Literary Worship – Sacred Stones

July 18, 2014 | 8 comments
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As our one really unique Mormon holiday, Pioneer Day gives us a chance to look back and reflect on our ancestors and others who went before and made our way easier through their good lives and sacrifices. I think of it as a sort of celebration of our collective quest to turn the hearts of the children to the fathers. And because I love traveling and getting to know new places, thinking about my ancestors always involves a lot of thought about where they originally came from, and if I’m lucky, not just thought, but plane tickets and itineraries. Almost four years ago, I was living with my family in Italy. We’d gone there chasing a sort of genealogical dream, and now we were sitting in a chapel in Turin, Italy, watching live coverage of the Prophet speaking from Rome.

President Monson was in Italy breaking ground for the long-awaited and prayed-for Rome Temple. With him were Church leaders from all over Italy as well as Giuseppe Ciardi, the vice-mayor of Rome, and Lucio Malan, a senator from our own northern region of Piemonte. Senator Malan had made the journey from the far north of Italy to Rome because he belongs to a minority religious group called the Valdese–a group with which we had recently become intimately familiar.

The Valdese (Waldensians in English) are a small Protestant group in the Alps of Northern Italy who have a particular history with the Mormon Church. They began in the 12th century as earnest truth-seekers who saw the excesses of the Catholic Church in Rome and desired a return to the simpler, purer doctrines and practices of the New Testament. Through centuries of persecution, they clung to their faith and took refuge in their mountains to escape from invading armies. They even had secret caverns high in the Alps where they would gather and sing hymns, concealed from their enemies. In the mid-19th century, Lorenzo Snow and a few other missionaries brought the Restored Gospel to them. For some, it was the answer to generations of earnest prayers.

My husband Tony’s great-great-grandparents, Domenico and Henriette, believed the message brought by the missionaries and traveled over the ocean and the plains, eventually settling with many other Italian converts in a little valley in northern Utah that reminded them of their homeland. Over one hundred and fifty years later, we bought one-way plane tickets to Italy and walked into a government office with their birth certificates to claim Italian citizenship and make a home for ourselves near where they had once lived. Which was why we were privileged to be in Italy when the Rome temple was announced, and see the Groundbreaking.

President Monson, in his message at the Groundbreaking, said that he thought the faithful pioneers who had once lived in Italy and were now on the other side of the veil would be allowed to be present in spirit for this historic occasion. As he spoke, I could imagine Domenico and Henriette, every bit as excited to be there as we were to be there. If they were watching, their room was probably packed even fuller than ours, with Italians like them who had made the long journey to Zion in America, never dreaming that the stakes of Zion would one day be extended all the way to their homeland. Although their journey to Salt Lake and ours back to Italy had been challenging in very different ways, we felt as if we were a part of the same tapestry. President Monson’s final remarks about his oldest son, who served a mission in Milan, Italy echoed my feelings. He said that his son had prepared their whole family to feel “the spirit of Italy, which is very close to the spirit of God.” Looking over at my husband, watching the Groundbreaking with the little great-great-great grandson we’d named for Domenico sitting in his lap, I felt that the circle was complete. Our own little branch of the Italian olive tree had been grafted back in. We were, in some paradoxical sense, home.

In President Monson’s beautiful prayer dedicating the site for the Temple’s construction, he quoted John Ruskin, another lover of Italy:

 

Therefore, when we build, let us think that we build for ever. Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the labour and wrought substance of them, “See! this our fathers did for us.”

 

In the poem I wrote for Domenico and Henriette, I pictured them living their lives so long ago, raising their own temple in faraway Logan, and bringing up children who would understand their faith through the rich historical legacy they built. Watching this new temple be built in the beloved homeland they had left behind made me wonder if they had in some sense seen us and their many other great-great grandchildren, and done what they did at least partially on our behalf. I’m sure that as they stood on the ship and watched the only home they had ever known disappear into the horizon, they could not have imagined a temple being built in this land that for so long had tolerated no other religion. Yet here we were, witnessing the miracle built on the sure foundation of their long-ago faith.

 

Sacred Stones

When we build, we build for ever.

As we lay stone on stone, we think of you

Walking the narrow roadway

We laid carefully long ago,

Seeking the path we left for you to find.

 

When we build, we see forever

Stretching before, and reaching back to us,

Following on a journey

We walked ages and lives before,

Footstep in marble footstep leading on.

 

When we build, we touch forever,

Tracing your outline, warm against the stone,

Shadows in every archway

Of your image against the sun,

Holding you close like angels from afar.

 

When we build, we feel forever

Beat in our hearts like blood that will be yours,

Watching you stand in wonder

In a temple of promised dreams,

Whispering, “this our fathers did for us.”

