A Foundation in Faith

By DeAnne Walker

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    For centuries, the beautiful countryside of central Italy has inspired artists, writers, musicians, and poets. As far as the eye can see, rolling hills and fields are adorned with vineyards, umbrella pines, and cypress and olive trees. One would have to agree that the Master had indeed created one of his finest masterpieces here.

    As years have passed, some subtle changes have taken place in the idyllic scenery—highways have sliced through the serene countryside, and machines have replaced animals in the fields. But more significant than changes in scenery are the changes that have taken place in the lives of the people here who have embraced the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Since 1966, when Elder Ezra Taft Benson rededicated Italy for the preaching of the gospel, many hundreds of steadfast people in this part of the country have joined the Church. An indication of that growth was recently made evident when the Florence Italy District, located midway between Rome and Milan and extending from coast to coast through the central part of Italy, was divided into three separate districts—Pisa, Florence, and Rimini. These three districts have a combined total of 14 branches and 1,290 members of the Church.

    From among these pioneers have come many stalwart members. Their faith adds to the unique beauty of this part of the world.

    A Quiet Example

    “I felt like Nephi [must have felt] before he knew the message of the Lord,” recalls Roberto Asioli, president of the Rimini Italy District. “I was doing the correct things in my personal life before I heard the gospel, but I lived in a tourist city where there are many amusements and discotheques, and it was not a very spiritual place.” In fact, Brother Asioli was working in a discotheque in 1981 when he first met the missionaries. He was a discouraged young man working through a very sad time in his life. His wife, Loretta, had just lost a baby and was in the hospital.

    Roberto was home alone when the knock came at the door. “I looked out the window and saw the elders standing there. My spirits were so low—I just was not in the mood to listen to them, so I didn’t open the door.”

    But at the same time the next evening, a knock came at his door again. “This time I opened the door and invited the missionaries to come in,” he recalls. “We started to talk, and I felt their spirit immediately. It was not difficult for me to receive their testimony—it was the right time for me to hear the gospel message.”

    As Roberto learned more about the gospel, his greatest desire was to share his feelings with his wife and tell her of his wish to be baptized. Her reaction was not what he had hoped for—she was not interested, and she was not happy with his new-found religion. Disappointed, Roberto worried about accepting the gospel and being baptized without his wife. He prayed for Loretta to recognize the same spirit and happiness that he had found, and he considered postponing his baptism until she could share his feelings.

    “When I spoke to the elders about my concern for my wife, they gave me a blessing with a promise from the Lord,” says Roberto. “They said, ‘If you will be baptized, you will show your faith to the Lord, and He will never leave you alone. You will convert your wife.’”

    So Roberto continued to study the gospel. When the elders came to their home, Loretta would go into the kitchen and stay there until they left. “She was completely separated from me during this time,” says Roberto. “To me, it was very hard to consider joining the Church—thinking that she would always ‘stay in the kitchen’! It was very, very hard! But I remembered that the elders had told me, ‘The Lord will never leave you alone.’”

    Twenty days after the elders knocked on his door, Roberto Asioli was baptized. He was one of the first members of the Church in Rimini. He knew that he was at a crossroads—he had to make some decisions. What should he do about his work in the disco? What could he do to share the joy of the gospel with his wife? He decided to quit his job at the disco and give all his energy to living the gospel as he should.

    And Loretta watched. She watched as he started a new job, one that was not very secure. She watched as he lost that job and began his own business. She watched as he woke up early on very cold Sunday mornings and went to church on his motorbike, never trying to force her to accompany him. She watched as he studied his scriptures. And she watched as he prayed alone by his bedside each night.

    And they talked. Their conversations at first were not about the Church or about the missionary lessons—they talked about their life, about their marriage. Loretta remembers, “I realized that the Church and the message of the gospel were very important to Roberto. I realized that I couldn’t stay indifferent to this—I am his wife! I had to learn more about the gospel, so I started reading the Book of Mormon.” Roberto baptized Loretta only two months after his own baptism.

    Others were watching, also. When, at a family dinner, Roberto first refused the wine that was offered, Loretta’s father concluded, “He has really gone out of his mind!” But their families watched as Roberto and Loretta accepted a new and beautiful way of life. They saw that this new religion was not like fine clothes they wore only on Sundays—but one that they lived each day of their lives. They watched as they prayed together before meals.

    “In the beginning, it was very hard to break the wall of prejudice with Loretta’s parents and with mine,” says Roberto, “but now they are happy that we are members of the Church.”

