ITALY has often been described as the “beautiful boot” because it is shaped rather like an 18th-century boot with Apulia in the heel, Calabria in the toe and the Alps around the top of the leg. Italy thus is a long peninsula extending into the Mediterranean Sea. Its name comes from the term the ancient Romans gave to the southern part of the peninsula—Italia, which, according to legend, means “land of oxen” or “grazing land.” The enchanting nature of the Italian countryside is well known: plains, mountains, lakes, beaches, olive groves, vineyards, and hillsides richly clothed in cypress trees. Italy also has two large islands, Sicily and Sardinia.
The population of almost 57 million is predominantly Catholic, although participation in church activities is extremely limited.
How did true Christianity first take root here, only to die out later on? When and how did the preaching work of Jehovah’s Witnesses begin in this country?
EARLY CHRISTIANS IN ITALY
In the year 59 C.E. certain prisoners including a middle-aged man were conducted by an army officer on a tiring and dangerous journey. After miraculously surviving a shipwreck, they landed on Malta, an island south of Italy, and managed to resume their journey three months later. The ship on which they embarked was called “Sons of Zeus,” in honor of the twin sons of Zeus, believed to protect sailors from danger. However, one of the prisoners was no worshiper of Graeco-Roman divinities. He was a disciple of Jesus Christ by the name of Paul. The journey took them on to Syracuse in Sicily, where they stayed for three days, and then up through the Strait of Messina with a stop at Rhegium. Shortly thereafter, they disembarked at Puteoli, near Naples, where the local spiritual brothers begged them to stay for a while. After an additional seven days, they left for Rome, along the Appian Way, the empire’s foremost long-distance military-commercial highway. The news of Paul’s impending arrival reached the Rome congregation, and the brothers lovingly went to meet him at the Marketplace of Appius and Three Taverns, from where they accompanied the travelers to the end of their journey.—Acts 27:1–28:16.
Paul had such a high opinion of the Christians in Rome that he had written them earlier saying: “Your faith is talked about throughout the whole world.”—Rom. 1:8.
However, after having prospered for some time, true Christianity was engulfed by apostasy, the advent of which had been foretold by Jesus Christ. (Matt. 13:26-30, 36-43) The temporal power wielded by religious leaders continued to increase until, at the time of Emperor Constantine, religious and political elements joined forces. This led to the establishment of Catholicism with its papacy.
SPIRITUAL DARKNESS ENVELOPS ITALY
During the Dark Ages, the influence of the so-called Reformation hardly made itself felt in Italy, and the spiritual darkness hanging over the inhabitants of the peninsula continued to reign supreme. There were a few individuals who sought to obtain a true knowledge of God’s Word, but most of them took refuge abroad where they could share their newfound knowledge of the Scriptures with others. Those remaining in Italy were imprisoned and condemned to death by the Inquisition.
In 1870 the Papal States, large tracts of land over which the Catholic Church had civil power, were annexed to the Kingdom of Italy, except for the small area still occupied by Vatican City. There were now good prospects for greater religious freedom in the land. However, these hopes were dashed soon after Benito Mussolini came to power in 1922. In 1929 he signed a concordat with the Catholic Church, conceding exceptional privileges to the Church and clergy and opening the way to a new period of repression. So, we might ask, how did the preaching work of Jehovah’s Witnesses in modern-day Italy have its beginning?
The rebirth of true Christianity goes back to the end of the last century at a small town called Pinerolo, 38 kilometers (24 mi.) from Turin in Piedmont. Pinerolo is situated in one of the picturesque valleys in the Cottian Alps, known as the “Waldensian Valleys.” They owe their name to the followers of Peter Waldo, a Lyons merchant who appreciated many Bible truths.
In 1891 a certain American traveler stopped off at Pinerolo during his first series of visits to Europe. He was Charles Taze Russell, the first president of the Watch Tower Society. There at Pinerolo he met Professor Daniele Rivoire, a Waldensian who taught languages at the Waldensian cultural center of Torre Pellice. Though Professor Rivoire never became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, he showed much interest in spreading the Bible’s message as explained in the Watch Tower Society’s publications.
A few years passed, and in the meantime, Fanny Lugli, a Waldensian of San Germano Chisone, near Pinerolo, received a book called “The Divine Plan of the Ages” from relatives in America. By 1903 she had recognized the book’s contents as being the truth and was conducting meetings with a small group of persons at her home.
Moreover, around 1903 Professor Rivoire translated the book The Divine Plan of the Ages into Italian. He had the book printed at his own expense at the Tipografia Sociale in 1904. This was before an Italian edition of the book came out in the United States. In his 1904 edition, Professor Rivoire wrote the following note to its readers: “We place this first Italian edition under the Lord’s protection. May he bless it, so that, in spite of its imperfections, it may contribute to magnify his most holy name and encourage his Italian-speaking children to greater devotion.” Jehovah did bless the outcome of this book’s distribution.
Professor Rivoire also began to translate Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence into Italian. It was published quarterly in 1903 and was printed at Pinerolo. Interestingly, the magazine was distributed through the regular channels to the chief newsagents in the most important provincial centers.
During this same period, Clara Cerulli Lantaret and Giosuè Vittorio Paschetto also came to a knowledge of the truth, and Remigio Cuminetti joined them a few years later. These are all persons we shall be hearing about as our story unfolds.
A CONGREGATION FORMED
In 1908 the first congregation of Jehovah’s modern-day servants was formed in Italy. The meetings were held on Thursday evenings at Pinerolo, in Piazza Montebello 7, the home of Sister Cerulli, and on Sunday afternoons at Gondini near San Germano Chisone, at Sister Lugli’s.
When Brother Russell came back to Italy in 1912 to visit the only existing congregation, there were about 40 persons attending the meetings. At that time the work was superintended by the Swiss branch office of the Watch Tower Society, and this arrangement continued until 1945. Sister Cerulli, who could speak English and French as well as Italian, represented the Swiss branch in Italy.
During World War I, the small group of Italian brothers underwent a period of testing and purification similar to that experienced in other parts of the world. In 1914 some Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then called, expected to “be caught away in clouds to meet the Lord in the air” and believed that their earthly preaching work had come to an end. (1 Thess. 4:17) An existing account relates: “One day, some of them went out to an isolated place to wait for the event to take place. However, when nothing happened, they were obliged to go back home again in a very downcast frame of mind. As a result, a number of these ones fell away from the faith.”
About 15 persons remained faithful, continuing to attend the meetings and to study the Society’s publications. Commenting on that period, Brother Remigio Cuminetti said: “Instead of the expected crown of glory, we received a stout pair of boots to carry on the preaching work.”
BROTHER CUMINETTI’S COURT TRIAL
Italy’s entry into the war, in May 1915, marked the beginning of a very difficult time for one member of the congregation, Brother Remigio Cuminetti. When he was drafted for military service, he decided to maintain his neutrality. (Isa. 2:4; John 15:19) This meant that he would have to go on trial before the Military Tribunal at Alessandria. Sister Clara Cerulli attended the trial and sent a detailed report about it to Brother Giovanni DeCecca at Brooklyn Bethel, knowing that he always was interested in what was going on in the Italian field. Her letter, dated September 19, 1916, is an authentic account of what took place:
“My dear brother in Christ,
“I feel I should write without delay to tell you the good news of how our dear brother, Remigio Cuminetti, took a firm stand for the faith and gave a good witness during his trial at Alessandria.
“Sister Fanny Lugli and I had the great privilege of attending the trial and being upbuilt by the open confession of our brother’s firm faith.
“The Judge repeatedly tried to trap our brother into some admission or other but Remigio was never once confused. Here is an account of what was said at the trial:
JUDGE: ‘I warn you that you are on trial before this Tribunal on a serious charge and yet you look as though you had something to laugh about!’
BROTHER CUMINETTI: ‘I cannot help my facial expression. The joy I feel in my heart must be reflected on my face.’
