Determined to Continue Serving My Creator
AS TOLD BY CONSTANCE BENANTI
It all happened so quickly! Within a span of six days, Camille, our 22-month-old daughter, developed a high fever and died. My grief was unbearable. I wanted to die too. Why did God permit such a thing? I was confused.
MY PARENTS were immigrants from Castellammare del Golfo, a town in Sicily, Italy. They came to New York City, where I was born on December 8, 1908. Our family consisted of my father and mother and their eight children, five boys and three girls.*
In 1927 my father, Santo Catanzaro, started attending the meetings of a small group of Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then called. Giovanni De Cecca, an Italian brother serving at the Brooklyn, New York, headquarters (called Bethel), held meetings where we lived, in nearby New Jersey. In time, Father began preaching and took up the full-time ministry, continuing in that work until his death in 1953.
When Mother was young, she wanted to be a nun, but her parents would not permit it. At first, I was influenced by Mother not to share with Father in Bible study. Soon, though, I noticed changes in him. He became calmer, milder, and there was more peace in the family. I liked that.
Meanwhile, I met Charles, a man my age who was born in Brooklyn. His family, like mine, came from Sicily. We soon became engaged, and following Father’s return from the 1931 convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Columbus, Ohio, we were married. Within a year, our daughter Camille was born. When she died, I was inconsolable. One day Charles, who was crying, said to me: “Camille was as much my daughter as she was yours. Why can’t we just go ahead with our lives, comforting each other?”
We Accept Bible Truth
Charles reminded me that Father had spoken of the resurrection hope when he gave the talk at Camille’s funeral. “Do you really believe in the resurrection?” I asked.
“I do!” he answered. “Why don’t we find out more about what the Bible has to say?”
That night I couldn’t sleep. At six in the morning, before Father left for work, I went to him and told him that Charles and I wanted to study the Bible. He was delighted and hugged me. Mother, who was still in bed, overheard us talking. She asked me what had happened. “Nothing,” I said. “Charles and I have simply decided to study the Bible.”
“We all need to study the Bible,” was her answer. So all of us, including my brothers and sisters—11 in total—began to study together as a family.
The Bible study gave me comfort, and slowly my mental confusion and grief gave way to hope. A year later, in 1935, Charles and I began to share Bible truths with others. In February 1937, after hearing a talk at headquarters in Brooklyn that explained the Scriptural significance of water baptism, we were baptized at a nearby hotel along with many others. I took this step not only because I hoped to see my daughter again someday but also because I desired to serve our Creator, whom I had come to know and love.
Entering the Full-Time Ministry
Speaking to others about what I had learned was exciting and rewarding, especially since many at that time responded to the Kingdom message and shared in proclaiming it. (Matthew 9:37) In 1941, Charles and I became pioneers, as Jehovah’s Witnesses call their full-time ministers. Not long afterward, we bought a trailer, and Charles left our family’s pants factory in the hands of my brother Frank. In time, we were excited to receive a letter informing us that we had been assigned as special pioneers. Initially, we served in New Jersey, and later we were sent to New York State.
In 1946, while attending a convention in Baltimore, Maryland, we were asked to report to a meeting with special representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses. There we met Nathan H. Knorr and Milton G. Henschel. They spoke to us about the missionary work and, in particular, about the preaching work in Italy. They invited us to consider the possibility of attending the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead.
“Think about it,” we were told, “and then give us your answer.” After leaving the office, Charles and I exchanged glances, turned around, and went right back in. “We thought about it,” we said. “We’re ready for Gilead.” Ten days later, we were attending the seventh class of Gilead.
Our months of training were unforgettable. What particularly impressed us was the patience and love of the instructors, preparing us to face difficulties in the foreign field. After graduating in July 1946, we were assigned to preach for a while in New York City, where there was a sizable Italian population. Then came the great day! On June 25, 1947, we left for Italy, our missionary assignment.
Getting Settled in Our Assignment
We made the crossing in a ship that had previously been used for military purposes. After 14 days at sea, we docked at the Italian port of Genoa. The city bore the scars of World War II, which had ended only two years earlier. The train station, for example, did not have any windowpanes because of the bombings. From Genoa we proceeded by freight train to Milan, where the branch office and a missionary home were located.
The living conditions in postwar Italy were very poor. Reconstruction efforts were under way, but poverty was rampant. Soon, I developed a serious health problem. According to one doctor, my heart was in such bad condition that he thought it would be best for me to return to the United States. I am glad that he got it all wrong. After 58 years, I’m still in my assignment in Italy.
We had been in our assignment only a few years when my brothers in the United States wanted to provide us with a car. But Charles turned their offer down, a decision I appreciated. To our knowledge, no Witness in Italy had a car then, and Charles felt that it was best for us to maintain a standard of living comparable to that of our Christian brothers. Not until 1961 did we get a small car.
Our first Kingdom Hall in Milan was in a basement with an earthen floor. There was no bathroom, and the only water was under our feet when it rained. We also had the company of little mice that darted here and there. Two light bulbs provided illumination for our meetings. Despite such inconveniences, it was encouraging to see sincere ones come to our meetings and eventually join us in the ministry.
