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Saturday, August 9, 2014

It Begins with One

Photo: Opening the city of Venezia and Mestre to the Gospel in Dec. 1970
The growth of the church in every city in Italy begins with one brave and courageous soul who made a pivotal decision to renounce some of the traditions of their fathers and join this strange and marvelous Christian church.   Someone has to be the first to have the confirmation of personal revelation that the Gospel has in fact been restored to the earth with all of the priesthood power, authority, keys, and ordinances as promised by God.   Someone needs to be the pioneer to bear witness to others that the power and gift of the Holy Ghost is available to all who are baptized members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Even today, it's usually just one person in the family that is the first to follow the promptings of the Spirit and ignore the traditions, negative untruths that exist on the internet, and withstand the persecution from friends and family members when they announce that they are joining "i Mormoni".   Everyone around them questions their decision and watches to see what life changes occur as a result of this decision.   Refusing to join in a friendly cup of cafe' or glass of vino is not easily understood by friends or loved ones.    Joining the church is a decision that impacts families and generations, neighbors, friends and those in the workplace.   It's not an easy decision and yet those brave few who are the first seem to have an extra measure of faith and dedication that blesses lives forever.

Photo: Young Elder Steurer with Bro. Larcher at the Swiss Temple in 1970
My first assignment as a young missionary in 1968 was to spread the good news in Trieste.  My companion and trainer was Elder Cardon.  There were no members in Trieste at the time.    Just a few homesick missionaries from America who spoke broken Italian.   We didn't even have a place to meet at first.   We transformed with a little paint and elbow grease a small rented shop and purchased some wooden chairs and constructed a handmade pulpit to create our first meeting hall.    We were anxious to know who the Lord had prepared to become the first official member.   I was able to be a witness as my companion baptized the very first member, Sister Lodi, a cheerful middle aged woman whose husband also wanted to join but found it difficult to give up smoking at first.   Several others were baptized during those first few months, including Fratello Laban whose wonderful baritone voice was heard on the first Italian version of the temple film.   We taught a few of discussions to the teenage Giombi sisters just before I was transferred.  I always wondered what became of them.  While looking through a picture album I found in the office basement of those who served as missionaries in the 1960's and early 70's, I immediately recognized the younger of the two, Rita, who I learned had been called as one of the first Italian sisters to serve a mission.   By the end of my mission thirty months later, Trieste had a thriving Branch of about 30 members.  Today it is one of the stronger wards in Italy.

My second assignment was the city of Brescia.  The first members to join in Brescia were the Larcher family who were taught by some persistent missionaries from Switzerland who followed them to the beach prior to the Italian mission being organized in 1965.   Sister Larcher was baptized in the sea in her black two piece swimsuit before returning home.  It was months later before they saw another missionary or member of the church.   After the mission was dedicated in 1966, a small branch of the church began from this one family and by the time I arrived in 1968, Brother Larcher had become Branch President Larcher.   My companion Elder Lauener and I later had the priviledge of accompanying Brother Larcher to the Swiss Temple on assignment to translate the endowment into Italian.  We spent a couple of weeks working prayfully on the first draft which would be fine tuned by several others before being used.  Returning later with Miriam and attending a session in Italian was a memorable experience.  When I recognized the voice on the film as that of Brother Laban, the second member baptised in Trieste, I nearly broke down with gratitude.

Photo: The beautiful living room of the Pievani home in Bergamo adorned with Giovanna's art talents
The first to join in the neighboring city of Bergamo is one of my special memories.  Sister Lacerti (now Pievani) would take the hour long train ride with her little boy each Sunday to join with the other handful of members who lived in Brescia.   She remained the only member in Bergamo for nearly two years after her baptism.  Later the mission was split in 1971 and other missionaries arrived to help teach others.   Today there are three wards in Bergamo with talk about creating a Stake in the near future.  We were blessed last month to spend a wonderful weeked with Giovanni and Giovanna, together with the Fenns, reminiscing about the miracles that have occurred and how the church has transformed the lives of so many in Bergamo.   She is a gifted artist and nearly every wall of her home is adorned with her work.   Each time we visit the Pievani's we usually are given one of her masterpieces and now our home is a constant reminder of her talent and love of the Gospel.

Photo:   Playing a spirited game of "Bugiardo" (Liar) with the Pievani's and Fenn's 
The last assignment of my mission in December, 1970 was to open the city of Venice... actually Mestre, the mainland city where most of the population around Venice lives.  I had just a little over a month left before completing my service.   Bro. Finotto, had just joined the church in Padova and it was Elder Stark and I who had the privilege to teach him and wife who were now living in Mestre.  Paola was baptized the week before I boarded a plane home in January, 1971. This family became the first Italian members of the church in Mestre.  She was expecting twins at the time and we joked about the church doubling in size several months later.   The Finotto's have been the nucleus for growth in Mestre which now forms one of the stronger Stakes in Italy.  We also had the opportunity to spend another weekend with this marvelous family who has been the ancor of faith for more than 40 years in Mestre/Venice.  I don't think there is a greater blessing for an old missionary to taste the fruits of his seedling labors when he was much younger.

Photo:   The Finotto Family circa 1976
It has not been easy for these early pioneers.  They talk about the persecution, hate,  ridicule and the feeling of being very alone and not having the support of others, especially those who joined and later left the church.  They remember inexperienced leaders, contention, and the missionaries who set poor examples.    It's not easy being a member in Italy even today but many of those who were the very first seemed to have a special ability to withstand the trials of faith that all seem to experience.   Today the pioneers look back with amazement at the steady growth of the Church in Italy.  It has not been an flood like in some other parts of the world... at least not yet.  Growth has been a steady trickle with most missionaries returning home feeling fortunate if they participated in even a single baptismal service during their mission.  The average today is one baptism per missionary per year.

The total membership numbers really do not justify a temple in Italy, but the faithful have been some of the most ardent supporters of the Swiss Temple and the Lord has now blessed them with one of their own.  Once or twice a year wards seem to have no problem filling up buses of dedicated saints who spend an entire week at the temple.   They announced in our ward this morning that there are only a few seats available for the temple trip at the end of this month.  The bus was completely full when it departed.  The experienced ones help the new ones, the youth baby-sit and do baptisms as the adults attend several sessions per day.   They eat, sleep and serve together in a bonding experience they will never forget.  At the end of the week they ride the packed bus all night arriving home exhausted but spiritually nourished to withstand the trials of life.  These are amazing pioneer members of the church who have strengthened our faith as a result of their example of sacrifice and dedication.  We love the faithful saints of Italy!

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