JUDGE: ‘Why do you refuse to put on a military uniform and serve in the defense of your country?’
BROTHER CUMINETTI: ‘I am here before the Court because of my refusal to wear a military uniform, that is all. I am not guilty of any other offense. I feel it is unseemly for one of God’s sons to wear a uniform that stands for hatred and war! For the same reason I refuse to wear an armband and work in a factory taking part in the war effort. I prefer to be branded as one of God’s sons by acting peaceably towards my neighbor.’
JUDGE: ‘Do you admit to stripping down to your underwear when you were in prison at Cuneo?’
BROTHER CUMINETTI: ‘Yes, Your Honor, it is true. Three times I was forced to put a uniform on and three times I took it off again. My conscience rebels against the idea of doing harm to my neighbor. I am ready to give my life for the good of others but I shall never lift a finger to harm my fellowman, because God, through his Holy Spirit, instructs us to love and not hate our neighbor.’
JUDGE: ‘What kind of education did you have?’
BROTHER CUMINETTI: ‘That has little importance. I have studied the Bible!’
JUDGE: ‘Answer the questions I put to you. For how long did you attend school?’
BROTHER CUMINETTI: ‘For three years, but I repeat that this has little importance compared to my training in the school of Christ!’
JUDGE: ‘It is a pity you came into contact with certain people [indicating Sister Lugli and myself] who have led you into wrong ways. [Deprecatingly] How long have you studied this book you call “Bible”?’
BROTHER CUMINETTI: ‘For six years and my only regret is that I did not begin before!’
JUDGE: ‘Who teaches you this new religion?’
BROTHER CUMINETTI: ‘God himself teaches his own. More mature students have helped me to understand Bible truths, but only God can open our eyes of understanding.’
JUDGE: ‘Do you comprehend the seriousness of your disobedient conduct? Will your decision be strong enough to face up to the consequences?’
BROTHER CUMINETTI: ‘Yes, I am sure it will. I am ready to face whatever might happen. Even if I should be condemned to death, I shall never violate the promise I have made to serve the Lord to the full.’
“After this the Public Prosecutor asked for a sentence of four years four months for Brother Cuminetti and then it was the turn of the Defense to speak.
“The lawyer rose to his feet and gave a marvelous witness regarding our brother’s attitude, saying that, rather than being given a prison sentence, such a man should be admired for his courage and faithfulness to his God. It was pointed out that the accused did not want to violate his conscience by going against the Bible command not to kill. He was acting in obedience to the Divine Law.
“After this the judges withdrew for five minutes and then returned to the courtroom to read the sentence. ‘Remigio Cuminetti is condemned to three years and two months’ imprisonment for treason against the King and the laws of the land.’
“Our brother thanked them with a radiant smile on his face!
“Then the Judge asked him if he had anything further to say.
“Remigio replied, ‘I should have a great deal to say about God’s love and his marvelous purpose for mankind.’
“At this the Judge testily retorted, ‘We have already heard enough on that score. I repeat the question. Have you anything further to declare with regard to the sentence?’
“‘No,’ replied our brother, his face alight with fervor, ‘I repeat that I am ready to give my life for the good of others but I shall not lift a finger to harm my fellowman!’
“This was the end of the trial.
“Sister Fanny Lugli and I had the privilege of speaking to our dear brother. Everyone admired him. Even the judges were amazed by his humble attitude mixed with the courage of the sons of the light in their refusal to bow before earthly powers. They will bow to God alone as they pray to him with spirit and truth.”
“THE ODYSSEY OF A CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTOR”
What followed the court trial is in itself another story. So remarkable was it that years later it was recounted by the periodical L’Incontro in its issue of July/August 1952. The following extracts are from the article, entitled “The Odyssey of a Conscientious Objector During World War I”:
“This Witness was Remigio Cuminetti, born at Porte di Pinerolo in 1890. . . .
“However, when war broke out the engineering factory [the RIV of Villar Perosa] was incorporated into the war effort and workers were required to wear an armband and consider themselves as under the military authority. Cuminetti could have accepted to do this and remain a civilian. If he had done so he would have been spared the trials he had to bear afterward. As a specialized worker he could have had permanent call-up deferment, but he immediately thought to himself, ‘Having dedicated my life to God, can I continue to do his will and, at the same time, contribute to the war effort? Although indirectly, I should be disobeying the commandments, “Do not kill,” and, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Aren’t the Germans and Austrians my neighbors just as much as the French, English and Russians?’ To this straightforward man the answer appeared to be obvious and clear-cut . . .
“When his age-group was drafted for military service he stuck to his convictions and refused to join the army. As a result, he was arrested again and tried before the Military Tribunal of Alessandria. He was sentenced to three and a half years’ imprisonment [actually three years and two months] and sent to the military prison of Gaeta . . . However, the military authorities thought it unfair that he should quietly spend his time in prison while his fellow countrymen were risking their lives on the battlefield! . . . They decided to take him out of prison and send him to the military command where he would be forced to become a soldier and fight for his country . . . once there, he refused to put a uniform on and was left out in the yard in his shirt.
“After spending some time in this condition amid the general derision of his companions, he thought the matter over and decided that just wearing certain clothing would not make a soldier out of him. He reasoned that no one could be considered a soldier or be subjected to military discipline if he did not attach the stars to his jacket. So, he put the uniform on without the stars and no one ever succeeded in making him attach them to his collar. They sent him back to prison and from there he was transferred to a mental institution because the authorities decided he must be out of his mind. Since he was as capable of reasoning as anyone else, the Head of the institution could not classify him as mentally deranged and passed him on to his regiment once more. In view of his determined refusal to wear military stars or do any kind of military service he landed back in prison before long. So it was that several months went by between prison and the mental institution.
“Finally, he was sent back to his regiment, and this time a certain army major decided to break his resistance once and for all. One day he ordered him at gunpoint to take his weapons and go into the trenches. Cuminetti . . . knew that this major had already killed a number of soldiers for much lesser offenses, . . . so he was sure that his moment had come. Nevertheless, he calmly refused to touch the weapons. Then the major told two other soldiers to prepare a kit bag for him, put it on his back and buckle a bandoleer, saber, and so forth around his waist. After having dressed him up in this fashion the major again threatened him with his revolver and ordered him to go out to the lines. Since Cuminetti did not move, two solders were ordered to frog-march him to the trenches by force. At this point, as they were taking him away, Cuminetti observed, ‘Poor Italy! If her soldiers have to be taken out to the trenches by force, how will she ever manage to win the war?’ This remark made even that fierce and implacable major relent and he ordered that Cuminetti be stripped of his military trappings and be sent back to prison.
“Sometime later, he was sent for by the colonel of the regiment. This officer had decided to reason kindly with him to get him to wear his military stars. He called him into his office and gave him every assurance that if he were to obey orders he would never have to touch a gun and it would be arranged for him to serve behind the lines. Cuminetti admitted later . . . that this was the hardest test he had had to undergo so far. At a certain moment, seeing his humble and respectful attitude, the colonel thought he had won the battle and said in a fatherly tone, ‘My poor fellow, how can you possibly fight against the formidable strength of the whole army all by yourself? You would be bound to be overwhelmed. Now, I am going to pin your stars on for you and you will wear them without rebelling anymore. I am doing this for your own good and swear that you will not have to shoot at other men and that your ideas will be fully respected.’
“Cuminetti replied quite simply, ‘Colonel, if you try to pin the stars on my uniform I shall let you do it, but as soon as I get outside I shall take them off again!’ Faced with such unbending decision, the colonel did not insist any further and abandoned him to his fate.
“On account of his faith, this simple humble man stood trial five times. He was imprisoned at Regina Coeli, Rome, Piacenza and Gaeta, as well as the Reggio Emilia mental asylum.”
