Cover image taken by Ivan Majc.
Sometimes things happen that can’t be explained. Big things. Amazing things. That’s how it was this September, in Southeast Europe, when an American Pianist came to Slovenia to research his wife’s family history.
What it was, really, was a convergence of sorts, of four points of purpose.
The convergence began in April when internationally acclaimed pianist Paul Cardall informed President David J. Grant of the Adriatic North Mission (ANM) that he and his Slovenian/American wife Tina, planned to come to her ancestral homeland in a family history quest. He would share his music, while there, if Grant would like.
President Grant, whose mission it is to expand the influence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in his five country mission gladly agreed to host the Cardalls. It would take a little time to define how best to showcase the popular pianist, but Grant knew he had a soul touching talent coming his way.
At the same time, my husband David and I were preparing to depart for a senior service mission to the ANM. Elder Hansen was assigned to be the acting President of the Celje, Slovenia Branch. I was intending to happily be his “help-meet.”
I could not have known that my knowledge of event-building, media and news writing, would soon be called forth to aid the ANM in a major undertaking.
And, unknown to any of us, at that very time, Slovenian citizens were anticipating an international report to be released in a few months, regarding questionable medical care for their children with congenital heart disease (CHD), in a small country where an estimated 200 children are born each year with CHD.
For a good number of years, Slovenians have been caught in the politically sensitive debate on the quality of that care. Standing with families and children are several support associations including the Slovenian Heart Foundation.
Tying all this together is Cardall’s heart transplant six years ago. Since birth, he suffered with CHD. He was born with basically “one-half a heart.”
Four points of purpose were aligning. Within weeks, all entities would arrive at a pinnacle where all stood for one purpose: Children and families who need community to be actively aware of the number one, worldwide birth defect and the need for more science and better care.
Upon our arrival at the Zagreb, Croatian mission home in late April, I was alerted by President Grant that I would coordinate a Paul Cardall tour, whose music I was unfamiliar with.
“But, President,” I protested, “I don’t speak the local languages, I have no social contacts. How in the world can this happen?” The President gave one of his tolerant smiles and quipped, “You’ll figure it out!” The next day we left for our assigned residence in Celje.
I would soon become humbly dependent upon the spirit that blesses humanitarian and missionary efforts worldwide and with that spirit, the gifts of divine intervention.
The apparent obstacle was the date of Cardall’s arrival. Summer was soon setting in. Cardall would arrive the first two weeks of September, leaving the summer months to organize an event that, even under good circumstances, could take up to a year. Plus, in the ANM region, citizens go “on holiday” en masse, thus it is nearly impossible to gather consensus or partners or turn-out when decision makers are absent.
But, I quickly discovered while within the “missionary bubble,” amazing things happen. With each prod and nudge, inquiry and plea, ideas blossomed and people would appear who were unafraid of the time frame.
After false starts, we made progress in Slovenia with the introduction of a Kranj Branch sister, whose husband Uros is a counselor in the Slovenian District Presidency. Sister Urška Štampe, a busy young mother, warned me, “I’m too busy to help you figure out how to get started, but I know I must.” And she did.
Of course, it was a given, cost had to be heavily controlled. The plan was to offer citizens a free concert, but a venue was needed, which would not charge rent.
LDS churches were too small for what we had in mind. It was Stampe who suggested using the parochial church of St. James, “a monument of mature baroque.”
The good Priest agreed. Joze Kokalj would open his chapel in Ljubljana City Center for the Mormon pianist.
Turns out, it was a special year for the historical church, renowned for its “octangular Chapel of St. Francis Xavier, the patron of missions.” Ironically, in 2015, the year of its 400th birthday, it would host the Adriatic North Mission of the LDS church.
Even with a venue, the event still did not have shape or clear purpose.
Štampe’s contribution was just beginning. It turns out she is a highly trained and talented conductor of an award winning choir. KPZ Mysterium Kranj would open for Cardall.
But, still, something important was missing in the quest to serve Slovenia. “A free concert” felt hollow; seemed unfinished.
I constantly found myself on my knees. Opposition was immense. Translation issues constantly blocked communication efforts; lack of geographical knowledge, a huge barrier. Challenges loomed in every effort.
But, strangely, my faith grew. I began to watch for, even expect to be shown, the next step.
And, there it was. Brother Cardall’s life journey held the answer. Štampe and I agreed, we would follow his example of giving his story of courage to those who needed encouragement.
Štampe found a support group for families of children with CHD, a local association, Društvo srcnih otrok (Heart Children Society), which immediately agreed to meet with me.
