Forty-Year Wait For Baptism
Don Vincenzo Di Francesca
This story spans an ocean and a lifetime. It takes the participant from his native Sicily to America, where he obtains a degree as pastor. More important, in a trash pile he finds a precious book of scripture. The book lacks only one thing—identification. It is without cover or title page.
The thrilling contents of the book now inspired Don Vincenzo's life and supplemented his sermons. But the ministerial reaction was the classic one—this must be heresy because it is not in the Bible. Don Vincenzo, however, had received the Spirit's witness that the book was true, and he would not retract. His account of the "trial" he received and his firm defense of the book without a name could almost make one think that a modern Luther was facing his accusers.
It took twenty years to discover the name and publisher of this precious book—the Book of Mormon—and another twenty before the eager convert could receive baptism. All that time Don Vincenzo was without Church association. The reader may well ponder whether his own faith would have stood that test.
Brother Di Francesca died firm in the faith in 1966. At his request, his story is dedicated to the Italian Mission.
Leaving the waters of the Mediterranean Sea on the north coast of Sicily about 80 kilometers east of Palermo, one can make his way up the steep slopes of the Madoni mountain range and eventually reach several small Sicilian villages, typically situated on the crests of the highest peaks. Passing through Santo Gibilmanna one travels several more kilometers to the tiny city of Gratteri. This was where on September 23, 1888, at 9:00 a.m., Don Vincenzo Di Francesca was born and where on November 18, 1966, he passed from this life.
Many citizens of this tiny village experience birth, life, and death while never venturing more than twenty or thirty kilometers from their homes in all their lives. This might have been the lot of Vincenzo had not a sequence of events led him far away and eventually brought him to a knowledge and acceptance of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
From his very early years, Vincenzo was religiously inclined. After his elementary education was complete, his grandfather Antonine arranged for him to receive private religious training from the older man's cousin, Vincent Serio, who unfolded the Old and New Testaments to the lad. Vincenzo was so successful in all the lessons that his tutor praised him with the words: "Thou art blessed."
At the age of twelve Vincenzo was admitted to the Gymnasium Lay-Clerical where he studied religion for four-and-a-half more years.
His brother Antonine, who was then residing in New York City, invited Vincenzo to spend his seminary vacation in America, and he accordingly left Naples on a steamship. In New York he struck a fast friendship with his brother's friend, a Methodist pastor of the Italian Branch Chapel. Soon Vincenzo became a teacher of that congregation, and because of the merit of his teaching it was proposed that he take the Evangelical course of both Old and New Testament, at Knox College of New York, where he got his degree as pastor in November 1909.
Early one cold morning Vincenzo received a note about a sick friend. While he was on his way down Broadway toward the ailing friend's home, a strong breeze from the open sea rustled the pages of a book which had been thrown upon a barrel full of ashes ready for the city trash truck. The form and the binding of the pages gave him the idea that it was a discarded religious book, and curiosity pushed him to retrieve it. He plucked it from the ashes and beat it against the trunk of the trash barrel. He looked at the frontispiece and found it torn; the cover was completely missing. The fury of the wind turned the pages in his hand, and he saw names that he had never in his life seen before. In his haste to go on to his destination, he wrapped the soiled book in the newspaper he had just bought and continued toward his colleague's house, where he visited with him and consoled and advised him.
After Vincenzo's return home, as soon as he could get his coat off and warm himself, he opened the book and began to read. He came across some of the writings of Isaiah—a name he recognized—and was convinced that it was a fine religious book he had found. But he could not detect the name of it since the cover and some pages were missing, and other pages were too soiled to be legible. He went out to the drug store and bought 20 cents' worth of denatured alcohol, and with this and a cotton-pad he washed the remainder of the pages. Then he read them.
"I felt as though I was receiving fresh revelation and much new light and knowledge," he recalls. "I was also charmed to think of the source by which I had obtained the book. Many of the lectures in the book left in my memory a strong magnetic attraction, and I felt urged to re-read it several times, always satisfied that it fit very well with other scripture, as though it were a fifth Gospel of the Redeemer.