Finally, after spending additional months in prison, Brother Cuminetti was taken to the front to serve as a stretcher-bearer. The magazine reports:
“One day, while he was on duty in the front lines, he heard that a wounded officer was lying out in front of the trenches without the strength to get back behind the lines. Nobody wanted to go out and get him. Cuminetti immediately offered himself for this risky mission and succeeded in getting the officer back to safety although it cost him a leg wound.”
He was awarded a silver service medal for this action, “but he refused the decoration on the grounds that he had acted out of love for his neighbor, not with the idea of winning a medal.”
The verdict pronounced against him by the Military Tribunal of Alessandria on August 18, 1916, is registered under No. 10419 in the Trials Register to be found in the Military Tribunal Archives at Turin. Brother Cuminetti was, without doubt, the first Italian Witness to take a stand for Christian neutrality and probably the first conscientious objector in the history of modern Italy.
THE OPENING OF AN ITALIAN OFFICE
The war ended, leaving a toll of death and ruin throughout the peninsula. Although the work continued to be under the direction of the Swiss branch, an office was opened in Italy after 1919. It was at Pinerolo in a house rented at 11 Via Silvio Pellico.
In 1922 Brother Remigio Cuminetti replaced Sister Cerulli as Italy’s representative of the Society. It was considered no longer appropriate to have a woman in this position of responsibility when it could be filled by a man who had given more than sufficient proof of his integrity. Sister Cerulli, however, was offended by this change, and she left the truth.
After the war, the task of translating the Watch Tower Society’s publications was taken over by Professor Giuseppe Banchetti. He was a Waldensian pastor, but he had studied the truth and appreciated its value. He had even tried to incorporate certain beliefs into his own religion by preaching them from the pulpit, but without success. However, he left the seeds of truth in various parts of the country. Around 1913 he was at Cerignola, in the province of Foggia, where the Society used to send him regular consignments of literature. These consignments continued to arrive at the local Waldensian church even after his death, and, later on, a group of Bible Students was formed by persons who had read the literature.
Besides The Watch Tower, Professor Banchetti translated the books The Harp of God and Deliverance, as well as a number of booklets. Like Professor Rivoire, he never completely broke away from the Waldensian Church, although he believed the Watch Tower Society’s explanations of the Bible and spread the message.
When Professor Banchetti died in 1926, translations were made for a short time by a certain Mrs. Courtial, who translated the book Creation. In 1928, however, the task was assigned to a dedicated person, Brother Giosuè Vittorio Paschetto, who carried on the work of translation until the day of his arrest by the Fascist police, November 7, 1939. During this period he translated the books Government, Reconciliation, Life, Prophecy, Light (2 volumes), Vindication (3 volumes), Preparation, Preservation, Jehovah, Riches, Enemies and Salvation. These publications were truly ‘food in due season’ for God’s people. (Matt. 24:45) One of them in particular, the book Enemies, caused a tremendous wave of persecution to sweep over the small existing group of brothers on account of its outspoken attitude regarding the issue of neutrality.
When Brother Paschetto was released from prison on August 23, 1943, he continued to work with other translators until he finished his earthly course in 1956.
HELP FROM ABROAD
Now let us go back to the end of World War I. Shortly after 1918, Brother Marcello Martinelli, who had come to a knowledge of the truth in the United States, returned to Italy. He was a native of Valtellina, one of the beautiful valleys in the Rhaetian Alps leading down to Lake Como, and he covered this territory a number of times with the Kingdom message. In 1923 he became a “colporteur,” or full-time Kingdom preacher, and joined Brother Cuminetti in the Pinerolo area. Brother Martinelli was much loved for his goodness of heart, which, in periods of intense persecution, led him to write loving letters to the few scattered brothers. He continued in the preaching work until 1960, when he finished his earthly ministry. In the province of Sondrio, where he carried on the Lord’s work, a small group of Bible Students was formed.
In the period between 1920 and 1935, other emigrants who had accepted the truth in Belgium, France and the United States, returned to Italy. In the places where they resettled they carried on zealous preaching and found a number of hearing ears. This is how other groups of Bible Students were formed.
In 1923 the Swiss branch invited three colporteurs working in the Italian-speaking Swiss canton of Ticino, to move to Italy. They were Ignazio Protti and his two sisters Adele and Albina. The following year Sister Emma Hotz, another colporteur, joined them.
ZEALOUS ACTIVITY OF FIVE COLPORTEURS
The activity of these zealous colporteurs is indeed worthy of mention. The three sisters worked in one territory and the brothers, Ignazio Protti and Marcello Martinelli, in another. From 1923 to 1927 they covered various parts of Piedmont and a part of Lombardy. Sister Adele Protti, who later married Brother Brun from Switzerland, wrote many years ago:
“In 1924, 20,000 copies of the booklet A Desirable Government were printed at Pinerolo. We had also received from Berne 100,000 copies of the tract Ecclesiastics Indicted. This tract contained the indictment read at the 1924 Columbus, Ohio, convention. It powerfully denounced the clergy. It was distributed in all the major Italian cities.”
A report in The Watch Tower of December 1, 1925, had this to say about the campaign: “Our Italian brethren distributed 100,000 copies of the ‘Indictment’; and they particularly saw to it that the pope and the other high officials of the Vatican each received a copy.”
The excitement of these colporteurs as they delivered such a pungent message can well be imagined! Sister Brun continued:
“Brother Cuminetti, Sister Hotz and I distributed 10,000 copies of the ‘Indictment’ at Genoa in a single day. A hundred thousand copies of the tract Testimony to the Rulers of the World were received from Switzerland, but most of them were seized by the authorities. Approximately every three months we used to go to visit our brothers at San Germano Chisone to build ourselves up spiritually at the meetings. It is difficult to express our yearning, our ardent desire, to meet together for a while with the brothers.
“On one occasion, I had worked the day through in a village with very satisfactory results. My heart was full of joy as I started back home along the only possible road, which passed through a wood. As I walked along full of joyful thoughts I was suddenly aware of a young man with a bicycle walking along at my side. I was not at all alarmed and began to witness to him about the Kingdom reign of peace and justice. It took us about two hours to cover the distance back to Alessandria. Towards the end of our journey the young man said to me:
“‘Signorina, I feel I must tell you that you have prevented me from committing a terrible crime. When I caught up with you it was with the intention of causing you harm. If you had put up resistance, I might even have killed you. But when I saw your radiant face and your trustful innocent expression, I did not feel capable of abusing your confidence. Then, you started to talk to me about so many marvelous things I had never heard of before. These two hours have been enough to change my attitude toward life, and I now see what a miserable creature I was. I should like to change my way of life. Please give me anything you have to read about these things.’
“I gave him all the literature I had left in my bag and he paid me for it. Then, he shook my hand and said good-bye. On that occasion, as on others, I have been protected in a truly marvelous way.”
Sister Brun remained faithful until her death in 1976, at Zurich, after 50 years of devoted service. Her brother, Ignazio, another of the five colporteurs, wrote in 1970:
“We did not even count the hours spent in the service. We just used to work from morning to night. Often we were arrested and then released again after a short time. At Gallarate (near Varese), Brother Martinelli and I were arrested and put in prison on false charges cooked up by the clergy. We were allowed to go out into the prison yard for an hour a day, and this provided an opportunity to witness to other prisoners. Often we would be surrounded by a group of listeners, and even the guards would stop by. One day the prison governor came too. When the prisoners learned that we were to be released they embraced us and thanked us cordially. We were also very moved by this and thanked God for giving us a chance to reach these people.”
“One day,” Brother Protti continued, “as I was going from house to house, I noticed a man following me. Soon afterward, he stopped me as I was coming out of a house, saying that he was an agent of the security police. He asked to see my identity card and wanted to know what I was doing. With the idea of introducing the booklet on the same theme, I answered, ‘I am proclaiming the advent of a desirable government.’ At this the agent was almost offended and replied that there already was a desirable government—obviously referring to the Fascist regime. I explained: ‘The government you mean is only a temporary one. The one I am announcing will last forever.’ Then I pulled out my Bible and had him read Daniel 2:44 and Da 7:14. You should have seen how carefully he read those two verses. He gave my Bible back again and instead of arresting me as I expected, he let me go. After all these years, I still wonder if that agent remembered our conversation when the Fascist regime fell.”
