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History of the Church in Italy
By David R. Crockett

Part II: 1903 - 1965

Visits to Italy; Conversion of Vincenzo Di Francesca

In 1903 Sylvester Q. Cannon reported in April General Conference that he had recently visited Italy with President Francis M. Lyman of the Twelve. He said the people of Italy "are a fine people, a people of intelligence, a people of hospitality and kindness in every respect, and a people many of whom, I believe, will accept the Gospel in the future. There are no missionaries in that field at the present time." In 1905 Hugh Cannon, who had recently returned from Europe expressed his optimism that missionaries would soon be sent again to Italy. But the mission remained closed. Any members who remained in Italy had little or no contact with Church leaders.

During the early part of the century, a few Church leaders visited Italy but apparently did not come in contact with any members of the Church there. In 1906 Elder Heber J. Grant, who later became president of the Church, visited Italy for thirty days. He said: "I thoroughly enjoyed myself and saw many things to make me truly grateful for the gospel of Jesus Christ." Andrew Jenson, Assistant Church Historian, visited Rome during his European tour in 1912. During the World War I years, members of the Church serving in the military were in Italy for a time.

In 1926 Elder Melvin J. Ballard expressed a hope that the gospel would someday again be taken to Italy.

I do not feel we are justified in the opportunity we have given to either Spain or Italy or France or China or to other nations to hear the gospel; so I am looking forward for the time to come in the very near future when those lands shall be fully given the opportunity. Not many of them may come into the fold, and yet I believe that there is some of the blood of Israel in Spain and in Italy, and that the people are entitled to the opportunity of hearing the gospel before the day of judgment shall come. I bear witness to you that the Lord is already beginning the work for the redemption of the house of Israel. (General Conference, October 1926.)
In 1927 and 1930 the Church bound the remaining eight hundred Italian copies of the Book of Mormon which were originally printed in 1852. (Michael W. Homer; BYU Studies Vol. 31, No. 2, pg.86.)

The conversion of Vincenzo di Francesca was a notable occurrence. His conversion story was later the subject of the 1988 Church film, "How Rare a Possession." About 1910, in New York City, he found a book without a title page in a trash heap. The book was a copy of the Book of Mormon. He took the book home and began to read it. He later wrote:

I felt as though I was receiving fresh revelation and much new light and knowledge, I was also charmed to think of the source by which I had obtained the book. . . . The next day I locked my door and knelt with the book in my hands. First, I reviewed the 10th chapter of Moroni, and then I prayed to know if the book were of God. . . . While I was in that pose, awaiting a positive answer, I first felt my body become cold and my heart palpitate as if it would speak, and then I felt a gladness as if I had found something of extraordinary preciousness. It left in my memory sweet consolation and supreme joy that human language finds no words to describe. (Hartman and Connie Rector, "No More Strangers," Vol. 1 p. 85)
Vincenzo di Francesca, a Protestant minister, gained a strong testimony of this book of scripture. He taught its teachings to his congregation. His ecclesiastical leaders insisted that he burn the book. He would not, so they stripped him of his position as a pastor of the church.

In 1914, he was called home to Italy, to serve in the Italian army. Many years later, in May, 1930, he noticed the word "Mormon" in a dictionary and soon figured out the source of his precious book. He wrote to the "University of Provo" and his letter was passed on to President Heber J. Grant. President Grant sent Vincenzo a copy of the Book of Mormon in Italian and also wrote to John A. Widtsoe, president of the European Mission.

On June 5, 1932, Elder Widtsoe of the Twelve traveled to Naples hoping to baptize Vincenzo but hostilities in the country prevented Vincenzo from making the trip to Naples. Later he was again drafted into the army. In 1937, Hugh B. Brown traveled to Rome, hoping to perform the long-awaited ordinance, but they were not able to connect because of the outbreak of World War II. In 1949 Vincenzo again corresponded with Elder John A. Widtsoe and finally, on January 18, 1951, Vincenzo was baptized by President Samuel Bringhurst of the Swiss-Austrian Mission, in Sicily.

Brother Di Francesca wrote:

You can see that I have toiled hard to find the salvation in the kingdom of God which was spoken of in the remainder of the pages of the book without title page or cover. I pray earnestly that my story will be copied into the historical record of the Italian District so that future converts can learn clearly that man does not live by bread alone but lives also by the word of God. To all the saints in Zion I clasp hands across the ocean in true brotherhood." (Hartman and Connie Rector, No More Strangers, Vol 1 p. 89. See also "I Will Not Burn The Book," Ensign, January 1988.)

1937-1951: Kimballs' visit; World War II

In 1937 Spencer W. Kimball and his wife Camilla, visited Italy during a European trip. Brother Kimball had recently been released as stake president after twelve years of service. The Kimballs travelled to Europe to participate in an international Rotary convention in France. Afterward, they visited Italy, and witnessed Mt. Vesuvius during an eruption. "Here we saw a high, conically-shaped mountain, and at night for nearly a hundred miles we could see the display of fireworks in the heavens. . . . We climbed this mountain with its cinders and lava, and when we came into the great crater at the top, we were amazed to find that a few inches beneath our feet was molten lava, still flaming." (General Conference, April, 1948).