    And someone else was watching from afar. “My brother was always watching what I was doing and what I was not doing,” recalls Roberto. “I never told him to leave his church and come to my church. I just cared for him and loved him. Eight years ago, I gave him a copy of the Book of Mormon, and I introduced him to the missionaries. Three years ago, I baptized him.”

    Since the Asiolis joined the Church, their family has grown. They have three children: Matteo, 11; Alice, 7; and Thomas, born just last May. The Church has also grown during this time. When Roberto Asioli became the branch president 13 years ago, there were only 10 people in the Rimini Branch; there are now more than 90 members.

    For three years—from April 1991 to April 1994—President Asioli presided over the original Florence District. In that assignment, he spent a great deal of time traveling to the 14 branches in his district, and he often made the two-hour trip over mountainous roads from Rimini to the district headquarters in Florence. In his present assignment, President Asioli continues to be an example to the Saints in the new Rimini Italy District. The time and effort required to fulfill his callings have not seemed to discourage President Asioli. “My work in the Church requires a lot of planning and organization, but I grow. What is easy is not the work of the Lord!”

    Hundreds of members of the Church have been touched by the love and dedication shown by Roberto and Loretta Asioli, and yet perhaps many more have noticed their quiet example—and are watching.

    Surrounded by Beauty

    Alberto Sottili is a silver craftsman. He recognizes and treasures beautiful things. Each day in his shop in Florence, Italy, he creates jewelry—lovely necklaces, earrings, and brooches. But he is modest about his skills. “My shop is very simple—it is really just a laboratory,” he says. “I always wanted to be a musician, but I didn’t have enough money. So, when I was 14, I worked in the summer and began learning to make jewelry.”

    Three years later—at a time when his life seemed very unsettled and he was searching for direction—Alberto heard about something that brought peace and beauty to him. “God loves you,” a relative who was a member of the Church assured him. Alberto was so impressed by this simple statement that he consented to kneel and pray with him. “I felt an incredible peace inside after our prayer, and I felt that I should learn more about this church.”

    When the elders began teaching the gospel to Alberto in 1974, they spoke to him about Joseph Smith, the Word of Wisdom, and the purpose of life. “As I listened, I was touched by the fact that the ideas the missionaries were explaining to me were already familiar,” recalls Alberto. One month later, Alberto was baptized.

    Today—20 years later—Alberto’s life is still surrounded by beauty. For many years, he was a single parent to his two older daughters, Simona and Silvia. When they were 12 and 11 years old, he met his present wife, Maria Teresa. They were married in the Swiss Temple and now have two more lovely daughters, Sara, 6, and Denise Gloria, 1. The older girls—now 19 and 18—have strong testimonies of the gospel, and both desire to serve missions. Simona reflected, “Thanks to the gospel, I am the person that I am. The gospel influences me each day of my life. Even though sometimes it is hard, I feel that the gospel brings me strength and freedom.”

    Silvia is following in her father’s artistic footsteps as she studies painting and sculpture. She also follows his spiritual footsteps as she expresses her testimony, “I am so thankful for my father—it is because of him that I was able to join the Church. Often, people in the world feel that they have the freedom to do whatever they want to do. But I think that obedience to the laws of the gospel is the only thing that makes us really free from the weight of the bad things of the world. To me, the gospel is strength and help, and everything in my life. The most important thing I know is that God loves me and listens to me.”

    In Florence, Italy, a city renowned for beautiful treasures, Alberto Sottili talks about his own priceless treasures: “I think that everything good is from God. To keep our family together, we have to work, to pray, to have home evening. We must not permit evil to come into our house.”

    And Maria Teresa agrees, “I can’t imagine my life without the gospel. The gospel is my life!”

    “It Seemed a Strange Religion”

    When Dr. Luca Ceccherini-Nelli met Barbara Muller in Washington, D.C., in 1979, he had no idea how much his life was about to change. At that time, he was in the United States doing medical research on the AIDS virus at the National Institute of Health, and she was working as an engineer for the U.S. Department of Energy.

    They met through mutual friends and had known each other only a short time when they had an unusual discussion about religion. After observing some members of a very different religious organization, Barbara had commented, “There surely are some strange religions on the earth.”

    Luca—not knowing that Barbara had recently been baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—responded with, “Well, I know of a religion that is even more strange than this one—the Mormons!” After a long silence, Barbara finally dared to ask why he thought the Mormons were strange.

    “Well, because they are different from us. They look nice. They are always sharp. But they are more strict, more firm,” Luca said.

    They continued walking until Barbara broke the silence again. “I am a Mormon,” she said, “and my children will be raised as Mormons.”