Brother Protti was faithful in the Kingdom service until the end. He died at Basel in 1977 at the age of 80.
1925—THE FIRST ASSEMBLY
The work continued to expand in spite of many difficulties, and the first assembly was held at Pinerolo April 23 to 26, 1925. Since Brother A. H. Macmillan from the Society’s headquarters was making a series of visits abroad, he was able to be present. The assembly was held in a large room at the Corona Grossa hotel.
It would have been ridiculous to expect the Fascist authorities to give their permission for this assembly. So the brothers disguised the gathering as a wedding celebration. During the assembly Brother Remigio Cuminetti married Sister Albina Protti, one of the Swiss colporteurs. At that historic assembly there were 70 in attendance and 10 of these were baptized.
“Our days were full of blessings, rejoicing and happiness,” wrote Sister Brun, who was present at the assembly. She adds: “The hotel owner brought his other guests and clients into the hall saying: ‘Come and see everybody, we have the primitive church under our roof!’ . . . Everything was well organized and we usually managed to clear the floor and set the chairs out in a flash. Afterward we would put them away again and leave everything in order. We were all happy and willing to lend a hand. It was a great witness.”
Nevertheless, during that first assembly there was a curious inconvenience. “Although we were very different in many ways, we managed to get on well together. However, we did not manage to agree on the singing of the songs. The brothers from the north sang with a lively rhythm, while those from the south sang slowly and with such feeling that it was a pity to make them change. So the presiding brother decided to have those from the south of Italy sing first, followed by those from the north.”
THE WORK BEGINS TO DECLINE
The preaching work was full of promise. The report published in The Watch Tower of December 1, 1924 (English ed.), commented: “Bicycles have been provided for the three colporteurs, who are traveling through the country distributing literature and selling books. We have great hopes for a wide spread of truth in Italy in the near future.”
Some time before then, Brother Cuminetti had inherited 10,000 lire, a tidy sum in those days. He could therefore completely devote his time to witnessing and encouraging the brothers, visiting them in their home territories. The Watch Tower of May 1, 1925 (Italian ed.), carried an “Account of a Journey Across Italy,” made by Brothers Cuminetti and Martinelli at the end of 1924. They traveled as much as 5,000 kilometers (3,000 mi.) to visit brothers in isolated areas and interested persons in various regions from Lombardy to Sicily. The account relates that at Porto Sant’Elpidio (central Italy), documents were filed to obtain permission for the use of a hall in which to hold a talk and, “although the authorities chewed the matter over for a while, they had to give us permission in the end on account of our insistence . . . On the day of the talk, more than 200 persons came to hear, ‘Return of the Dead Is at Hand.’” It was unquestionably a great success.
Then, for various reasons the work slowly began to decline. Between 1926 and 1927, three of the colporteurs had to go back to Switzerland for health and other reasons. The main cause of the decline, however, was the concordat signed in 1929 between the Catholic Church and the Fascist State, conceding exceptional privileges to the Church. This marked the beginning of a sad period of religious repression.
Here and there a few small lamps of truth kept burning. In some places there were small groups of brothers or only isolated persons, and it was difficult to communicate with them and to keep them united. They were rather like glowing embers hidden underneath the ashes, in danger of dying out completely. And, in fact, some did die out. In one of his letters Brother Cuminetti described the situation as follows:
“We should like to do much more, but we are under ever closer observation . . . they intercept everything. We received The Golden Age [now Awake!] up until March and then it stopped coming. Brooklyn informed us they had sent several parcels containing the latest books and booklets, but nothing has been received. Ever fewer copies of The Watch Tower are reaching their destination, and any of the brothers showing zeal are arrested by the enemy . . . others are threatened with exile in another part of the country and all kinds of ill-treatment.”
KINGDOM WORK NOT COMPLETELY SUPPRESSED
It would not have been very difficult for the clergy, backed up by their Fascist henchmen, to control the activity of a few dozen persons and eventually stamp it out altogether, were it not that ‘the hand of Jehovah had not become too short that it could not save, nor had his ear become too heavy that it could not hear.’ (Isa. 59:1) He did not permit his loyal ones to be overcome.
Here and there small groups of Kingdom publishers managed to survive. And the very fact that they came into existence and persevered shows that Jehovah protected them by means of his powerful active force.
THE GROUP AT PRATOLA PELIGNA
The good news of the Kingdom was first brought to Pratola Peligna, in the province of Aquila, in 1919 by an emigrant who had come to a knowledge of the truth in the United States. This brother, Vincenzo Pizzoferrato, remained faithful to the heavenly calling up to his death in 1951. He worked as a traveling fruit vendor in the nearby towns of Sulmona, Raiano and Popoli, where he would arrive with his barrow loaded down with fruit and literature for distribution. The Divine Plan of the Ages, The Harp of God and other publications were distributed in this way, and a small group of interested persons soon began to gather around him.
In 1924, as he was finishing the distribution of the tract The Return of the Dead Is Imminent near the cemetery of Popoli (Pescara), a priest accompanied by Fascist youths interrupted his activity and marched him off to the police station for questioning. However, as it turned out, the maresciallo (marshal) was very favorable to the message. He called all the carabinieri (national policemen) at the station to come and listen to the brother, so an excellent witness was given and literature was distributed. To ensure that Brother Pizzoferrato would not have any more trouble with the Fascists, the maresciallo had him escorted to the railway station by two policemen.
In 1925, when the assembly was held at Pinerolo, Brother Pizzoferrato attended with his wife and an interested person who became a brother. At that time, there was already a group of about 30 persons meeting together at his home and, later on, when a family built a new house, a room was set aside for use as a Kingdom Hall.
In 1939 the clergy managed to stir up trouble with the authorities, and the brothers found themselves in serious difficulty. The literature was confiscated, and it was forbidden to hold meetings. Brother Pizzoferrato, arrested and tried before the Special Tribunal at Rome, was sentenced to prison. Before long he was released on account of his poor health, and he immediately began spreading the “good news” again, in spite of the danger of another arrest. Thus the local group of brothers was never completely suppressed.
THE GROUP AT ROSETO DEGLI ABRUZZI
Roseto degli Abruzzi is a village on the coast, in the province of Teramo. The local inhabitants first heard the truth from a sister by the name of Caterina Di Marco. Born at Roseto, she emigrated to the United States where she came in contact with the truth in 1921 at Philadelphia. She was baptized a year later and returned to Roseto degli Abruzzi in 1925. What did she do on her return? The sister narrates:
“As soon as I arrived I began to speak to others about the faith. I even used to distribute tracts and booklets on the beach near the bathing cabins. A certain local man read one of these booklets and exclaimed, ‘Ah! This must be that new religion Caterina has brought back with her from America.’ He wanted to read the rest of the literature in my possession. He did and became convinced it was the truth.” He was the first one, and later other sincere persons followed. Brother DeCecca once described Sister Di Marco as “a veritable sword” wielded against the religious opposers. Although infirm, this 85-year-old sister still continues to maintain her integrity and hold fast to her hope.
Domenico Cimorosi, the first one to come into the truth as a result of her preaching, served as a regular pioneer until he died at the age of 87. A few years before his death, he wrote the following account of how the work began in the area:
“I started talking about the truth to my brother, father, cousin and workmates. In the end about five or six of us were reading the only small booklet I had, Comfort for the People, and checking the scriptures in our Bibles. We decided to go and visit Caterina Di Marco, the lady who had come back from America. We immediately saw the logic of the explanations she gave us and started holding meetings at her home. Although shortly afterward the Fascists tried to find us out, with Jehovah’s help we managed to keep our meeting places secret.”
