“Comment,” Ensign, Sept. 1989, 73
Thank you for the recent articles on childlessness and miscarriage. Fifteen months ago, I suffered a miscarriage and have been unable to conceive since. Being part of a Church that is so family-oriented has not made it easy for me or my husband to cope with these tragedies. Thank you for letting us know that we are not alone in our sorrow.
Natalie Hoopes Smith
Columbia, South Carolina
A number of letters to the Ensign suggest a continued interest among members of the Church in the stirring story of Vincenzo Di Francesca, featured in the January 1988 Ensign article “I Will Not Burn the Book.” The story was also the subject of the Church’s award-winning film, How Rare a Possession—The Book of Mormon, which received a Golden Eagle award from CINE (Council on International Nontheatrical Events) on 2 December 1988 in ceremonies in Washington, D. C. The film was also awarded a gold plaque at the Chicago International Film Festival.
How the conversion story of Brother Di Francesca came to light is complex. Brother Di Francesca never knew, of course, who threw away the copy of the Book of Mormon that he picked up from an open barrel of ashes on a New York City street that cold morning in February 1910. It was not until twenty years later, in 1930, that he learned that the book without a name or title page he had read and believed was the Book of Mormon and that it was associated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Then began the long series of war-troubled events that kept him from being baptized until 18 January 1951 in Termini Imerese (about twenty-five miles east of Palermo) by President Samuel Bringhurst, president of the Swiss-Austrian Mission. Later that same day, Brother Di Francesca was confirmed a member of the Church and ordained a priest in the Aaronic Priesthood. Still later that day, after feeling impressed to do so, President Bringhurst ordained Brother Di Francesca an elder in the Melchizedek Priesthood. Brother Di Francesca’s membership was placed in the care of the Frankfurt (Germany) Branch.
Following the events of that day, President Bringhurst sent a letter to the Deseret News Church Section (published 28 February 1951) of the “first baptism of a convert to the Church to be performed in Sicily.” The account sketched Brother Di Francesca’s story and President Bringhurst’s experience with Brother Di Francesca.
LDS servicemen’s groups had been in Italy since the end of World War II. The first Church unit to be organized in Italy was the Naples Branch on 28 April 1963 and the second branch, the Vicenza Branch, on 3 May 1964. These two branches, plus other groups, were officially organized into the Italian District of the Swiss Mission on 22 November 1964. The district was presided over by President Leavitt Christensen, a U. S. civil servant employed by the U. S. Army; first counselor John H. Kitsell, a British citizen employed by NATO; and second counselor Paul H. Kelly, a lieutenant with the U. S. Air Force. In the course of attending district meetings, President Christensen learned of and met Brother Di Francesca in 1964. On 20 April 1965, President Christensen wrote and asked Brother Di Francesca to write the story of his conversion. Brother Di Francesca’s reply is dated 28 May 1965.
In August 1965, Brother Ortho R. Fairbanks, one of the highly talented sculptors of the Fairbanks family, arrived in Italy for a year’s study while on sabbatical leave from the Church College of Hawaii. During his stay, he learned of Brother Di Francesca’s story, wrote to him, and obtained a written account of the story for himself.
In 1966, en route home from his sabbatical leave, Brother Fairbanks stopped in Salt Lake City. While there, he took to the Improvement Era office a copy of the autobiographical sketch Brother Di Francesca had written for Brother Fairbanks. The Era was interested and began a correspondence with the president of the Italy Mission to confirm the details in the account. As a result, the Improvement Era published in May 1968 “Burn the Book,” an edited version of Brother Di Francesca’s conversion story.
As a sidelight, Brother Ortho Fairbanks sent the fifty dollars the Era had paid him for the article to the Italy Mission with this note: “When I submitted the story, I was in hopes the money could go to him [Brother Di Francesca]. He died, however, before the story was printed. I don’t feel right in accepting the money, and would like to send this Di Francesca fund to the Italian Mission to be used to perpetuate his name or however you see fit.” The fund was used by the mission to send subscriptions of the Church’s International Magazine to twenty-nine Italian member families who could not afford the publication.
From 19 February to 27 March 1969, Elder Hartman Rector, Jr., then of the First Council of the Seventy, served for a short time as interim mission president between the departure and arrival of two mission presidents. While there, and as a result of his General Authority supervisory role over the mission, Elder Rector learned of the Di Francesca story. Thus, Brother Di Francesca’s story became the chapter entitled “Forty-Year Wait for Baptism” in Elder and Sister Rector’s book, No More Strangers, published in 1971.
In 1986, when the Church’s Curriculum Department began to pursue a film on the Book of Mormon’s influence on individuals, researchers identified the Di Francesca chapter in Elder and Sister Rector’s book as a potential candidate. As a result, Brother Russ Holt, writer and director of How Rare a Possession—The Book of Mormon, began a search to find everything available on Brother Di Francesca.
He located the 1951 Deseret News article and the 1968 Era article, and the 1965 district president in Italy who had known Brother Di Francesca, as well as other persons who had known him. Brother Holt gleaned additional information through interviews with them. He then wrote the script that became How Rare a Possession.
Coincidentally, in August 1986, Brother Ortho Fairbanks gave to the Church Historical Department the manuscript he had received from Brother Di Francesca. He also donated Brother Di Francesca’s passport, photographs, and other materials he had received from Brother Di Francesca. A few months after this bequest, Brother Holt and the audiovisual staff of the Curriculum Department asked the Church Historical Department if they had any information on Vincenzo Di Francesca. As a result, the Historical Department was able to supply the autobiography written in Brother Di Francesca’s hand and photographs of him—all of which greatly assisted in the production of the Church film.
Thus, Brother Di Francesca’s story went from newspaper (one and a half months after baptism) to magazine (seventeen years after baptism) to book (nineteen years after baptism) to screen (thirty-six years after baptism). Untold is the story of his September 1932 marriage to a nonmember and of her turning against him because of his devotion to a church of which he was not yet a member and that was not yet established in Italy. His wife separated from him and charged that he was insane and possessed of a devil—not an uncommon experience for persons who zealously favored another faith instead of the one favored by the national majority at that time. There were no children from the marriage.
Brother Di Francesca’s unwavering faith and heroic devotion to truth guided him for four decades before he was able to be baptized in 1951 and, ultimately, in April 1956, receive his endowment in the Swiss Temple. He died in November 1966, active and devoted to the end.
To date, more than seventy-six thousand copies of the film, How Rare a Possession—The Book of Mormon, have been distributed. The film is scheduled for voice dubbing in seventeen non-English languages and it is estimated that, by early 1990, the film will be released with an Italian sound track. At that time, Italian members will be able to enjoy in their language the remarkable story of their brother, Vincenzo Di Francesca.—Jay M. Todd, Managing Editor