I Have Seen the Power of Bible Truth
As told by Vito Fraese
LIKELY, the name Trentinara means little to you. It is a small town south of Naples, Italy. My parents and older brother, Angelo, were born there. After Angelo’s birth, my parents immigrated to the United States and settled in Rochester, New York, where I was born in 1926. Father had his first contact with the Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known, in 1922. Soon he and Mother became Bible Students.
Father was a calm, pensive man, yet injustice angered him. He could not bear the way the clergy kept people in ignorance, so he never missed an opportunity to share Bible truths. On retiring, he took up the full-time ministry and persevered in it until ill health and the severe winters forced him to stop at age 74. Even then, he continued preaching between 40 and 60 hours a month into his 90’s. Father’s example had a profound effect on me. Although he found time to joke, he was a serious man. He used to say, “The truth must be taken seriously.”
Father and Mother endeavored to teach God’s Word to all five of us children. I was baptized on August 23, 1943, and in June 1944, I became a pioneer. My sister Carmela was a pioneer in Geneva, New York, with Fern, her bubbly partner. It did not take me long to realize that Fern was the girl with whom I wanted to spend the rest of my life. So in August 1946, we were married.
Our first two assignments together were as special pioneers in Geneva and Norwich, New York. In August 1948, we were privileged to attend the 12th class of Gilead. We then were sent to Naples, Italy, with another missionary couple, Carl and Joanne Ridgeway. Back then, Naples was struggling to recover from the devastation of the war. It was difficult to find a house, so for a few months, we lived in a tiny two-room apartment.
I grew up hearing my parents speaking the Neapolitan dialect, so my Italian—despite the American accent—was understandable enough. Fern had difficulties with the language. But I have to say that she caught up with me and even overtook me.
At first, the only interested people we found in Naples were a family of four. They sold contraband cigarettes. Each workday, one member of that family, Teresa, underwent an amazing change. In the morning, with cigarettes stuffed in the many pockets of her skirt, she looked fat. By evening, she looked as skinny as a beanpole. The truth totally transformed this family. Eventually, 16 members of the family became Witnesses. Now there are almost 3,700 Witnesses in the city of Naples.
Opposition to Our Work
After we had been in Naples only nine months, the authorities forced the four of us to leave the city. We went to Switzerland for about a month, returning to Italy on a tourist visa. Fern and I were assigned to Turin. Initially, a lady rented us a room, and we had use of her bathroom and kitchen. When the Ridgeways arrived in Turin, we rented an apartment together. In time, five missionary couples lived in the same house.
By 1955, when the authorities made us leave Turin, a foundation had been laid for four new congregations. Capable local brothers could now handle matters. The authorities told us, “We are sure that once you Americans are gone, all you have built will go to pieces.” But the subsequent increase showed that the success of the work depends on God. Today, there are more than 4,600 Witnesses and 56 congregations in Turin.
Florence—A Wonderful City
Our next assignment was Florence. We had often heard of this city, as it was the missionary assignment of my sister Carmela and her husband, Merlin Hartzler. Yet, imagine living there. Such spots as Piazza della Signoria, Ponte Vecchio, Piazzale Michelangelo, and Palazzo Pitti made it a wonderful city! It was a joy to see the reaction of some Florentine people to the good news.
We studied with one family, and the parents got baptized. The father, however, was a smoker. In 1973, The Watchtower pointed out that smoking is an unclean habit and urged readers to quit. The older children begged him to stop. He promised he would, but he did not. One evening the wife sent the nine-year-old twins to bed alone before she said their bedtime prayer. Later, she felt bad and went to their room. They had already said their own prayers. “What did you pray about?” she asked. “Jehovah, please help Daddy stop smoking.” The wife called her husband, “Come and listen to your children’s prayer.” When he did, he burst into tears and said, “I will never smoke again!” He kept his promise, and now over 15 of that family are Witnesses.
Service in Africa
In 1959 we were transferred to Mogadishu, Somalia, with two other missionaries, Arturo Leveris and my brother Angelo. The political situation was tense when we arrived. The Italian government was supposed to guide Somalia to independence under a United Nations mandate, but the situation seemed to be deteriorating. Some Italians with whom we studied left the country, and it was not possible to organize a congregation there.