Religious intolerance was not slow in making itself felt against that small group of sincere persons. “The parish priest sued me for distributing the tract Ecclesiastics Indicted,” relates Caterina Di Marco. “I was acquitted but my troubles were not over. Later on I was arrested for the first time because I did not go to hear a discourse given by Il Duce [the leader, Mussolini]. The magistrate asked me why I had not gone. I replied by quoting the third chapter of Daniel about the three Hebrews who refused to bow down before the golden image. They sentenced me to five years’ exile in another part of Italy.”
Vittorio Cimorosi, the son of Domenico, remembers that the literature was often confiscated during the 1930’s. Nevertheless, a few copies of The Watchtower and some other publications arrived at their destination. He relates: “Brother DeCecca often wrote to my father and other interested ones, sending them spiritual food. He frequently used roundabout expressions to avoid compromising us. Once he wrote, ‘If you do not have “enemies” you will find them at Montone.’ Acting on this suggestion, Brother Guerino Castronà went to the village of Montone where he found a man who had the book Enemies and other literature.”
THE GROUP AT MALO
“I can never thank Jehovah enough for the precious gift I had of being God-fearing from my youth.” These words were written by Girolamo Sbalchiero, a brother who remained faithful to his Christian assignment until his death in 1962. His personal story is closely linked to that of a group of Witnesses that was, in time, to become a flourishing congregation.
Brother Sbalchiero was originally a zealous Catholic. He used to wear a knotted cord around his bare waist with which to flagellate himself and mortify his flesh in penance for his sins. He used to pray often, kneeling on small pebbles so that he could offer his suffering to God. He also took part in long pilgrimages on foot, once covering a distance of 50 kilometers (30 mi.). Then, in 1924, Girolamo heard the Kingdom message for the first time from a person who had been in contact with the Witnesses in America. What was his reaction? This devout carpenter from Malo, a small village near Vicenza in Veneto, wrote:
“I worked by day and read the Scriptures at night. My employer had given me a Bible because he didn’t want it, and, although I did not understand a great deal of what I read, I was very struck with the account of the battle of Har–Magedon and immediately started speaking to others about it. I wrote to Brother Cuminetti, who was serving at Pinerolo, and his letters were of great help to me. Nevertheless, without any personal assistance, it took me eight years to grasp the truth fully. When I had grasped it, I stopped going to church and partaking of Communion, as I had done every morning of my life up to then.”
Persecution was not slow in arriving. “To study the Bible,” he narrated, “we used to hide behind hedges in isolated places. Once, we even celebrated the Memorial in a cave. Others became interested in the message and joined me. One Sunday afternoon five of us met together in a private home to study the Scriptures. After a while the village priest strode in and insulted us, saying we were too ignorant to understand the Bible. He added that the priests alone had the power to save souls.”
After a heated discussion, during which the priest was not able to answer any of the questions put to him, he sent for the police. However, the maresciallo (marshal) knew the brother and also knew that he was highly respected in the area for his goodness, so he took no action.
“Sometime afterward,” Brother Sbalchiero’s account continues, “the Society decided to hold a campaign with the booklet The Kingdom, the Hope of the World. I started out on my bicycle for Padua with 165 booklets, but on my way I was stopped by the police, placed under arrest and a case was prepared to have me exiled to another part of Italy. Fortunately, the authorities at my hometown got to know about this and intervened in my favor. They finally succeeded in getting me released and had me accompanied back home again. When we arrived back in the main square, they said to me: ‘Haven’t you had enough of all of this?’ I replied: ‘Not at all. I feel more determined than ever.’ At this, they looked at one another in amazement.”
Giuseppe Sbalchiero, the son of Girolamo, relates: “One day, I said to my father, ‘How can we manage to resist against the thousands of mighty ones opposing us and continue to give a witness?’ He replied: ‘Do not be afraid, my son, because this work is not “from men but from God.”’”—Compare Acts 5:33-40.
THE GROUP AT FAENZA
Do you remember Ignazio Protti, the colporteur who came to Italy from Switzerland in 1923? Well, in 1924 he had the opportunity of witnessing at Marradi, a small village surrounded by mountains and chestnut woods, where he was born. The seeds of truth fell upon “fine soil” and several persons accepted the message. (Matt. 13:8) In turn, they shared this knowledge with others.
Some years later, at Sarna, Faenza, not far from Marradi, a farmer by the name of Domenico Taroni was given some literature. He readily accepted the “good news.” In 1927 he subscribed for The Watch Tower but only a few copies arrived. Probably some of them escaped the authorities’ attention by chance, and others arrived by underground methods. Brother Taroni was one of the first witnesses of Jehovah in the fertile region of Romagna. One of his first contacts was with Vincenzo Artusi, who became a faithful brother and later served as an elder in one of the three congregations at Faenza until his death in 1981. In turn, Vincenzo managed to pass the truth on to others, including Emilio Babini and his brother Antonio. They both remained faithful to Jehovah until they died.
These zealous brothers met together in private homes. As soon as they were identified by the clergy, they were persecuted. A few dropped out, but others kept their integrity. The nine brothers still remaining in 1939 in this area were more than enough to start off the extensive activity of the postwar period.
THE GROUP AT ZORTEA
In 1931 and 1932 two emigrants returned from abroad with the truth in their hearts. They were Narciso Stefanon, who came from Belgium, and Albino Battisti, who returned from France. They immediately began preaching—the former at Zortea, a small village of a few hundred inhabitants that is perched a thousand meters (3,300 ft.) up on a mountainside; the latter, who had heard the truth from Polish brothers, at Calliano, which is about 15 kilometers (10 mi.) from Trent.
Before returning to Italy, Narciso Stefanon barely had time to subscribe for the Watchtower magazine and read a few other publications of the Society. On his return to Zortea, he continued to attend church for a while, and it was right there, in church, that he gave his first witness. At Mass one day the parish priest gave a sermon explaining parts of the Gospel, and Narciso publically contested what he had said, using the Diodati version of the Bible to show where the priest was wrong.
The congregation split into two opposing factions, one supporting Stefanon, the other supporting the priest. In time, however, as a result of the priest’s influence, the first group gradually dwindled away, and only a few persons actually accepted the Kingdom message. Narciso Stefanon left the Catholic Church once and for all, and others joined him in studying the publications of the “faithful and discreet slave.” (Matt. 24:45-47, New World Translation) They used to meet together in haylofts, barns and anywhere else they could escape from the surveillance of the clergy and Fascists alike. At that time the regime hunted true Christians down without mercy.
One of the persons with ‘hearing ears’ was Francesco Zortea. His last name and that of the village were the same. When he first heard the truth in 1933, he was 25 years old; and from then on he continued to demonstrate his indomitable faith in Jehovah right up to his death in 1977.
In an account of his Christian ministry Brother Zortea wrote:
“We were spied upon, followed and kept under control to such an extent that we had to hide when we wanted to consult the Scriptures. I had many personal experiences of this kind, and they all served to strengthen my faith instead of weakening it. In April 1934, I traveled on foot to Fonzaso (Belluno), about 20 kilometers [12 mi.] from my home, to witness there. While I was going from house to house with the Kingdom message, I was stopped and taken to the police station by the carabinieri. There, I was questioned, my literature was confiscated and I was thrown into a cell until the following morning.
“Later, in July 1935, I was notified to come to the police station for an urgent official communication. When I arrived the maresciallo said to me, ‘Mr. Zortea, we must inform you that your case has been referred to the pretura [local magistrate’s court] at Trent, and this authority requires a statement from you specifying the kind of activity in which you are engaged.’ I told them I was ‘announcing God’s Kingdom’ to the people.
“Not long afterward, in the month of August, I was again urgently requested to come to the police station. This time I was told that the Pretura of Trent was not satisfied with my first statement. They wanted another one, explaining what was meant by the expression ‘announcing God’s Kingdom.’ So I explained the Bible meaning of this expression in harmony with the words, ‘Your Kingdom come’ from the Lord’s Prayer. They must have mistaken the Kingdom for a political government!”—Matt. 6:9, 10.
