Saints without Halos
Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton
Margrit Feh Lohner: Swiss Immigrant
[p.137]Louise Gammenthaler had to leave the dance early to prepare her Sunday School lesson for the next day. Edward Feh walked her home, puzzled about Louise’s religious affiliation. Was she Protestant? Catholic? Finally, in desperation he asked, “Mormon? … Well, I’m a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Relieved, Edward responded, “Oh, that’s a beautiful name. Can I see you Sunday by the lake?”
By Sunday Edward had learned the connection between the Mormons and the Latter-day Saints. He arrived with a stack of anti-Mormon pamphlets. But Louise was also prepared—with a testimony—and challenged him to investigate. For three months Edward followed the missionaries around, hoping to find one breaking the Word of Wisdom or walking with a girl. Finally conceding defeat, he began a serious study of the gospel. Edward and Louise were married after his baptism, and Margrit, born 20 May 1914, was their only child.
The Fehs lived on the third floor of the Zurich home where Edward had been born. There was an etching studio on the first floor, Margrit’s uncle lived on the second floor, and above them, on the fourth floor lived another uncle. When Margrit was about fourteen, at the beginning of the Great Depression, the Fehs obtained visas to immigrate to the United States, but [p.138]European Mission President John A. Widtsoe told Edward he was needed in Switzerland, and they stayed.
Edward became mission Sunday School superintendent, district president, and branch president, while Louise was equally involved in the auxiliaries. Thus Church activity came naturally to their ebullient daughter. Even more important, perhaps, was the confidence they instilled in her “that I was on the right track,” even though Margrit was the only Latter-day Saint in her school.
President Heber J. Grant and Elders Joseph Fielding Smith, James E. Talmage, John A. Widtsoe, and Joseph F. Merrill visited their home, Elder Talmage making a special trip of several hours to give Louise a blessing when she became ill.
Once, Louise and Edward left Margrit with another Latter-day Saint family while they went on a weekend assignment and vacation. Margrit developed an ear infection early in the evening and cried for her parents all night as the family walked the floor with her.
Edward was speaking in district conference when he felt an inner voice prompting him to go home. He cut his talk short, informed the presiding officer he would be leaving, and beckoned to Louise, who was sitting in the audience. She was stunned. A vacation was a rare experience; they had hotel reservations and a full day of sightseeing scheduled. “No,” he said, “we’re going home.”
“To me that was the most inspirational thing,” Margrit recalled, “to realize that I needed them and they knew I needed them and came home. It’s as simple as that.”
Margrit was a diligent student. She was excused from her school’s religion classes, however, when she proved all too willing to challenge the teacher’s interpretations of scripture. Margrit had a special talent for languages, eventually becoming fluent in German, French, Dutch, Italian, and English.
Edward and Louise both sang in choirs, and Margrit remembered her mother often sang “Let the Mountains Shout for Joy” as she did the housework. They provided piano lessons for Margrit, but she had to walk twenty minutes in the [p.139]snow to practice in the unheated parlor of a friend’s home. Ironically, Margrit resented the lessons she had pleaded for, and remembered “sitting at the piano with tears streaming down my face” through the hours of practice required by her mother. “Now [music] is my life. But it had to be drummed in when I was a teenager.”
The Saturday evenings before district conferences were devoted to MIA activities, and Margrit was given “a free hand” to produce many of them, including an elaborate presentation of Sleeping Beauty, which called for a paper rose covering for the stage curtain. She recruited the Relief Society to make the roses, but materials still amounted to two hundred francs (about $200), and the Mutual, taken back by the magnitude of the ambitious project, fasted for an audience large enough to make it a success. But “by the time the evening arrived, we prayed that no one else would come, because they were sitting on the radiators and the window sills and everything.”
Growing up in Zurich also gave Margrit the opportunity to teach Sunday School and MIA and to serve as branch organist. The Feh home also became a center for missionaries, “and I never opened a Christmas present but that it wasn’t in the presence of our missionaries.”
Of the native Swiss members, none became more important to Margrit than Werner A. Lohner, who was five years older than she. As a Boy Scout, he had come to help Margrit’s mother polish silverware and to carry coal up from the basement. In one MIA production, Walter played the hero who was to rush in and save Margrit from the menacing Indian, Lowell Bennion (then district president and later director of the University of Utah Institute). Lowell “came closer and closer, and finally he backed me up against the wall and the hero didn’t arrive—he couldn’t get his boots on.”
But when Walter returned from a mission to Germany, the hero had no trouble “getting his boots on.” Werner claimed he had resolved to marry Margrit when she was still a child. But they were twenty-eight and twenty-three respectively when they were married on 7 May 1937. It was the civil ceremony required by Swiss law, followed by a leisurely lunch at a [p.140]lakeside hotel. In the evening the MIA sponsored the traditional Church wedding party: the mission president married the couple again, followed by a program of readings, a performance by the orchestra, and dancing.
Margrit’s parents and Werner’s mother accompanied the newlyweds on their three-day honeymoon. Neither bride nor groom seemed to mind the parental presence. “They really took in all our happiness,” Margrit remembered. Then, unable to coordinate their work schedules, they took separate vacations—Werner to his former mission field and Margrit, a month later, to Paris and Belgium with her father.
