The Church is taking firm root amid the rich blend of history and art in northern Italy.
The Church's recent growth began with an Italian renaissance of its own in 1964 when missionaries returned to the land of Florentine culture, home of ancient Romans and cradle of Greek democracy after more than a century's absence.Church roots here go back nearly 140 years. The first emmissaries of the Church arrived in Genoa in 1850 and traveled to the Piedmont mountains in the north where they hoped to find success among a group of religious nonconformists called the Waldesians. It was there, at Torre Pelice, about 100 miles west of Milan, where Lorenzo Snow dedicated Italy for the preaching of the gospel. Afterwards, Elder Jabez Woodard preached to and baptized a group of Waldesians.
Elder Woodard described one experience: "I commenced preaching but the devil entered into some who had been resisting the truth and I saw he had got firm hold and my words seemed to be wasted. . . . I therefore stopped short, and sat down after giving an intimation that everybody might go where they liked. By this means I got rid of the chaff while the good grain remained. I then recommenced preaching, and the power of God rested upon us. Many a tear rolled down those weather beaten faces. The next day I baptized 10 persons." (The Italian Mission, by Lorenzo Snow.)
However, missionary efforts were cut short in 1857 after the converts immigrated to the Great Basin. The next baptism in Italy was in 1964 when Leopoldo Larcher, who later became a mission president, was baptized.
Two years later, two Italian branches and seven servicemen/Italian branches were flourishing when Elder Ezra Taft Benson of the Council of the Twelve, then president of the European Mission, visited.
On Nov. 10, 1966, he and a group of about 40 from the Italian Mission drove to Torre Pelice. Inspired that they had found the spot of the original dedication, Elder Benson re-dedicated the land of Italy. "We have a love in our hearts for the Italian people," he said in the dedicatory prayer. "We realize they have been in darkness, a spiritual darkness, for many generations. We pray that thou wilt shake the darkness from their eyes. . . . Let the sunshine of thy sweet Spirit spread over this land that there may be a resurgence of spirituality."
Alfredo Gessati, associate area CES director for Italy, said, "From then on, the Church in Italy knew rapid expansion."
The first stake in Italy was created in 1981 in Milan, often called "Italy's working capital." The second stake was created in Venice in 1985. The Church's growth came during a period of industrialization - northern Italy's rebirth in steel and technology. Old social ways were left behind as people moved to new homes and new lifestyles. Many were open to change and embraced the gospel. Italy now has about 12,500 members in two stakes and three missions.
One of the members who joined in 1971 was Valeriano Ugolini. He was in Milan's central square of the cathedral Piasta Duomo 18 years ago when he saw a streetboard display by missionaries. Ugolini had studied to be a priest but abandoned his study at age 21 because he lacked fulfillment. He was a graphic arts student when he saw the streetboard and heard the Joseph Smith story.
"I decided it was interesting," he commented, but he did not pursue the interest. A year later he went to visit friends who were taking lessons from missionaries and had agreed to be baptized into the Church. "I went with the intention to give the missionaries a bad time," he said. "But I had the bad time."
That "bad time" led to his renewed interest in the gospel; he gained a testimony and was baptized. Since then he has served as quorum president, mission clerk, high councilor, bishop and is now second counselor to Milan stake Pres. Raimondo Castellani.
Pres. Ugolini and his wife, Carolyn, a returned missionary, have two daughters. "Our philosophy is not to be American or Italian, but to be LDS," she said.
They found life in Milan to be too confining so they recently moved to a country location outside of the city. Several other LDS families followed them. The families hope a branch can be developed among the country people soon. In the meantime, "the children have grass to play on," said Pres. Ugolini. He added that their move to the country will give others in the ward an opportunity for leadership.
Another convert from years earlier is Giuseppe Pasta, recently released as first counselor in the stake presidency and former district president. In the early years, "We felt like pioneers," he said. "We had many disappointments, but we were not discouraged."
Pasta, an accountant, is typical of the northern Italians who find kinship with industrialized areas of Europe. He gave up a prominent position with an auto manufacturing company to work for the Church.
Northern Italians "are a hard-working people, not more, but not less than people in other areas of Europe," said Pasta, "They are becoming wealthy and it is difficult to have the missionaries work with them. But people who accept are strong and they stay strong."
He said the tradition they must overcome is more social and political than religious. "It is hard to change just in a few years the traditions of many centuries. The only thing we can offer [to interest them] is the sincerity of our message."
He said stake missionaries team up with full-time missionaries to spread the gospel. They are successful, though growth is not as rapid as in some countries.
Challenges for members include the distances most live from meetinghouses and from each other. Youths are hardpressed to find other LDS youths. They are also challenged to live Church standards in a society with lesser expectations.
"We fight those things," said Pres. Pasta. "We try to stay close as families. We hold family home evenings and really have discussions. We try to involve all members of the family. We try to be wise."
He said the next five years will bring additional growth to the Church. "I am confident in the future. We have a good and prepared people, and there are many potential members among the Italians."