However, this brother’s real difficulties were yet to come. In October 1935, Italy declared war on Ethiopia, and when Brother Zortea was called up for military service, he decided to maintain his neutrality. He wrote: “I refused to put on a uniform and fight against my fellowman.” As a result, he was sentenced to five years’ exile in another part of Italy. Brothers Stefanon and Battisti suffered the same fate.
In exile at Muro Lucano, in the province of Potenza, Brother Zortea continued the preaching activity. He reported: “As soon as I had settled in, I got in contact with Brother Remigio Cuminetti, asking for literature to carry on the preaching work. Not long afterward, I received a parcel of booklets, which I began to distribute with caution. I used various methods. Some were handed out personally; others were left on public seats along the roadside or inside parked cars.”
Thanks to a government amnesty, he was able to return home to Zortea in 1937 in time to witness another episode of the religious intolerance the clergy vented on Jehovah’s Witnesses. One of the local sisters died, and the priest would not permit her to be buried in the parish cemetery on the pretext that, in so doing, he would be profaning holy ground. Three days passed by and the situation was still at a deadlock. Then the parish priests of Zortea and the nearby village of Prade had a meeting with the council secretary and the podesta (the mayor under Fascism). What happened afterward might well have been taken from an account about the early Christians. Brother Zortea wrote:
“Only at noon of the third day were we told that the funeral was to take place immediately and that the body would have to be interred at Prade where the council owned a piece of ground in the cemetery. We set off. There were four of us followed by members of the sister’s family and other interested persons. We were accompanied by an official from the town council and a police escort. Along the way we were greeted by laughter, catcalls and derision, and, when we arrived at Prade, we found a crowd waiting to watch the final act of the comedy, which was to be the most interesting.
“It had been decided that we could not be allowed to enter the cemetery through the gateway because it had been ‘blessed.’ Consequently, we would have to take the coffin over the wall by means of two ladders, one on the inside and one on the outside of the cemetery. The crowd had come to enjoy the spectacle of our getting the coffin over the wall. At this juncture the council official intervened to inquire who was responsible for such an arrangement. He was told that the decision had been made by the local priest. At that, the official replied that the mayor had given orders that the funeral should pass through the gateway, and this is what we were then allowed to do.”
THE GROUPS AT MONTESILVANO, PIANELLA AND SPOLTORE
In the early 1930’s, Luigi D’Angelo returned to Spoltore in the Abruzzi region. He had come to a knowledge of the truth in France, and on his return he showed Christian love to his relatives, friends and neighbors by sharing what he knew with them. Brothers who still remember him have this to say:
“He was very active and full of zeal. He would often travel many kilometers to visit isolated brothers, in spite of the many difficulties that such journeys entailed. Bicycles were the most common means of transport in those days, and it is encouraging for us today to recall one of his longest journeys when he cycled a total distance of almost 600 kilometers [375 mi.] across the Apennine Mountains to visit a brother living at Avellino. Before leaving, he went to look for a stout stick to tie to his bicycle in case he met up with wolves while going over the mountains. He also fixed a cushion on to the seat and set off full of enthusiasm, fired with the desire to upbuild another brother by means of the Christian fellowship so necessary for all of us. His ministry was of brief duration because in 1936 he became ill and died.”
The seeds of truth planted by this brother, however, did not die out. Rather, these seeds germinated according to the will of God who “makes it grow.” (1 Cor. 3:7) So it was that from a single Witness, groups of publishers were formed in the towns of Montesilvano, Pianella and Spoltore, in the province of Pescara. These brothers also had to ‘pick up their torture stake’ and undergo persecution as followers of Jesus Christ.—Luke 9:23.
The Di Censo family of Montesilvano was one of those that accepted the Kingdom message. They got rid of their religious images and shortly afterward their home became a meeting place for those wanting to study the Holy Scriptures. Then what happened? Sister Mariantonia Di Censo, who is still faithfully walking in the way of the truth, relates:
“Very soon the clergy started to oppose us. They organized an impressive procession in which the whole village took part. It filed slowly around our house and then the participants stuck a cross into the ground and began shouting: ‘Protestants get out! Go back to Church!’ We had become a public spectacle. We were alone in the face of this opposition, and only Jehovah could sustain us and give us the necessary strength to uphold the truth and go ahead.”
Gerardo Di Felice, another member of the Montesilvano group, had his faith tested on a number of occasions. Once, while he was holding a Bible study in his home, a band of fanatical Fascists, instigated by the clergy, burst into the house and beat him, leaving him unconscious on the floor.
Later on he maintained his neutrality with firmness and courage. He wrote: “First of all I was sent to Bari to the military hospital and then to the psychiatric asylum at Bisceglie [where they discharged him on the grounds that he was suffering from ‘paranoia’]. One day a nun caught me reading the Bible under my pillow. She confiscated it, saying that it was a book full of venom.”
Brother Francesco Di Giampaolo, a watchmaker of Montesilvano narrates: “I was busy at my work when a band of hooligans, instigated by the priest, began to throw heavy clods of mud at the building where I lived. My neighbors and other tenants immediately ran outside shouting, ‘We are not Protestants!’ They were hit but I was unhurt.”
A LIGHTNING CAMPAIGN
Let us now go back to the year 1932. Brother Martin Harbeck, the Swiss branch overseer, thought the work in Italy would move ahead better if the office were in a more central zone in an important city, instead of being at Pinerolo. So that year an office was opened in Milan. Brother Cuminetti thought it would be imprudent for him to move to another town at that time of harsh persecution, so he remained at Pinerolo and continued to keep in contact with the brothers, using clandestine methods.
The new office was opened in Corso di Porta Nuova, number 19. It was a decorous apartment laid out in well-furnished offices. Sister Maria Pizzato was assigned to work there as secretary to Brother Harbeck.
It is interesting how Sister Pizzato learned the truth. Perhaps you will remember that at the beginning of the century The Watch Tower was distributed by the leading newsagents in the main provincial cities. Well, during the years 1903 and 1904, Maria Pizzato’s mother bought a few copies from a newsagent in Piazza Vittorio Emanuele at Vicenza, one of the largest in town. It was not until many years later, in 1915, that Maria Pizzato read these magazines again with greater attention. This time her interest was aroused and she decided to write to Pinerolo. The then Sister Clara Cerulli wrote back to her and sent her some publications. And so it was that Maria Pizzato began to appreciate the true life-giving knowledge.
The new office at Milan was registered at the local Chamber of Commerce under the name “Società Watch Tower,” a society for the printing and distribution of Biblical books and tracts. Brother Harbeck was in charge. A post office account was opened, and a post office box was rented. Everything was ready and it was confidently expected that extensive activity could now be carried on throughout the country.
The work was to start off with a campaign using the booklet The Kingdom, the Hope of the World. It was to be carried out so quickly as to take the feared O.V.R.A. (the secret police concerned with anti-Fascist activities) by surprise. There were very few Italian brothers at the time, hardly more than 50 in all. So the Berne office arranged for 20 Swiss brothers to carry out the actual work of distribution to avoid creating difficulty for the local brothers. Each one of the Swiss publishers went to a different town in northern and central Italy, down as far as Florence, to distribute the booklet from door to door, on the streets and in the public squares.
A free copy of the booklet was also sent by mail to all the professional people and intellectuals in the province of Milan. At that time the law prohibited the importing of literature from abroad. So the booklet was printed by the Archetipografia at Milan. Three copies were submitted to the Press Office of the prefettura (prefecture) to obtain the necessary permit, and this was granted.