    They saw each other only one more time before their careers called them to different parts of the world, and they lost contact.

    “But she had left an impression on me,” recalls Luca. “She was somehow different from other people that I had met. I couldn’t forget our brief discussion about the Mormons. I was born and raised in Pisa, Italy, and I had seen the Mormon missionaries there, but I had never been interested enough to stop and talk to them. Now, since I was living very close to the Washington Temple, I decided to stop at the visitors’ center to learn more about this ‘strange’ religion.

    “I asked to see the missionaries and to learn about the Church, and—to make a long story short—it all made sense to me. I quickly accepted the challenge to be baptized.”

    After several unsuccessful attempts to contact Barbara, Luca telephoned her one more time. Luca recalls, “When she came on the telephone, I said, ‘I just wanted to invite you to my baptism.’ She accepted my invitation, and two weeks later we decided to be married.”

    The next few years were not easy for the Ceccherini-Nelli family. Two years after they were married, they made the decision to live in Italy. They had both quit their jobs and money was scarce when they moved to Milan. There were many discouraging times as they sought understanding from their families and as Barbara struggled to learn Italian.

    “My parents were against me, and her parents were not happy with her,” Luca recalls. “They came to see us, and they couldn’t understand—my parents couldn’t understand my new religion or my decision to marry an American, and her parents couldn’t understand our decision to move to Italy.”

    “The first three years were very difficult,” says Barbara. “But we prayed constantly, and went our way.”

    Luca became a counselor to the bishop in Milan and invited his father to come to church. “My father said that he had not received so much gospel in his entire life as he did that day. He recognized my commitment to the Church, and that was the beginning of his acceptance of my decisions.”

    Luca and Barbara now have three children: Beatrice, 10; Roberta, 8; and Vittorio, 6. “As Luca’s mother has watched our children grow, her feelings have softened about us,” says Barbara. “She has commented to me that our children are better behaved, are more calm, and do better in their schoolwork than other children she knows. And she recognizes the ‘special closeness’ we have in our family because of the teachings of the gospel.”

    Once again, Pisa, Italy, has become home to Luca Ceccherini-Nelli and his family. Doctor Ceccherini-Nelli is a respected physician and professor of medicine at the University of Pisa. Brother Ceccherini-Nelli has been a branch president three times and continues to devote countless hours to his Church callings. Barbara Ceccherini-Nelli—after eleven years away from her career—has found time in her busy life to do some consulting work with the European space program. But Sister Ceccherini-Nelli is a devoted homemaker and mother while serving faithfully in her Church assignments.

    Brother Ceccherini-Nelli reflects on how different his life would have been without the blessings of the gospel. “There was a time when I think I was really kind of lost,” he says. “I was working all the time and had developed a little place by myself with nobody inside, which was cold and useless. But then Barbara came into my life, and the Church came in, and things got better. We had a few years of really difficult times, but with the constant help of our Heavenly Father we have been greatly blessed.”

    “I think my life would have been much more materialistic,” says Barbara. “I think I probably would have been like a boat at sea, with no place in particular to go. Having the Church in our life has made everything so warm—it has made all the difference!”

    “Blessed in All Things”

    Like the Asiolis, like the Sottillis, like the Ceccherini-Nellis, hundreds of other Italian pioneers in central Italy bear testimony of the beauty and joy the gospel has brought into their lives. Brother Massimo LoMonaco of the Pisa Branch summarizes the feelings of many Latter-day Saints:

    “We feel that our family is better prepared than our nonmember friends to face the economic, political, and social challenges that we may encounter. We have a precious gift—we have the gospel of Jesus Christ that teaches us principles of honesty and righteousness. We uphold the law, we pay our tithes and offerings, and we do what the Church leaders advise us to do. We know that we will be blessed in all things when we follow the commandments of God.”

    Photography by Alfred W. Walker

    President Roberto Asioli, left, presided over the Florence Italy District for three years and now serves as president of the newly formed Rimini Italy District. Above: The Arno River reflects the unique beauty of Florence, Italy.

    Top: The Asioli family: Loretta, Matteo, Roberto, and Alice. Above: President Asioli greets Florence Branch member Vittorio Favaretto.

    Alberto Sottili considers his family to be one of his greatest treasures. From left: Silvia, Maria Teresa, Alberto, Sara, and Simona.

    Brother Sottili began learning to make jewelry when he was only 14 years old. His laboratory and shop are not far from his home in Florence.

    Above: The Ceccherini-Nelli children at home. Right: The Ceccherini-Nelli family in Pisa, Italy. From left: Beatrice, Vittorio, Luca, Roberta, and Barbara.