The group was cautious, but excited to consider co-partnering in an event with a top Billboard artist with a newly released album 40 Hymns for Forty Days. The obvious became clear: Cardall’s life’s journey links with Slovenian families and their children at a critical time regarding medical care.
It was then we realized that the timing of Cardall’s visit was most assuredly, divinely set. Still, the tick of the clock was ominous.
The small association invited a former member to our first meeting. A woman who became the driving force towards the grand conclusion of Sept 4th.
When Petra Aleš, now a member of the Slovenian Heart Foundation learned of Cardall’s visit, she told me she knew she had to be involved. “I felt like a little child looking at the chocolate in the window shop – who would do just about everything to get it, to taste it,” she shared.
For this floundering senior missionary, she was heaven sent. Aleš, who works in the communication industry, speaks impeccable English. She’s a mother of an 8-year-old daughter with CHD and a healthy, 5-month-old son.
We wondered, was it divinely arranged that she was enjoying her company’s maternity benefit of one-year work release, in order to provide the Cardall project the gift of her time?
What I did know was, Aleš’ arrival was just in time as Štampe’s work load required her focus elsewhere. I am forever grateful Štampe opened important, initial doors, despite her heavy schedule. She lives her faith. Her beloved Slovenia and the gospel message are beneficiaries.
It turns out, Aleš instinctive talents were clearly, heavenly directed. There was a synergy between us. We worked fast and furious. We did not waiver, though disappointments brought tears and forced many a late night. The clock was ticking. The poster unfinished, still no money partners for the foundation and we were always being reminded the country was “on holiday.”
Yet all the while, the miracles flourished: The beautiful St. James church needed a 9-foot Steinway to showcase the Steinway artist. Cardall, back home in Sandy, Utah had no idea the intensity of preparations for his arrival. But, when he could, he contributed from afar such as referring us to Silic d.o.o, the Ljubljana Steinway dealer.
Turns out, in Celje, next to our apartment is a music shop. The owner was a former classmate of Mr. Silic years before. The connections from Utah to Celje eased the negotiations for piano, tuning and moving costs; one of those tender mercies.
Cardall was invited to drop by, once he was in town, and pick out his favorite piano. One miracle after another cleared paths, opened doors, softened hearts, enlarged efforts. And the clock ticked.
Aleš brought in the nation’s top tenor, Oto Pestner to also open for the event. Soon a well-known former TV personality Oriana Girotto, who has suffered with CHD, would emcee and Paul and Tina would meet the Ljubljana Mayor the day of the concert.
Critical mass was upon us. The Slovenian convergence now had the components of a match made in heaven.
Then, two weeks before the concert, the controversial medical report was leaked. Its unfavorable findings regarding the care of children with CHD in Slovenia generated grim, daily headlines. Unease surrounded the event. It was decided that a top government official, scheduled to attend, better stay home.
The news stirred various issues, good and bad, some frightening, but with each day – plans moved forward.
Four days out, the Foundation held a news conference to urge Slovenians to rebuild following the report. Aleš urged TV viewers not to focus on the past; but to work in harmony on solutions. And, of course, show unity at the Cardall Concert.
An overflow crowd rewarded all efforts. That evening, after Father Joze’s mass, after moving the beautiful alter to reveal the 9’ Steinway carefully placed behind, one last tuning-touch, by the ever so attentive Silic sons, after hurried placement of chairs and one quick run-through by three dozen choir members and a brush of the keys by Cardall and a sound check, Father Joze and his new friend President Grant took their places on the front pew. Next to them was Cardiologist Matija Cevc, CEO of the Heart Foundation. The three would issue welcomes. Three in one united purpose.
The show began with the first voices of the welcoming choir, Štampe stirring heavenly sounds. The coming together was of the heart, for the heart.
The night was electric.
Aleš sat in the audience with her family. I’m back stage, keeping an eye out for caterers, for the closing reception and trying not to think of the next two concerts in Croatia. Cardall and Pestner were pacing in the wings.
Now, remember Tina and Paul were there to connect with family? As it turned out, 40 family members were in the audience. Left out of this story are dozens and dozens of miracles, which cleared the way for a bonding of people and purpose and children And yes, the Cardalls found other family and records. Lots of them.
The “…hearts of the children were turning to the fathers.”
Then this: 72 hours after the concert, three heart associations met to discuss the next steps regarding Slovenian’s oversight of its “heart children.” Aleš reported, for the first time ever, they all came to agreement. A beginning.
Before moving on to Croatia I share these heart-felt sentiments from Aleš, written to me, the morning after the concert:
“Being part of this amazing story that we have helped create and successfully brought to its highest point yesterday night makes me aware of how much good lies within us and just waits for the opportunity to come out front.