How would the political and ecclesiastical authorities react to this theocratic blitz? Everything was ready several days before the appointed date, which was a few days before March 19, St. Joseph’s Day on the Catholic calendar. With regard to this special campaign, Sister Adele Brun, one of the 20 Swiss Witnesses taking part, wrote:
“I was sent to Turin. Brother Boss of Berne was waiting for me. He had already found me a room, and 10,000 copies of the booklet, in a number of parcels, had been stored in a local warehouse. The brother told me to get in contact with local newspaper vendors and arrange for them to help me with the distribution because the work was to be carried out as quickly as possible. This I did. Then, the brother left and I was on my own.
“I contacted 12 news vendors in all, and it was agreed that they were to receive 20 lire each to distribute the booklet on the day. I chose the most expert of them to direct operations, and promised her an extra 10 lire if she organized things well. I also chose four vendors to act as supply centers where booklets could be obtained as necessary. The activity was very successful. Booklets were left everywhere, including restaurants and offices.
“Then, at midday, the owner of the warehouse where the booklets were deposited came to tell me that he would be closed on St. Joseph’s Day, the day after. What was I to do? If I waited until after the holiday, I would give the priests time to have the literature confiscated.
“About three o’clock in the afternoon the 12 news vendors began to return, one after the other. They were very tired and wanted to go back home because they had not yet had an opportunity to eat a meal. Instead of sending them home I went out to buy some provisions and then we ate a meal together. Then I proposed: ‘If you finish the work by this evening I will give you an extra 10 lire.’ They agreed to carry on and after a short rest they went out to work again. By the end of the evening they had distributed all the booklets.”
After having gone on to take part in the campaign in the city of Novara, it was time for Sister Brun to leave. She recounted: “I took a train to Milan where 200,000 copies of the booklet had been seized, and I left the same night for Switzerland, where my husband was anxiously awaiting my arrival. The activity had been accomplished so rapidly and unexpectedly that none of the 20 brothers were arrested.”
It was estimated that, in spite of the amount of literature confiscated, about 300,000 booklets had been distributed!
The reaction was not slow in making itself felt. “Only two or three days after the campaign,” relates Sister Pizzato, “the newspapers, especially those under clerical influence, began to pour out a furious attack against us. The office in Corso di Porta Nuova was submerged in inquiries, and letters were arriving from all over Italy with requests for books or explanations.
“At this juncture, two policemen arrived at the office and ordered Brother Harbeck and me to report immediately to the press office at the questura [police headquarters]. There, after a number of questions, Brother Harbeck was ordered to close the office. It was agreed that we could have the confiscated booklets back on condition that they would be exported to Switzerland. It was explained that these measures were being taken to safeguard the prestige and dignity of the Catholic Church, in accordance with the Lateran Treaty.”
The closure of the Milan office, only a few months after it had been opened, left Brother Cuminetti alone to carry on his patient, clandestine correspondence with the brothers. He would send them occasional pieces of literature or personal letters, and, when possible, he would make visits to encourage them in the Lord’s work.
In 1935 Brother Cuminetti moved from Pinerolo to Turin, at 18 Via Borgone, where he continued to carry on his underground activity. This arrangement was maintained until Brother Cuminetti died on January 18, 1939, after an operation. He witnessed to doctors and nurses to the end, and although he was hardly 50 years old, his death probably spared him from having to endure another “odyssey” during World War II. Other Witnesses were to have the privilege of demonstrating their integrity to Jehovah during that time of great persecution.
THE GREAT PERSECUTION
Italy’s declaration of war on Ethiopia in 1935 and her decision to enter World War II in June 1940 contributed to worsening the persecution against the few Witnesses in the country. As time went on it became more and more difficult for the brothers to maintain their neutrality.
The Swiss branch did its best to keep in contact with the Kingdom publishers, and in 1939 Sister Adele Brun was assigned to visit the brothers in northern and central Italy. Her visits were spread over a period of three weeks. Some brothers can still remember the pleasure and encouragement they received from those upbuilding visits. On her return to Switzerland, Sister Brun learned from her widowed sister, Albina, that the police had constantly been on her trail.
Although the publishers were few and far between, clandestine preaching was organized, particularly by Brother Martinelli. Literature was brought into the country by persons who worked over the border in Switzerland. They would come home in the evening, bringing the well-hidden literature with them.
Then Brother Harbeck had a secret meeting with Sister Pizzato to encourage her to get in contact with brothers who had lost touch with the organization after the death of Brother Cuminetti. She was given about 50 addresses by the Berne branch office. Her stock of literature was deposited at Milan in the home of an apparently interested person, the daughter of a deceased Christian sister. However, this woman must have collaborated in some way with the police. Sister Pizzato relates:
“This new phase of the work was of very brief duration. In September 1939 we began sending off parcels. They did not exceed three kilograms [6.6 lbs.] in weight because, according to the postal regulations in force at that time, it was not necessary to indicate the sender’s address on parcels of this size. I used to pack up the literature in the evening and, so as not to arouse suspicion, I would drop the parcels off at different post offices in the morning on my way to work.”
However, something happened to spark off persecution against the Witnesses. Unfortunately, on October 28, 1939, one of these parcels was opened by a postal clerk at Montesilvano. It contained a number of booklets and the book Enemies. The contents were immediately handed over to the police, and the resulting inquiry soon revealed where the parcel had come from, although it did not have the sender’s name on it. The literature had been addressed to Sister Mariantonia Di Censo, and she was arrested the next day. Then, on November 1, members of the Fascist police, O.V.R.A., paid a visit on Sister Pizzato. She relates:
“Very early in the morning the police burst into my home at 28 Via Vincenzo Monti, Milan. There were seven of them—six agents and a commissario [police commissioner]. They rushed into the room and curtly ordered me to put my hands up, as though I were a dangerous bandit. They soon found what they considered incriminating material—a Bible and Bible literature!”
The O.V.R.A. had found the addresses of various other brothers in Sister Pizzato’s flat, and so it was that the police made raids on their homes. From October to the beginning of December approximately 300 persons were questioned by the police, although many of them were only subscribers for The Watchtower or had publications of the Society in their possession. About 120 to 140 brothers and sisters were arrested and sentenced. Of these, 26 were brought before the Special Tribunal as ringleaders.
Guerino D’Angelo, one of this latter group, relates what happened when he was arrested: “I was sowing corn for a family of brothers whose menfolk were already in prison. Only the old people and the children were left at home. The police arrived and ordered me to leave the seed drill where it was. Then they hauled me off to prison, where I was severely beaten.”
Vincenzo Artusi related: “On November 15, 1939, as I was going out to work, I found two police agents waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs. They asked me if I was Mr. Artusi. When I confirmed my identity, they made me go back into the house and wait while they searched it from top to bottom. They turned everything upside down and pulled out drawers to find evidence against me. Finally they managed to lay their hands on what they were looking for—the Bible and the book Enemies. They took me away without even letting me kiss my three children good-bye. I was taken into a room full of police agents where I was questioned for three hours.”
Sister Albina Cuminetti, who had just been bereaved of her husband, was arrested and tried by the Special Tribunal. She wrote:
“I was arrested and taken off to prison by car. There were two police agents, a commissario and a high official from the Ministry of Home Affairs, in the car with me. I had to smile as they were taking me away to think that four men, two of them high-ranking officials, were needed to arrest such a feeble woman as myself. I was not afraid of them; on the contrary, I earnestly spoke to them about God’s kingdom. They started to laugh, but I told them they were not making fun of me but of Jehovah God’s promises, and this cannot be done with impunity. I added that their sarcasm would turn into bitterness. In fact, that commissario and the official both died in prison after the fall of Fascism.”
FASCIST GOVERNMENT TAKES SPECIAL MEASURES
We have already mentioned the fact that persecution against true Christians became harsher after 1935. Why?
On April 9, 1935, the Cults Department of the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a circular on “Pentecostal Associations.” At that time the authorities had not properly identified Jehovah’s Witnesses and thought they were part of the “Pentecostal” community. The circular was sent to the provincial administration centers, calling for the immediate disbanding of those associations whose activity was declared to be “contrary to our social order and harmful to the physical and mental welfare of our race.”