We once left the booklet Peace—Can It Last? with a man. As we were leaving, his wife, Santina, arrived laden with grocery bags. She was a little irritated, saying that she had eight daughters to care for and did not have any time to spare. When I called on Santina again, her husband was not at home, and she was knitting. “I don’t have time to listen,” she said. “Besides, I don’t know how to read.”
I prayed silently to Jehovah and then asked if I could pay her to knit a sweater for my husband. Two weeks later, I had the sweater, and Santina and I began to study the Bible regularly with the aid of the book “The Truth Shall Make You Free.” Santina learned to read, and despite her husband’s opposition, she made progress and was baptized. Five of her daughters became Witnesses, and Santina has also helped many others to accept Bible truth.
In March 1951, along with two other missionaries—Ruth Cannon* and Loyce Callahan, who later married Bill Wengert—we were transferred to Brescia, where there were no Witnesses. We found a furnished apartment, but two months later, the landlord asked us to leave the house within 24 hours. Since there were no other Witnesses in the area, we had no choice but to go to a hotel, where we stayed for almost two months.
Our diet was limited: cappuccino and croissants for breakfast, fruit and bread sticks with cheese for lunch, and fruit and bread sticks with cheese for supper. Despite the inconveniences, we were really blessed. In time, we found a small apartment, and at the Memorial of Christ’s death in 1952, 35 were present in the small room that we used as a Kingdom Hall.
Coping With Challenges
During that time, the clergy still wielded great power over the people. For example, while we were preaching in Brescia, some boys were encouraged by the priest to throw rocks at us. In time, however, 16 persons started studying the Bible with us, and within a short time, they became Witnesses. And who was among them? One of the boys who had threatened to throw rocks at us! He now serves as an elder in one of the congregations in Brescia. In 1955 when we left Brescia, 40 Kingdom publishers were sharing in the preaching work.
After that, we served for three years in Leghorn (Livorno), where most of the Witnesses were women. This meant that we sisters had to take care of congregation duties that are usually assigned to brothers. We next moved to Genoa, where we started out 11 years earlier. By now, there was a congregation. The Kingdom Hall was on the first floor in the building where our apartment was located.
Upon our arrival in Genoa, I started a study with a lady whose husband was a former boxer and the manager of a boxing gym. The lady made spiritual progress and soon became our Christian sister. Her husband, however, was opposed and remained so for a long time. Then he started to accompany his wife to the meetings. Rather than enter the hall, he sat outside and listened. Later on, after we had left Genoa, we learned that he had asked for a Bible study. In time, he was baptized and became a loving Christian overseer. He remained faithful till his death.
I also studied the Bible with a woman who was engaged to a policeman. Initially, he showed some interest, but after the wedding, his attitude changed. He opposed her, and she stopped studying. When she later resumed the Bible study, her husband threatened her, saying that if he ever found us studying, he would shoot us both. Well, she made spiritual progress and became a baptized Witness. Needless to say, he never shot us. In fact, years later when I was attending an assembly in Genoa, someone came up to me from behind, covered my eyes with his hands, and asked if I could guess who he was. I could not hold back the tears when I saw the husband of that woman. After giving me a hug, he told me that he had symbolized his dedication to Jehovah by getting baptized that very day!
From 1964 to 1972, I had the privilege of accompanying Charles when he visited congregations to strengthen them spiritually. We served in almost all of northern Italy—in Piedmont, Lombardy, and Liguria. Then we resumed pioneer service near Florence and later in Vercelli. In 1977, there was only one congregation in Vercelli, but when we left in 1999, there were three. That year, I turned 91, and we were encouraged to move to the missionary home in Rome, a beautiful little building in a comparatively peaceful area.
Another Sad Occasion
In March 2002, Charles, who had always enjoyed good health, suffered a collapse. His health deteriorated until he died on May 11, 2002. For 71 years, we cried together during sad times and rejoiced together when blessings came our way. His death was an immense and grievous loss for me.
I often picture Charles in my mind, with his double-breasted suit and his 1930’s hat. I imagine his smile, or I seem to hear his familiar laugh. With Jehovah’s help and thanks to the love of many dear Christian brothers and sisters, I have been able to endure over this sad period. I eagerly await the time when I will see Charles again.
Continuing My Service
Serving my Creator has been the most wonderful thing in my life. Over the years, ‘I have tasted and seen that Jehovah is good.’ (Psalm 34:8) I have felt his love and experienced his care. Even though I lost my baby, Jehovah has given me many spiritual sons and daughters—scattered throughout Italy—who have brought joy to my heart and to his.
Speaking to others about my Creator is what I have always loved to do the most. That is why I continue to preach and conduct Bible studies. Sometimes I regret that I cannot do more because of my health. But I realize that Jehovah knows my limitations and that he loves me and appreciates what I am able to do. (Mark 12:42) I strive to make mine the words of Psalm 146:2: “I will praise Jehovah during my lifetime. I will make melody to my God as long as I am.”*
The experience of my brother Angelo Catanzaro was published in the April 1, 1975, issue of The Watchtower, pages 205-7.
For her life story, see The Watchtower, May 1, 1971, pages 277-80.
Sister Benanti passed away on July 16, 2005, as this article was being prepared. She was 96.
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On our wedding day, 1931
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Not interested at first, Mother agreed that we all should study the Bible
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With Brother Knorr at Gilead graduation, 1946
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With Charles shortly before his death