As a teen, I remember looking at my family tree and wondering how we would ever get my father’s side of the family tree populated. My father, Joseph Terribilini, is a first-generation American. His father, Giuseppe, emigrated from a small village in the Swiss Alps that we didn’t know much about. I had always wanted to make progress in my family history, so I often prayed for help in knowing how to overcome the roadblocks we faced.
But Heavenly Father was aware of these roadblocks. And beginning with my mission call, I felt Him guide me as a series of six miracles from Italy to Alabama helped us fill in the gaps on my father’s family tree.
I had always had a feeling that I’d serve my mission in Switzerland where my ancestors once lived. So when I got my call to Italy in 1970, I was surprised but excited. In the language training mission (now called the missionary training center), I found out that southern Switzerland, where my ancestors came from, was actually part of my mission. I knew Heavenly Father called me to that specific place for a reason.
Partway through my mission, my companion and I were assigned to be zone leaders over an area that included southern Switzerland—and we had a car.
We went to my family’s village, Vergeletto, and looked up one of my cousins. He showed us around and introduced us to the parish priest, who, upon request, showed us the books of vital records for the area. We then returned home, but a seed had been planted in me that would grow throughout my mission.
With just a month left on my mission, I felt like I needed to take action and find my family’s records before I returned home. I prayed to know if there was something more I could do, and I felt a distinct prompting from the Spirit telling me that I needed to get a copy of those vital records that I had seen months ago. I told my mission president that I felt like I needed to return to my family’s village in Switzerland and explained why. The village was 87 miles (140 km) away, but my mission president gave me permission to go anyway.
It was dusk when the narrow winding road took us up the mountain into the hamlet of Vergeletto. We stopped at the focal point of town, the Catholic church. My companion and I were then drawn to the cemetery across the street from the church that was all lit up with candles.
As we entered the cemetery, I clearly and strongly felt the Spirit guide me like I never had before. That feeling and the fresh alpine air created a sensation I will never forget. In the cemetery, it seemed that every other tombstone had my last name on it. We even saw my great-grandfather’s tomb; it said people went to him to repair their broken bones.
We returned to the church to see if we could find the priest. There we met an old man, who told us it was Il Giorno dei Morti, or a holiday known as the Day of the Dead (which would explain all the candles in the cemetery). The man told us that the priest had services in neighboring villages and would be back in two hours.
My companion and I waited, and when the priest returned, I reminded him of our encounter a few months earlier and then asked if I could see the vital records of the parish again.
The priest brought out a box of books that were hundreds of years old. I told the priest that our Church was microfilming parish records in Parma, Italy, 170 miles (274 km) away. I asked if he would allow us to take the records for a few weeks and have them copied.
He again agreed. I was shocked.
As we left town, I marveled at what had just happened and even checked the rearview mirror to see if the priest was running after us with a change of heart. Two weeks later, we returned the records to him, as promised.
Due to the penmanship, the use of Latin, and the deterioration, the records were hard to read. But then, just a few years ago, I noticed hundreds of records from Vergeletto had been linked to my ancestors in FamilySearch. Family lines that used to only go out three to four generations now extended seven to nine generations!
It turns out a professional genealogist in Alabama, USA, who is not a member of the Church shares a branch of the global family tree with me. He had accessed and read the records from the books I had copied in Italy and attached them in FamilySearch. This man is amazing; we have since collaborated several times. He explained that uploading those names and sources is his way of paying back the Church for all their work in making records available in FamilySearch.
Now my dad’s side of my genealogy fan chart is full of names. And I’ve been blessed to do their temple work.
I’ve often looked back wondering why a Catholic priest would allow a young American—who was also a missionary for another faith—to take his collection of vital records out of the country for copying. Were my ancestors praying for me? Were they praying for the priest’s heart to be softened?
I don’t know—it could have been both those things. But I do know that Heavenly Father can help bring about miracles when we seek His help. And as Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has promised, family history work holds so many blessings for those on both sides of the veil: “God will strengthen, help, and uphold us; and He will sanctify to us our deepest distress. When we gather our family histories and go to the temple on behalf of our ancestors, God fulfills many of these promised blessings simultaneously on both sides of the veil.”1 The Lord directs this work, and when you trust Him, He can work miracles for you and your family as you strive to gather Israel.