 

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8 Responses to Literary Worship – Sacred Stones

  1. Dave on July 18, 2014 at 8:59 am

    Beautiful thoughts, Sarah. There was a time of gathering; now is more a time of returning.

  2. Craig H. on July 19, 2014 at 1:01 am

    Really nice story, Sarah. So how many generations close do you have to be to claim citizenship? The countries I come from, there are occasional offers to grandkids, but great-great? That’s pretty cool.

  3. James Olsen on July 19, 2014 at 5:25 am

    This was very moving, Sarah. Two summers ago I had the opportunity to go to Scotland, where a portion of my ancestors had lived – which I’d been dreaming of since I was a boy. I visited the church (which was then being converted into a private residence) where my ancestors had attended, and walked through the graves littered about the churchyard, seeing stones with my name on them. I felt what you describe.

  4. cadams on July 19, 2014 at 10:30 am

    wonderful!

  5. Chris on July 19, 2014 at 8:19 pm

    How did you qualify for jure sanguinis citizenship? We also had our ancestors come from the Piedmont area Italy mid 19th century from Lorenzo Snow proselyting. We (many many hundreds of us) as the descendants have been denied any requests for lineage citizenship because of the 1861 rule when the Italian states were unified. I’m assuming from your narrative of 150 yrs also places your in-laws emigration prior to the unification as well. Which sympathetic consulate did you speak to that was willing to break the rules if this is the case, I’d love to know:)

  6. Sarah Familia on July 20, 2014 at 7:52 am

    Craig, there’s no specific generational limit for jure sanguinis in Italy, although there are several auxiliary rules that make one that goes back as far as ours somewhat unlikely.

    Chris, we were pretty sure no U.S. consulate would accept our application, since our ancestors did leave Italy before 1861, although we were unable to find any concrete documentation like ship manifests for their exact date of arrival (they came separately). Some of the consulates have even started making up their own arbitrary rules to exclude more applicants and deal with the backlog (San Francisco, for example, is big on the 1912 rule).

    That’s the main reason we decided to go apply in Italy. A couple of Americans we knew had already done it. And in fact, once we got to Italy, we discovered that half of the Mormon branch in our area were actually Argentines who’d come to Italy and claimed jure sanguinis citizenship in the 90’s, after the Argentine economy collapsed.

    In Italy jure sanguinis applications are adjudicated by the mayor of the town where you reside, although most smaller municipalities have never done or even heard of the process. We originally wanted to apply in Lagnasco, where Domenico was born, because we thought the whole story would resonate better there. Tony spent a lot of time perfecting his pronunciation of “Sono Italiano. Il nonno di mi nonno e nato a Lagnasco.” (“I’m Italian. My grandfather’s grandfather was born in Lagnasco.”) But it was such a small town we couldn’t find housing there. So we moved in one town over and spent a couple of months trying to convince the Anagrafe in Saluzzo to process our claim. It was just too much work for them, though. Our 3-month Schengen stay was running out, and there was no sign of progress.

    So finally a guy from church invited us to move into his attic and apply in his little town, where his father was good friends with the mayor. As soon as our application was in, we were legal to stay in Italy until it was processed. There were still lots of hiccups along the way, and we spent many, many hours drowning in red tape at government offices and eating gelato to combat the stress. Just as we were nearing the end of the process, the person in charge of our case did bring up the 1861 problem. We solved it by pointing out that since King Vittorio Emanuele was from Piedmont, and Piedmont was the region that conquered the rest of Italy and united it, if anything was Italy before 1861, it was Piedmont. This argument of course resonated with his Piedmontese pride, and he agreed. I guess you could say we succeeded through a combination of ingenuity, determination, and nepotism.

    I still can’t believe the whole thing actually worked. It was incredible. Sort of miraculous, actually. Happily, the successful execution of this crazy scheme has made a number of other crazy schemes possible. We’ve already made use of Tony’s citizenship to live and work in Italy and Ireland, and we’re currently planning a move to Greece.

    Anyway, all the arcane details are available on my blog (Casteluzzo.com) if you’re interested.

  7. Amy T on July 20, 2014 at 9:34 am

    Your poems are one of the bright spots of the Bloggernacle, Sarah. I like this one, and I particularly enjoyed your sacrament poems.

  8. Chris on July 20, 2014 at 10:00 pm

    Sarah,
    Thank you for the wonderful background on that. It has given my wife and I hope that our own crazy scheme may work someday. I’m so happy you were able to stay committed and determined throughout that process and that it finally did pay off! My ancestors came from Pramollo and upon coming to the Wasatch settled into a small mountain valley above Ogden looking for what felt familiar, as yours did. Thank you for the beautiful post as well, the circle is complete, I love that thought!

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