“No matter how many words and explanations I write I will never be able to tell you how grateful I am that God had brought you your Church and Paul Cardall to Slovenia, to my life. In these two months I felt more alive than I did in a long time…all my energy was given with my innermost passion and desire to accomplish something for the higher purpose…for the better tomorrow of our children.
“In these two months every emotion I possess has had its share … from excitement, enthusiasm, anticipation, to fear, confusion and sadness, which were again beaten by hope and determination to succeed. In just two months, I have had the experiences that a whole year of ‘normal life’ would never bring.”
Eternal friendship, of course, was the great reward for our life changing experience.
Aleš concert work was done, but mine continued. Two concerts in Croatia required equal miracle work, much of the work in tandem with Slovenian efforts.
During May and June, efforts to establish a concert in Zagreb failed. Were there no miracles for Croatia?
The very week I was conferring with President Grant about turning our efforts into a small fireside, Aleš connected me with contacts for the Zagreb heart association Veliko srce Malom srcu. At the same time, providing full confirmation of the Lord’s intentions for Cardall’s gift of music, came a second connection with the same group. We had our link to Cardall and CHD families.
It was July, only two months out, that we met Barbara Brzaj, Tanja Grahovic and Magali Radovic at their board meeting. All carried the same passion as Aleš. All have children with CHD.
We quickly learned that health care for CHD children in Croatia was excellent. Even so, the heart associations and doctors welcomed the chance to raise awareness with a pianist whose empathy and compassion came from his own suffering.
The date for the concert would be September 12th. Association members had the least amount of time, but were fearless. “Don’t worry,” they told the ANM team. “We can do this!”
Faith constantly carried the ANM team, rewarded by steady progress towards what would be a deeply touching night.
Preceding that evening would be a tour provided Cardall by doctors of their pediatric, cardiology unit at the University Hospital Centre. It was there, of course, where the focus was squarely placed on the purpose of those drawn together, across borders, language and faith: The well-being of children with CHD.
Local TV recorded Cardall and doctors as they visited patients and families caught in the trials of the birth defect. Like a magnet, they were drawn to Cardall; the pianist with a new heart, carrying the message of hope. There, he reminded them of the power of parental sacrifice, which blessed him as a patient over the years.
Also in the making was a third concert in Zadar, a deeply Catholic City on the historic Adriatic Sea shore.
On Friday, September 11th, Cardall would play his melodious tunes in the University Concert Hall overlooking the Sea. His welcoming co-hosts would be President Miso and Sister Ankica Ostarcevic of the Zadar Branch, who recruited my husband and me to come to the ANM. Concert funds from that balmy night would be donated to the cardiology department of the Zadar General Hospital.
And, finally, the last concert within the convergence, in the Croatian Musical Institute in Zagreb, the oldest in Croatia, one of the country’s top, pop female singers, Ivana Husar opened for the American guest, along with 11 year old gifted pianist Maja Tomaić, who was born with CHD.
Skillfully tying every element together, emcee Ana Tomašković, talk show host of Croatian TV.
Then Cardall played – where many greats have played, including 19th century composer Franz Liszt. Cardall’s tender melodies mixed with messages of faith and hope, resonated. The evening ended with children with CHD and their parents onstage – and audience on their feet.
When the last note was played, when tears were dried and new friends held one another, there was wonder amid the ANM team. They knew something important had happened with the convergence complete. Each point of purpose satisfied.
The triangle journey was not unnoticed by the media. They responded in all three cities. Newspaper and TV stories told of the American pianist, with a donor’s heart and his message of hope for families. And, though it didn’t come easy, in the dominant Catholic region, that an emerging church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was at the center of the excitement, it was kindly noted.
Many were touched by the whirlwind tour, the seeds planted will sprout under the Lord’s divine plan.
As for President Grant? The ANM reach has expanded with new friends who will open the way for humanitarian partnerships down the road and future combined efforts.
As for Cardall, he’s already planning his return trip next year to further sink roots into Tina’s beloved country and develop new projects with his new Croatian friends. As for the heart associations, their tireless efforts to bring three major events into reality have spawned new possibilities for those who need them the most: The children.
As for me, I still have months of mission left to serve with a constantly, supportive husband. Having been schooled by the Lord, who clearly led an unsure senior through the perils of no language, no social or political contacts, no idea how to get anywhere without a GPS (and I was the designated driver for the Cardalls), I am humbly grateful for the wildest ride a senior missionary could ever have.
No wonder I often share the miracles of senior missions and the Lord’s need of our hard earned skill sets. He walks with us every single step. His angels constantly on task, on both sides of the veil. It is His work we do.