"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. I also asked if I could mix the words of it with the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in my public preaching.
"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.
"The book was easy to understand without effort. The more I read it and thought about it, the more I was impressed that I had received the assurance that God had answered my prayer and I knew that the book was of great benefit to me and to all who would heed its words.
"Within a few days my preaching was strung with the new words of the book, and the listeners became amazed and enthralled with the new power in these sermons, at the same time becoming indifferent to some of my fellow preachers. Thus while the esteem towards me grew, so did professional anger and envy and suspicion. One day I was interrupted in a meeting by the Vice Venerable, when he heard me talking of Mary the Virgin and substituting the vision of 1 Nephi 11:15-36. This arrogant authority encouraged my colleagues to sit in all my meetings and contradict any new doctrine! These contradictions and indignities made me rebel, and I became disobedient to the warnings for me to observe the strict methods of the sect.
"Next I was denounced to the Committee of Censure who, with fatherly words, counseled me to burn the book of the devil that had brought so much trouble to the harmony of the brothers who loved me.
"I testified to them as follows: 'I find the book precise under every respect to the writings of the prophets, and the words themselves testify that the book is of the God whom we profess to adore. I do not know to what precise church it belongs, but for certain it talks about the appearance of the Redeemer, after his crucifixion, to a remote people organized into a nation upon this continent, and the Redeemer himself there organized a Church with apostles and priesthood like the Church that he organized during his ministry among the Jews; and he gave commandments and laws. The great trouble with most of us is that we do not apply the teachings of the gospel to ourselves. We do not examine ourselves and find out wherein we are failing. Knowledge without practice is like a glass eye—all for show and nothing for use. There is nothing more true than the fact that it is works that count. Faith without works is dead, like the body without spirit. It is only a short time after death until we must bury the body. We cannot keep it.
"'The book that the Committee counsels me to burn talks of a church, but the missing pages do not let me know where it is. It is better, instead of burning the book, that we practice what is in it, because certainly it gives us more light and knowledge and more faith to perform all our works, than the teachings of others. I cannot burn the book, because I fear God and I have asked him if it is true, and my prayer has been answered affirmatively, positively, without a shade of doubt. I feel it in my whole heart, mind, and body at this instant. Neither can I permit its burning, and since you insist on pronouncing the sentence to burn the remaining pages of the book which you say is of the devil, I tell you that it is the devil who suggests to you to persist in your decision in order to bring you into perdition as Judas Iscariot was, who sold the Redeemer for thirty pieces of silver. I am encouraged to tell you in this instant that your eyes are of glass and that you are all near to God with your words but far from him with your hearts and your works!'
"That was as the fire to the powder in the gun. The Committee got up and cried, 'It is enough! That book, which oppresses you, must be burned or you will incur the most serious displeasure.'
"I replied, 'I repeat, I will not burn the book. I prefer to go out of the ministry rather than burn the book!'
"In April of 1914, this heavy conflict had its conclusion before the Council of Peace of the sect, and I was invited to a conciliation. But I found that the subject of the judgment was not being changed. The Vice Venerable started the interrogation with affable manners, believing that my unyielding attitude had been provoked by the sharp rap administered by the members of the Committee of Discipline. He spoke with much benevolence, and then stated, 'You must be noble enough to burn that vessel of falsehoods that has brought bitterness to the Brothers of the Good Shepherd!'
"I replied, 'The musicians have changed, but the music is the same, namely that I must destroy the book with fire without anyone examining its contents. If I burn the book I offend the Godhead.'
"I was given one last warning: 'Repent of your stubbornness!'
"'No.' I stood with the contested book in my hands, listening to the words of the Judge stripping me of my degree of Pastor and of every right and privilege in the Church of the Good Shepherd.
"I left with fresh self-confidence at having defended my cause and that of the book of unknown name.
