Senior Mission Call to Land of Ancestors Brings Elder Full Circle
Contributed By Laurie Williams Sowby, Church News contributor
Elder Mark Balzotti was excited to serve in the land of his ancestors when he was called 47 years ago to serve in the Italy Mission.
He was understandably excited to be called to serve there again, in the Italy Rome Mission, with his wife, Debbie, after retiring as an elementary school principal in Springville, Utah. They began their service in September 2016 as an office couple, taking care of the myriad daily needs of the mission and its 192 missionaries.
They’re looking forward to doing the work for some of their Italian ancestors at the Rome Italy Temple after its dedication in March 2019.
With ties to a pair of future Church Presidents, the Italy Mission was organized in 1966, and its first missionaries were from the Swiss Mission. Its reopening came more than 100 years after then-Elder Lorenzo Snow had dedicated Italy for the preaching of the gospel in 1850. Early Italian converts answered the call to Zion and emigrated to Utah; the work went silent for a century. Then-Elder Ezra Taft Benson rededicated Italy in August 1966.
Elder Balzotti was assigned to Rome at the beginning and end of his 1971–73 service, also serving in Pisa, Florence, Bari, and Napoli.
“The Lord sent me to these places,” he said in a recent interview in Rome. “I was in the land of my ancestors in all three of those first assignments, but I didn’t realize that until I completed some genealogical research [years later].”
Seeking his family
Elder Balzotti did not see genealogy/family history as what he was there to do as a young missionary, but as he later helped members of his family in Italy fill out their family group sheets and pedigree charts, he dutifully tried to fill out his own.
During his first assigned city of Rome, he contacted a family member he found in the phone book. He discovered from his relative and a friendly priest that his ancestors came from the nearby medieval town of San Polo dei Cavalieri, located on a mountaintop outside Rome.
San Polo dei Cavalieri. Photo courtesy of Mark Balzotti.
The two young elders got permission from their mission president to go there.
Upon exiting the bus, Elder Balzotti was greeted with an embrace and the traditional kiss on both cheeks by Ornelio Balzotti, a cousin, who then introduced him to two elderly men sitting on a bench in the piazza.
“They recounted to me the day in 1911 when, after my grandfather, Paulucio Balzotti, had returned from working three years in the United States to earn enough money to bring his wife and daughter back to Boston, the three of them departed down the road in a horse-drawn buggy to go to America,” Elder Balzotti related.
The young Elder Mark Balzotti, right, connected with cousin Ornelio Balzotti when he visited his grandfather’s hilltop village, San Polo dei Cavalieri, 47 years ago. Photo courtesy of Mark and Debbie Balzotti.
Cousin Ornelio took the two young elders to see where Paulucio Balzotti had been born and the home where he and Elder Balzotti’s grandmother, Marie Filoni, had started their marriage. “It was wonderful for me to walk the streets and see their home,” Elder Balzotti said.
“After I’d gathered all I could by talking to family,” he continued, “my companion and I boarded a bus for Tivoli, which was on our way back to Rome, to do some sightseeing. When we stepped off the bus, I discovered my work was not yet done. I ran into two cousins walking down the street who suggested we visit the diocese nearby to see more records.”
There was more to come at the Catholic church in Tivoli.
“The wonderful priest let us in,” Elder Balzotti recalled. “He recognized our white shirts and name tags but was so kind to us.” After they told him they were looking for family records, he took them up to the attic to look for the books for the village where his grandfather had been born.
They could not spot the right book among the leather-bound volumes on rows and rows of shelves. Praying silently for success, they found it in a jumbled pile of books on the floor in the corner as they were about to give up.
The priest cleared off a table, and with the light of a single bulb dangling from a wire, he started translating the information from Latin as the elders sitting on each side of him filled out the pedigree charts. As night fell, the priest asked his novices to bring candles, and the three continued to work until the two elders had to leave to make their 9:30 p.m. curfew.
In that dimly lit church attic, Elder Balzotti received more than family names, he said. “I received a testimony of how important gathering records is to Heavenly Father.”
When they returned the next preparation day, the priest had apparently been chastised for helping members of the Church, and he told them they would not be allowed in the attic again nor could he translate the Latin for them. He offered instead to bring the books down to them, but without his assistance the elders couldn’t read the ancient Latin.
Forty years later
Forty years later, the Balzottis made a trip together to the same town and the relocated church, where they were allowed in by a nun on two different days to scan and photograph the birth, death, and marriage records of their ancestors, clicking away as fast as they could.
Then they returned home to Utah and had to learn how to translate the Latin from those photographed pages. In three trips to Italy, the Balzottis found enough information to prepare hundreds of temple ordinance cards, 130 of which they have brought to Italy hoping to do the temple work for these Italian ancestors.
Both of them expressed awe at what they were allowed to do as they researched ancestors in Italy.
“I know the Lord’s hand was there,” said Elder Balzotti. “I owe my genealogy [findings] to some wonderful priests and nuns. I have warm feelings about my Catholic brothers and sisters.”
His wife recalled, “When I first handled those papers from the 1600s, I felt a connection to those ancestors, people who didn’t have the gospel. I’ve come to love this family.”
With the long-awaited announcement of dates for the open house and dedication, Elder Balzotti said, “It is significant for me to be able to take some of my relatives’ names to the Rome Temple and have their work done in their ancestral land.”
Elder Balzotti was born in Boston after his parents met in Washington state during his father’s army service in the 1940s. His mother had joined the Church at 19, but his father died at 45 without accepting the gospel. His temple work has since been done by family members. Mark and Deborah Balzotti have four children. Their three sons have all served missions, including one to the Italy Catania Mission.