far left: Medical student Domingos Sebastiao, a 1986 convert. Bottom center: Arnaldo Teles Grilo, Lisbon Portugal Stake patriarch, and wife Eugenia. Bottom right: Maria Isabel Carvalho Moreira, left, Elizette Maria Carvalho Moreira, and Manuela Ramos, Relief Society officers in their Porto ward, plan an activity. Below: Fernando da Silva Alves, first counselor, and Joaquim Jose da Silva Aires, district president, confer after inspection tour of a branch chapel in Coimbra.

[photos] Above: Sheep graze on a farm in southern Portugal. Right: Students take part in a seminary class in Setubal.