For additional details see the March 22, 1997 edition of the Church News.

Puglia Stake Offers Refuge from the Storm

Following several weeks of violence and chaos on the streets of Albania's capital city, Americans were ordered to leave Albania on March 14, 1997. Among the refugees evacuated by U.S. military personnel were missionaries of the Albania Tirana Mission, who were airlifted from the embassy compound and transported to Brindisi aboard a U.S. Navy ship.

Leopoldo Larcher (first president of the Catania Mission and currently a Europe West Area service center manager), was to prepare for the evacuees' accomodations and other needs. Elders Neil L. Andersen and F. Enzio Busche of the Seventy also traveled to Brindisi to assist in the missionaries' transition. Upon arriving in Brindisi, the missionaries were watched over by Lt. Col. Bill Cochran and another member of the Church stationed in the area.

This excerpt from the Church News reveals the Lord's hand in guiding the evacuation effort, and in providing a safe haven within the Puglia Stake:

Elder Andersen said that Brother Larcher had arrived in Brindisi and went quickly to the port, believing that the missionaries would be coming in by sea. After waiting a while, he felt impressed to return to the airport, thinking that at least he would be there when Elders Andersen and Busche arrived. "He returned to the airport just as Col. Cochran was hoping for help in knowing what to do with the missionaries," Elder Andersen said. "Brother Larcher was joined by Carmels Vergari, president of the Brindisi Branch of the Puglia Italy Stake, and Vito Greco, the elders quorum president."

"Brother Larcher was able to relate that we did not want the missionaries continuing on to Rome. Col. Cochran suggested hotel arrangements near the airport, and the missionaries were transported there for a good night's rest."

When Elder Andersen and Elder Busche arrived in Brindisi at 11:30 p.m. March 14, they learned that the missionaries from Albania were safely in Brindisi -- all except Pres. Holman and Elder Josef Szamosfalvi. The fact that Elder Szamosfalvi, a Hungarian serving as Pres. Holman's assistant, did not have a U.S. passport caused them to remain at the embassy compound in Tirana after the other missionaries were evacuated.

Not until the next morning, Saturday, March 15, did anyone from the Church hear from Pres. Holman and Elder Szamosfalvi. Elders Andersen and Busche, on their way to meet with the missionaries at the hotel near the airport in Brindisi, received on a cellular phone a call from the Italy Catania Mission informing them that Pres. Holman had telephoned that office. He was at the airport in Brindisi. Elders Andersen and Busche instructed their taxi driver to go to the airport. "To our great delight, not only was Pres. Holman there, but so was the missionary from Hungary, Elder Szamosfalvi," Elder Andersen said. "You can only imagine the emotion of the next few minutes."

He said that the missionaries were gathered in a meeting room at the hotel. Told that two members of the Seventy had arrived, they began to sing "Called to Serve." They were happy to see the two General Authorities as they entered at the back of the room. As the missionaries stood and turned around, they then saw that their mission president and missionary colleague had arrived, also. Needless to say, everyone in the room was overcome with emotion. They struggled to complete the hymn.

"There were tears, hugs, smiles and prayers of thanksgiving," Elder Andersen said.

Elders Andersen and Busche feel that the timeliness of Pres. Holman's telephone call from the airport to the Italy Catania Mission headquarters was more than coincidence. "It was as if the Lord allowed His servants to deliver this miracle, though He surely brought the miracle to pass," Elder Andersen said.

At the meeting with the reunited mission leader and missionaries, Elder Busche expressed the love and concern of the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve and of all the Church. He quoted D&C 115:6, saying that the purpose of a stake was "for a defense and for a refuge from the storm." The Puglia Stake, including the vicinity of Brindisi, had been created just one week earlier. Elder Busche told the missionaries that they were "safe in a stake of Zion."

Missionaries from the Albania Tirana Mission have been reassigned to missions elsewhere in Europe and the British Isles.