The Saints in Greece may be a melting pot of cultures, languages, and traditions, but there’s one thing they all have in common: their faith in the restored gospel.
Living in a culture steeped in tradition, where 97 percent of the population belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church, most Church members living in Greece actually come from outside of the country and speak a myriad of languages. But this little conglomeration of cultures still comes together every Sunday—despite challenges of all kinds—to strengthen one another and renew the covenants they hold so dear.
Establishing the Church in Greece
The Church’s first converts in Greece were unique in that they sought out the missionaries and baptism instead of the other way around. In 1905, a Greek press printer named Rigas Profantis sent a request to Church headquarters asking if he and four friends, who had learned about the Church from an 1898 newspaper, could be baptized. In response, Turkish Mission President J. Wilford Booth met with the five investigators in Athens and, seeing their strong faith and knowledge of the gospel, baptized them in the Saronic Gulf on October 22.
Ruins of ancient Corinth
Full-time missionaries were assigned to Greece in 1906, but after just four years, they were pulled from the country due to political unrest leading up to WWI and WWII. By the end of the Second World War and the Nazi occupation of Greece, at least one million Greeks had been left homeless, and approximately 70,000 had been killed. Seeing the need of these desperate citizens, the Church donated 80,000 pounds of seed wheat to Greece as part of its post-war humanitarian relief efforts. And a few years later, when a 7.2 earthquake rocked the Greek islands in 1953, the Church, along with several other organizations, again sent aid to those in need. In gratitude for these services, President David O. McKay was awarded the Cross of Commander of the Royal Order of the Phoenix—the second-highest honor the government of Greece could bestow.
In 1965, the first branch in Greece was finally created. And seven years later, President Harold B. Lee and Elder Gordon B. Hinckley traveled to Mars Hill (the same hill where the Apostle Paul preached anciently) to rededicate Greece for missionary work.
With the help of Sissy Campbell, one of the first Greek converts, portions of the Book of Mormon were translated into Greek in 1979 and were quickly dispersed to the Greek Saints. Despite this, Church growth remained minimal for many years, but in 1990 the Greece Athens Mission was finally established, which now encompasses Greece and its islands along with Cyprus. Today only a small band of Saints live in the mission boundaries, with roughly 200–300 active members. But although they are few in number, these Saints stick together for support—like a true Greek family.
Temple Marriage in an Orthodox Culture
Deeply entrenched in the culture is the Greek Orthodox Church, which traces its roots back to the same century in which Christ was crucified. The Greek Orthodox Church has a very powerful presence in the country, and, for most Greeks, it’s a natural part of their heritage, family, and national identity.
“If you’re Greek, then you’re basically Greek Orthodox,” says Tor Ånestad, who grew up in Norway and served a full-time mission in Greece.
For many years, it was legally required to marry in the Greek Orthodox Church, but that law has since been removed. Today, however, members must still be married civilly before they are sealed in the temple for eternity.
Temple of Poseidon, Sunio Coast
Temples are very important to the members. The nearest temple geographically is currently Kiev, Ukraine, but members also travel to temples in Frankfurt, Germany; Bern, Switzerland; and London, England. Members especially look forward to the completion of the Rome Italy Temple, since it will make temple trips easier and more affordable.
“Each trip to the temple for a member living in Greece represents a great sacrifice,” says Holly East, a recently returned missionary who served in the Greece Athens Mission. Even longtime members may only travel to the temple a handful of times throughout their life.
Strengthening the Feeble Knees
Because of these faithful members’ sacrifices, the Church is slowly but surely growing. “The center of Church strength in Greece is in the three Athens branches,” shares President Bill Heder, current president of the Greece Athens Mission. “These branches get together monthly for activities, firesides, and charitable service projects.”
For example, every December the Saints meet to share Christmas dinner at their church building near the Acropolis. “There is a sense of solidarity amongst the members, which is lovely to be a part of and see,” says East. “The members are great!” says Gaia Indelicato, an Italian missionary who served in Greece. “The branches are not very big, so everyone knows each other, and it’s like a big family.”
Baptism in Larnaca, Cyprus
That solidarity is also lovingly channeled into helping their community. Because the Church is not legally recognized as a “charitable organization” in Greece, donations cannot legally be given to community members, but other efforts to help are not wasted. For instance, recently Church members and missionaries assembled thousands of hygiene kits and collected hundreds of cans of milk, baby formula, infant kits, and food supplies for refugees.
“We would like to do so much more for the refugee situation than we have been able to do,” says Sister LeeAnn Heder. “But the Church does what it can legally—and that is quite a bit.”
Recently, the High Commissioner of the United Nations expressed just how much the LDS Church has helped the refugees in Greece. “She explained that when so many of the typical sources of funding failed to recognize the crisis of the first six months of the refugee wave, the LDS Church was key in keeping the commission functional,” says Sister Heder. “Entire relief camps, roads, and tent hospitals exist. . . in large part due to funds donated by Church members worldwide.”