"On May 15, 1914, the Supreme Synod examined a list of member petitioners and reviewed my case of disobedience. They called upon me to be judicious and to abandon the "infidel book" and repent, as the Synod was of the intention to pardon my stubbornness. I refused, so they confirmed the decision, classed me as an habitual and incorrigible rebel against the ordinances of the religious sect, and pronounced definitely my removal from the body of the church.
"November 26, 1914, the Italian Consulate of New York called me to embark for Italy as a soldier in the 127th Infantry Regiment stationed at Florence, Italy. May, 1915, I was sent to the front. At one point I was seriously censored by the commander of the company on report by the Catholic chaplain who was aware of my loyalty to the book with no cover. I was punished with ten days in a tent with only bread and water, and was told never to tell anyone again about the history of a degraded people that are the American redskins.
"After my discharge in 1919 I returned to the United States, and there I met my old friend Mike, the pastor of the Methodist Church, who knew my preceding history and whom I greatly esteemed. He frankly interceded in my favor, asking that I be readmitted to the congregation as a lay brother, afterwards making steps toward a reconciliation. It was very hard, but at the end, being specific that they were conducting an experiment, they called me to accompany my protector abroad on a mission. We went to Auckland, New Zealand; and then to Sidney, Australia, where I found some Italian emigrants who had serious questions about certain gospel translations in some of the Catholic and Protestant editions of the Bible. They were unsatisfied by my minister friend's answers but, being in possession of the truth, I convinced them. When they wanted to know where I had learned such teachings, I spoke of the book in my possession. It was sweet for them but very bitter for my colleague. At first he bore with me, but I could not resist the strong urge to preach the divine truth, and finally Mike denounced me in his reports. Again the Synod put in force the decision of May 15, 1914, and I was forever out of the Sect.
"In May, 1930, I stumbled onto the source of my precious book. It happened while I was looking in my French dictionary for the significance of a pulley invented by a Frenchman. As I was thumbing through the M's, my eyes fell upon the words "Mormon sect." I quickly wrote to the president of the 'University of Provo,' which was mentioned in the article, and asked for information about the remainder of the book that talks of Nephi, Alma, Mosiah, Mormon, Isaiah, Lamanites, etc. He passed my letter to the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and in another month I heard from President Heber J. Grant. He sent me a copy of the Book of Mormon in Italian and said that he had informed the president of European Missions in Liverpool, England, Elder John A. Widtsoe, to arrange baptism.
"On June 5, 1932, Elder John A. Widtsoe of the Council of the Twelve came to Naples intending to baptize me, but a revolution between Fascists and anti-Fascists on the Island of Sicily caused the police of Palermo to prevent me from going to Naples, and I had to wait for another chance, like Moses in anticipation of the promised land.
"I was called to arms during the Italian-Ethiopian war in 1934, and this further prevented anyone with authority from reaching me for baptism.
"On January 14, 1937, I started correspondence with Elder Richard R. Lyman, European Missions President, and later with the president of the British Mission. President Hugh B. Brown of that mission eventually came to Rome intending to baptize me, but his letter of invitation for me to go to Rome was delayed until the day in which he and his family left Rome for America because of the outbreak of World War II, when the missionaries in Europe returned to America. Thus I was deprived of baptism, and cut off from any news of the Church.
"I remained a faithful follower and fervent preacher of the gospel of this dispensation, being in possession of the standard works of the Church. I translated those works in my idiom and sent the important chapters to persons of my acquaintance.
"On February 13, 1949, I started again the correspondence with Elder John A. Widtsoe and I asked him to help me to be baptized soon. He answered that he had written asking President Samuel Bringhurst of the Swiss-Austrian Mission to come down to Sicily and baptize me.
"On January 18, 1951, I was baptized by President Bringhurst in the Thermal Waters of Termini Irnerese, Sicily, in the South of Italy.
"In 1954 I made a trip to the Swiss Temple for my own endowments, and this first step was quickly followed by other trips to do temple work for my ancestors.
"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 [now Mission] 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."
Brother Francesca's Christensen.
Hartman and Connie Rector, No More Strangers, Vol 1 p. 82-90
Note: A film was made about the story, called “ How Rear a Possession”