The following year, 1938, Louise Feh fulfilled her lifelong dream of visiting Salt Lake City and going to the temple. Louise enjoyed herself so much she didn’t want to return. She went through the temple 153 times. But in 1939 she did return, just as World War II erupted—which reinforced her determination to emigrate. Mission President Thomas E. McKay accompanied them to the American consulate and recommended their visas be issued quickly. They were processed in April 1940, and to avoid Germany and France, the family traveled to Genoa, Italy, where they planned to sail for America.
Margrit was worried about the war, and concerned about the future of her twenty-month-old son and about her father’s crippling arthritis. An adverse medical report could nullify their visas. At Genoa the ship’s steward approached them, smiled at baby Richard, and ushered them out of the waiting room into an examination room. There they braced for questions about Walter’s arthritis. Instead, the doctor asked,
“Where are you going?”
“Where in Utah?”
“Salt Lake City.”
“Are you Mormons?”
For the first time in our lives somebody had said “Wonderful!” because we were Mormons. He talked about the missionaries, stamped our papers, and sent us into the next room.
“Where are you going?”
“Where in Utah.”
“Are you Mormons?”
That was our introduction to the United States.
Adjustment to a new environment is difficult for most immigrants. Language differences make communication difficult and homesickness is discouraging. When they discover that the streets are not paved with gold and that they are simply members like hundreds of others instead of the center of attention in a small mission branch, many immigrants become disillusioned.
Fortunately, the Fehs and Lohners had a hundred friends waiting to greet them when they arrived in Salt Lake City. “From then on we were home, right from the first day,” Margrit reported. Nevertheless, it is to her credit that she maintained a positive attitude and took advantage of every opportunity to participate in ward activities. Even while her English was still halting she accepted a call to direct a ward play, then to be the MIA activity counselor, stake music director, and in 1950, to become a member of the YWMIA General Board.
Margrit and Werner joined the Swiss Edelweiss Chorus and five years later she became its director, a position she held until 1976, when she became the organization’s president. Margrit also sang in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for seventeen years. One of her fondest memories was singing with the choir at the dedication of the Swiss Temple. It was her first trip home in fifteen years. “I cried when I touched Swiss soil.”
Margrit’s two daughters were born in the United States. Her father died in 1947, and her mother lived with Margrit until her death in 1965. Secure in the knowledge that things were well at home, Margrit also worked at a department store, then for the Deseret News, and for many years at the Genealogical Society.
[p.142]Margrit’s term on the YWMIA General Board was filled with exciting experiences, and her enthusiasm and organizational flair helped make them successful. “I am just a stickler for details and advance preparation,” she explained. “I always have a list of what to do, what’s to be done for this day, what’s to be done by the end of the week, and then I cross them off and carry over what isn’t done.”
The excitement of the 1958 music festival production gave Margrit particularly fond memories. Crawford Gates chaired a committee which wrote “Praise Ye the Lord,” which begins with the creation and ends with the hallelujahs and hosannahs of the final judgment. An international music festival followed, then a revival of Promised Valley that had been written for the 1947 centennial and was even translated into French and German. Also inaugurated during the 1960s were quartet festivals, Young Artists concerts, and Spring Sings.
Margrit also reported, with a little pride, that in 1970, after a year’s work with the Laurel conference committee of girls on how to conduct meetings, organize, and plan, that “we never sat on the stage, we never conducted a meeting … and these five young girls conducted meetings just like ‘pros’.” And there was special satisfaction when she had only one 6:30 A.M. rehearsal to teach hymns to a chorus. Thinking optimistically, she printed 300 sheets of music, hoped for 200 singers, and was overwhelmed when 750 showed up.
For Margrit all of these activities were infused with a strong spirituality. One of her first assignments was to write a lesson about Schubert for a YWMIA manual. After reading three books, she knelt down and prayed, “‘Father in Heaven, I know all about Schubert, but what do I do with it now?!’ And I wrote a lesson about Schubert and about these evenings of music that Schubert had with his friends … that was in the manual for six years. To me that was a lesson right from the beginning that I can’t do it by myself, but with the Lord’s help I can.”
Following her release from the general board in 1972, Margrit served eight years on the Church Music Committee, where she saw the music festivals mushroom. In 1970 there were 7,500 applications to sing in the all-Church music [p.143]festival. By 1972 the number had grown to 8,500 for the Utah regional festival alone.
Yet these popular achievements, which often involved thousands of participants, were always intended to benefit individuals, a fact Margrit never forgot. She recalled with pleasure a letter from a boy in Hurricane, Utah, who applied for the music festival because “I decided to improve myself and [it was] the first thing that came along.” After the festival he wrote again to thank the committee for the opportunity.
Margrit poured her energy into doing rather than into questioning and worrying. Blessed with the ability to think quickly and make decisions rapidly, she was ruefully aware that the accompanying disadvantage is impatience. She said, “I had to learn patience,” but added, “I never question or argue with the General Authorities. … I’ve already taken the shortcut—to do it by obedience, rather than by experience.”
With pleasure Margrit quoted “sentence sermons” learned from her co-workers: “Nothing but the best is good enough for the Kingdom of the Lord” (Crawford Gates), and “What should not happen should not be invited to happen” (Richard L. Evans).
Asked how she would like to be remembered, the vivacious grandmother paused briefly, then responded, “Ah, I don’t know … I’d just like to be remembered by my family as having been industrious and thoughtful, and serving … and loving the Lord.”