During that period, the zone overseer suggested that I serve as his assistant. So we began visiting surrounding lands. Some with whom we studied made progress but had to leave their homelands because of opposition. Others stayed, though they had to endure considerable suffering.* Thinking about their love for Jehovah and what they endured to remain faithful still fills our eyes with tears.
The heat and humidity in Somalia and Eritrea were often extreme. Some local dishes made us feel even hotter. The first time we ate one of these at the home of a Bible student, my wife jokingly said that her ears lit up like red traffic lights!
When Angelo and Arturo received another assignment, we were left on our own. It was not easy having no one to encourage us. Yet, this situation helped us to draw closer to Jehovah and trust in him more fully. Visits we made to countries where the work was under ban actually were a source of encouragement to us.
In Somalia, there were various difficulties. We did not have a refrigerator, so we bought only the amount of food we would eat each day, whether that meant pieces of hammerhead shark or local fruits, such as mangoes, papayas, grapefruit, coconuts, or bananas. We often had to contend with flying insects. Sometimes they landed on our necks while we conducted home Bible studies. At least we had a scooter, so we did not have to walk for hours under the scorching sun.
Back to Italy
Thanks to the generosity of friends, we were able to get on a banana boat back to Italy to attend the international convention in Turin in 1961. We learned that we would be reassigned. In September 1962, we returned to Italy, where I began to serve as a circuit overseer. We bought a little car, which we used for five years to travel around two circuits.
After Africa’s heat, we now had to cope with the cold. The first winter, while visiting a congregation at the foot of the Alps, we slept in a room without any heating, above a hayloft. It was so cold that we went to bed with our coats on. That night, four hens and two dogs died nearby from the cold!
Later, I also served as a district overseer. In those years, we covered all of Italy. We visited some areas, such as Calabria and Sicily, many times. We encouraged young ones to grow spiritually and reach out to serve as congregation overseers, traveling ministers, or Bethelites.
We have learned much from faithful friends who have served Jehovah wholeheartedly. We have appreciated their qualities, such as absolute loyalty to Jehovah, generosity, love for their brothers, and a spirit of adaptability and self-sacrifice. We have attended weddings in Kingdom Halls. These were performed by Witnesses who were legally recognized as religious ministers, which was unthinkable in the country years ago. Congregations no longer hold meetings in brothers’ kitchens or sit on planks, as they used to do in Turin. Rather, most congregations enjoy beautiful Kingdom Halls that honor Jehovah. No more do we hold assemblies in second-rate theaters but, rather, in spacious Assembly Halls. And what a joy it has been to see the number of publishers exceed 243,000. When we arrived in Italy, there were only 490.
We Made the Right Choices
We have had our share of hardships, including homesickness and illness. Fern used to get homesick every time she saw the sea. She has also had to undergo three serious operations. Once, while she was on her way to conduct a Bible study, an opposer attacked her with a pitchfork. That encounter also sent her to the hospital.
Though we at times battled discouragement, we have ‘waited for Jehovah,’ in line with Lamentations 3:24. He is the God of comfort. At one low point, Fern received a beautiful letter from Brother Nathan Knorr. He wrote that since he was born near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where Fern started pioneering, he well knew that Pennsylvania Dutch women like her are strong and tenacious. He was right. Over the years, we have received encouragement in many ways and from many people.
Despite the difficulties, we have tried to keep our zeal for the ministry alive. Comparing a zealous spirit to Lambrusco, a delicious sparkling Italian wine, Fern jokingly says, “We mustn’t let our spirit lose its sparkle.” After more than 40 years of traveling in the circuit and district work, we received a new privilege of visiting and organizing groups and congregations in languages other than Italian. Such groups preach to people from Bangladesh, China, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Nigeria, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and other lands. A book would not suffice to recount the wonderful ways in which we have seen the power of God’s Word transform the lives of those who have tasted Jehovah’s mercy.—Mic. 7:18, 19.
We pray every day that Jehovah continues to give us the emotional and physical strength needed to carry out our ministry. The joy of the Lord is our strength. It makes our eyes shine and convinces us that we have made the right choices in life as we spread Bible truth.—Eph. 3:7; Col. 1:29.
[Chart/Pictures on page 27-29]
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My parents in Rochester, NY
In South Lansing for the 12th class of Gilead
With Fern before we left for Italy
In Turin and Naples with other missionaries
Fern with some of her Bible students
“We mustn’t let our spirit lose its sparkle”