Besides being the year the LDS Church dedicated its first temple inside the former Soviet Union, 2010 marks several key LDS anniversaries in countries once behind the Iron Curtain — the 25th anniversary of the Freiberg Germany Temple, and the 20th anniversaries of missions in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary and the first branch in Russia. Deseret News reporter Scott Taylor is taking a look at the LDS Church’s past, present and future in these countries in a series of stories.

WARSAW, Poland — The status of the LDS Church in Poland can best be described as ironic — a start dating back to the late 19th century, but a current membership totaling fewer than 2,000; and the predominance of the Roman Catholic Church allowing a Mormon presence in the then-ommunist country in the 1970s but serving as an obstacle to conversion today.

With the region's ties to Catholicism dating back more than a millennium, it's no wonder a popular refrain is often recited: "To be a Pole is to be a Catholic; and to be a Catholic is to be a Pole."

That national pride and heritage was solidified even more by one Karol Jozef Wojtyla — the native of Wadowice, Poland, is better known as the venerable Pope John Paul II, serving from Oct. 16, 1978, until his death on April 2, 2005.

Deemed one of the most influential leaders of his time, he is seen as instrumental in ending communism not only in his native Poland but throughout Europe.

With an estimated 90 percent of Poles considering themselves Catholic, Poland is the most devout country in ever-more-secularist Europe. It is a God-fearing, family-oriented, Sabbath-observing nation — but a tough Catholic shell to crack for other religions, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The area was more religiously diverse prior to World War II, including the 1890s, when missionaries first preached in the region's Polish and Prussian areas. The several congregations at the turn of the century multiplied over the next several decades, particularly in the Wroclaw area.

One of the most heralded branches was in Selbongen, when a young German convert returned to his home village in 1922 and helped establish a branch, with the members building their own meetinghouse, which was dedicated in 1929 by Elder John A. Widtsoe.

"The church was so strong back in the '20s and '30s," said Stanford W. Nielson, president of the Poland Warsaw Mission. "They had branches in cities we don't even have branches in now."

And these were branches with a full complement of activities, such as the Mutual Improvement Association, branch choirs and Scouting, he added.

Then came World War II, the latest in centuries of regional battles that have affected — and afflicted — Poland.

"The Poles have been battered around over history," said Douglas Tobler, a BYU emeritus professor of history and himself a mission president in Warsaw from 1998 to 2001. "If you've got Russians and Germans as neighbors, you don't need any more enemies.

World War II proved costly to Poland — besides the physical devastation and the death of more than 6 million Poles (half of them Polish Jews), realigned boundaries resulted in a smaller Poland and first the flight and later the expulsion of ethnic Germans and Ukrainians.

The Holocaust and the ethnic departures left the Catholic Church all the stronger, and it became a thorn in the side of the communist government during the Cold War.

After the war, many of the previous LDS branches in eastern Germany now resided in the realigned Poland, meaning many members soon left or were forced out. The branch in Selbongen – renamed Zelwagi by the government — earned a post-war visit by Elder Ezra Taft Benson in his nearly yearlong European welfare mission in 1946. More than 100 members and friends gathered for a quickly convened meeting.

The next year, the government ordered branch meetings discontinued because only Polish was allowed to be spoken in public meetings. Two years later, the Zelwagi branch resumed meetings — in Polish.

While the Church was registered officially in 1961, emigration of members out of Poland eventually resulted in the last Polish branch being discontinued in 1971. The abandoned Zelwagi meetinghouse was turned over to the government, later serving as a Catholic chapel.

A Mormon presence re-emerged in the mid-1970s, thanks to a number of converts in western Poland, who were baptized in neighboring Germany.

Feeling threatened by the power and popularity of the Catholic Church in Poland, government officials were happy to open the proverbial door for other religions to enter. Now re-established, the LDS Church was again officially registered in May 1977, with church President Spencer W. Kimball visiting four months later and offering a prayer of dedication on the country.

Allowed to own property and answer questions but not actively proselyte, the church called missionary couples beginning in the late 1970s to man information centers, with the five-year mission of Juliusz and Dorothy Fussek providing a long-term, positive influence.

In 1986, then-Elder Thomas S. Monson offered a prayer of gratitude and supplication in Poland after meeting with government officials, who granted permission for missionaries to serve and chapels to be built in the country.

The first missionaries arrived in Poland in January 1989, with the Poland Warsaw Mission created the following year.

Longtime church members and leaders admit membership growth has been slow over the years. Many factors are in play, including the Catholic dominance and tradition, Europe's abundant secularism, the lack of consistent and sustained local leadership, and the falling away — or moving away — of members over the years.

Strong members, including many Poles who have served missions inside and outside of their country, moving away for better economic opportunities have hindered church growth and leadership, said Michael Isaac, an African native from what is now Eritrea, a 1991 convert in Bydgoszcz, Poland, at the age of 49.

"It is growing pains," said Isaac, who has served in branch, district and mission presidencies. "We're not equal to Salt Lake, but it takes time. It's only been 20 years."

The early anti-Mormon newspaper attacks that Isaac remembers have stopped. "Not a week went by where the newspapers wouldn't write ugly things," he said. "But the last eight years, they (the media) come to us, and they write what really is the story."

And the consensus is that the future of the LDS Church in Poland — much like the rest of Europe — rests in the younger generation — those in their teens and 20s.

"These are the potential," Isaac said. "For us old-timers, our responsibility now is to keep the church going so they can take over in the future."

Beyond the Iron Curtain: Church blossoms in USSR

Besides being the year the LDS Church dedicated its first temple inside the former Soviet Union, 2010 marks several key LDS anniversaries in countries once behind the Iron Curtain — the 25th anniversary of the Freiberg Germany Temple and the 20th anniversaries of missions in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary and the first branch in Russia. Deseret News reporter Scott Taylor is taking a look at the LDS Church's past, present and future in these countries in a series of stories this week.

Today: The LDS Church in Poland has a storied past, a challenging present and an optimistic future.

e-mail: taylor@desnews.com