The Kimballs also toured Genoa, Pisa, Rome, and Florence. They took a gondola ride in Venice. Brother Kimball wrote: "How romantic to sit cozily in a comfortable upholstered seat under a canopy with someone you love and glide smoothly through the water, down little side canals, under bridges, hearing voices from the houses as you pass along." (Spencer W. Kimball, p. 114)

In 1939 Elder Joseph Fielding Smith and his wife Jessie toured the missions of Europe. They visited Italy and found some expatriate members there, but no Church organization. While in Florence, Italy, on July 4, 1939, they woke to the sound of the "jackboots of Mussolini's Brownshirts" as they marched beneath their hotel window. Tensions grew in Europe and in August the missionaries were pulled out of Germany as war was about to break out. Elder Smith helped with the removal and finally returned to the United States in November. ("Dynamic Disciples," p. 229)

During World War II, many LDS servicemen fought in Italy. Franklin L. West reported in April 1945 General Conference: "I was proud to get a picture of four of our seminary men, all chaplains who met together in Italy, in a similar undertaking. And many of these boys were not drafted, they volunteered, knowing the great hazards of the work they were about to perform."

After the end of the war, French Mission President, James L. Barker sent missionaries into Italy in an attempt to locate members of the Church. Phares Horman was among these missionaries. Brother Horman recalled: "It was against the law to proselyte in Italy. A few members were known to be in Italy having survived World War II as they had written our mission. Paramount in the letters received were requests to send Book of Mormons and visit them to give them updates of the church and fortify them with the spirit of the gospel." A few members were located but traveling through war-torn Italy was very difficult for the young elders who spoke very little Italian.

In September 1947, the Church received permission to microfilm parish records in Piedmont Valley. This was joyous news to the Saints who had ancestors join the Church in Italy nearly one hundred years earlier. Archibald F. Bennett traveled to the valley by car with President and Sister Barker and James M. Black, the film editor. During their three-week stay, they were able to film more than eighty thousand pages of records. The pastors of the various churches were very helpful. Brother Bennett reported: Everywhere in these valleys we found worthy people living moral lives, who were sincere lovers of the Bible truth. . . . Their homes are simple; their living is frugal; their lives are humble and filled with sincere devotion to their ideals. . . . All of us have been highly impressed with the gracious courtesy and sincere friendliness of all the pastors and their families. Everywhere they were eager to help us in our objective. In no case did they evince the slightest hesitation or objection. Before leaving, Brothers Bennett and Black climbed Mount Brigham (Vandalino) and stood on the "Rock of Prophecy." "For here [Lorenzo Snow] had stood and dedicated the land of Italy for the preaching of the gospel. Vaudois families had been brought into the Church. In our hearts, as we stood there, was the prayer that the prophecies uttered on that hallowed occasion would soon come to fulfilment." (Improvement Era, December, 1948)

In 1951 President David O. McKay said: "I sincerely pray for the blessings of the Lord on the world, that peace may be restored (we now have war) and that no further wars will break out, that the Gospel may be carried to the rest of the world and in particular to Spain, to Italy, to Greece, to the Mediterranean countries, countries that were once the only ones where missionaries worked in the propagation of the Gospel and wherein were the early centers of the Christian Church." (General Conference, October, 1951.)

1951-1965: Prelude to the reopening of Italy

United States LDS serviceman stationed in Italy after World War II, helped to again establish the Church in Italy. During the early 1960s these servicemen and their families organized into branches and groups under the direction of the Swiss Mission. The first branch was organized in Naples on April 28, 1963. The Vicenza Branch soon followed on May 3, 1964. These two branches and other groups were organized into the Italian District on November 22, 1964. Leavitt Christensen was the district president. During this time these members were able to bring a few converts into the Church. In the early 1960s the Church began retranslating the Book of Mormon into Italian. The Italian Book of Mormon was available in 1964.

In 1964, missionaries serving in the South German Mission (Stuttgart), Bavarian Mission (Munich), and Swiss Mission were asked to work with Italian "Gastarbeiter" (guest workers) in the various countries. Jon Wright explained:

At the time, the German "Wirtschaftswunder" (economic miracle) was underway, as Germany rebuilt from the war. This rebuilding created more jobs than the war-decimated work force could provide, so temporary workers were imported from Italy, Turkey and other countries. Our mission president, Blythe M. Gardner, saw a great opportunity among the tens of thousands of Italian men working in Germany.
These missionaries learned both the Italian and German languages (without any MTC). One of these elders was Marcellus Snow, a descendant of Lorenzo Snow. Elder Snow was particularly gifted in languages and was called to lead the Italian district in the South German Mission. Elder Snow translated pamphlets and other materials into the Italian language. The district experienced good success and many Italian converts were found.
Unfortunately, the majority of the investigators and converts were males, who were working for better wages in the respective country without their families. This made it difficult for family teaching. Often these converts would become inactive when returning to Italy because of family pressure, Catholic pressures, and the lack of established LDS church buildings there. Because of this, the Italian missions in German speaking areas were closed in the year 1965.
But this core of Italian "Gastarbeiter" converts formed a membership base in Italy which made it possible for the Church to again be established in the country. Elder Ezra Taft Benson help to lay ground work for the mission to be reopened in Italy. The Minister of Italian Agriculture arranged for him to meet with the four senior officials in the Italian Department of Church Affairs. (Dew, Sheri, Ezra Taft Benson, 377).

On February 27, 1965 the Swiss Mission organized the "Italian Zone." There were about 230 members in Italy, mostly U.S. service personnel. The Church had been given legal status in Italy so missionary work could resume. Many of these fulltime missionaries who had been learning Italian were sent to Turin, Milan, Brescia, Verona, Vicenza, Pordenone, and other cities. The first Italian convert was said to be Leopoldo Larcher. (Searle, Don L. "Buon Giorno!" Ensign, July 1989 and Church Almanac).

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© 2000 - 2003, David R. Crockett. Used with permission.
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