On August 22, 1939, another circular (No. 441/027713) was issued, with reference to “Religious Sects of Pentecostals and the Like,” which stated:
“For a number of years now, the existence of certain evangelical religious sects brought in from abroad, and more particularly from America, has been observed in Italy. Their doctrines are contrary to any established government. . . .
“The ‘Pentecostals’ are extremely active and tenacious propagandists and, after the recent measures taken against them, they try to meet together anywhere they can, even in the open countryside. More often than not, however, they meet in the home of one of their adherents, by day or night, to escape the vigilant attention of the authorities. . . .
“Recently, there have been cases of individuals called up for military service who have refused to do target shooting because, as ‘Pentecostals,’ they are against the use of weapons on principle. . . .
“It is therefore necessary to oppose these sects with the maximum determination. . . .
“To this end, we request that accurate investigation be carried out to ascertain the eventual existence of groups of these ‘Pentecostals,’ or other similar sects, in the various provinces. Legal proceedings should be taken against anyone found taking part in meetings, religious rites or propaganda activities. Instructions should be requested from the Ministry on how to proceed in other cases. Furthermore, we would recommend that all known adherents to the sects in question be kept under strict surveillance and that they and their habitations be regularly searched on the slightest suspicion, to ascertain whether they are in possession of printed matter for propaganda purposes, or if contacts with fellow believers are being maintained with a view to worship. . . .
“All the booklets so far confiscated from adherents to the ‘Pentecostal’ sect are translations of American publications, almost always written by a certain J. F. Rutherford and printed by the ‘Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society - International Bible Students’ Association - Brooklyn, N.Y., U.S.A.’ . . . The booklets have the following titles . . . [a list of Watch Tower publications followed].
“The introduction of such booklets into the Realm and their subsequent circulation must be prevented.
“In conclusion, it should be observed that, although the sect of the ‘Pentecostals’ is the only one distinctly identified, reference is here made to sects and not to a single sect, because the above-mentioned booklets give the impression that other sects or currents of thought have sprung up from within the various evangelical religions originally recognized . . .”
The measures recommended in this circular were responsible for the wave of arrests that led to the mass imprisonment of Jehovah’s Witnesses at the end of 1939.
REPORT ISSUED ON WITNESSES
Dr. Pasquale Andriani, the General Superintendent of Police at Avezzano (Abruzzi), carried out an inquiry in accordance with the dispositions set forth in the previously mentioned circular. On January 12, 1940, he sent his report to the Public Prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for the Protection of the State. He also sent a copy to the chief of police. The subject of his report was, “The Religious Sect of ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses.’” Here are a few of the salient points:
“In a circular issued last August, the Ministry for Home Affairs gave instructions regarding the identification of members of those sects extending their activities to the political field. These sects should therefore be considered and dealt with in the same way as political movements of a subversive nature.
“We deemed that an efficient execution of these orders necessitated further investigation to distinguish between the various sects which, in certain provinces of the Realm, are represented by quite compact groups of adherents. . . .
“The sect [of Jehovah’s Witnesses] is particularly dangerous from a political point of view. . . .
“In short, it can be said that [from the booklet, Warning] Il Duce is likened to the giant Goliath and that ‘the hateful monstrosity of today is the Totalitarian Regime under an absolute and arbitrary dictator’ and supported by the Church of Rome, ‘the great harlot.’ After having subjugated the Italian people, this Regime has embarked upon the conquest of Ethiopia ‘at the cost of so many human lives.’ . . .
“However, the most serious aspect of the question arises from their respect for the Christian precept ‘thou shalt not kill,’ and their conviction that on no account should they take up arms against their fellowman.
“They feel, therefore, that they should be exempt from any kind of military service. Their young people refuse to do preliminary training and if they are imprisoned for this stand, they again refuse to participate at the end of their sentence.”
The report also mentions a circular that Sister Pizzato used to send to the brothers and quotes a few excerpts from it. Says the report: “By means of this circular, of which we enclose a copy of the many in our possession . . . , believers were encouraged not to deprive themselves of ‘the spiritual food so necessary in these calamitous times’ and were informed that a depot had been set up at Milan from where ‘literature’ could be ordered and subscriptions for ‘The Watchtower’ magazine could be renewed. The recipients were also informed that, ‘considering the difficult situation existing in this country,’ it was necessary to be ‘very prudent’ when ordering literature. Orders were to be worded according to an agreed code whereby a group of numbers or letters were used to indicate the books required: ‘Enemies’ 1-33-1; ‘Warning’ 2-44-2; ‘The Kingdom’ 3-55-3; ‘Watchtower’ W.T.”
THE INVESTIGATORS ARE UNMASKED
The authorities were moving against us in no uncertain way. But why? Who was really behind the campaign of arrests? When speaking of the closing down of the Milan office, the above-mentioned report explicitly stated: “After only a few months the office was closed by the Milan police because of the anti-Fascist tone of the books distributed and the reaction of the Catholic clergy.” (Italics ours)
The report goes on to mention the activity of the 26 Witnesses arrested as those chiefly responsible for this religious movement in Italy.
The fact that the clergy were mainly responsible for stirring up trouble with the Fascist authorities is further shown by the false accusations contained in an article published in the Catholic journal Fides of February 1939. This article, written by an anonymous “priest and guardian of souls,” stated:
“Rutherford [the second president of the Watch Tower Society] . . . undermines the basic principles sustaining the nations and peoples. His idea is to prepare the way for an imminent world revolution during which all religions, and particularly the Catholic Church, will be overthrown together with all governments and kingdoms, so that a Utopian system of atheistic Communism can be ushered in. . . . The Jehovah’s Witness movement is an expression of atheistic Communism and an open attack on State security.”
The Fascist authorities could hardly ignore these accusations from the highly respected clergy. Jehovah’s Witnesses were therefore persecuted and accused of ‘overthrowing kingdoms and governments’ and working to establish an ‘atheistic Communist Utopia.’
THE WORK IS COMPLETELY BANNED
After receipt of this report, the Ministry for Home Affairs sent out another circular, the last of its kind, in which Jehovah’s Witnesses were clearly identified and banned. It was circular No. 441/02977 of March 13, 1940, referring to “The religious sect of ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses’ or ‘Bible Students’ and other religious sects whose principles are contrary to our institutions.” It stated:
“After the distribution of the ministerial circular No. 441/027713 of August 22, 1939, closer investigation has been made into those religious sects that are separate and distinct from the known ‘Pentecostal’ sect and whose doctrines are contrary to our State system.
“From such investigation, it has been possible to ascertain that the ‘Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society - International Bible Students’ Association - Brooklyn New York-U.S.A.’ . . . is an independent evangelical sect, commonly known as ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses’ or ‘Bible Students.’ A consideration of the statements made by many of its [members] on arrest, and an examination of the printed matter found in their possession, has enabled us clearly to delineate the characteristics of the sect. . . .
“The only law recognized by ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses’ is the law of God; however, they do admit the observance of civil law where this is not in conflict with divine law. . . .
“‘Jehovah’s Witnesses’ proclaim that both ‘Il Duce’ and Fascism originate from the Devil and that, after a period of short-lived victory, these phenomena must unfailingly meet their downfall as foretold in the book of Revelation. . . .
“No efforts should be spared, therefore, to repress the slightest manifestations of this sect’s activity. Since it is sustained by printed matter edited by the ‘Watch Tower,’ you are authorized to take vigorous measures so that such literature be confiscated at every opportunity or intercepted should it be sent through the mail.”*
BEFORE THE SPECIAL TRIBUNAL
The Fascist Special Tribunal came into being after an attempt to kill Mussolini at Bologna in October 1926. It was one of the many measures taken to nip anti-Fascist dissent in the bud. Officially known as “The Special Tribunal for the Protection of the State,” it remained in operation from 1927 to 1943, during which period it pronounced over 5,000 verdicts, including 42 death sentences (31 of which were carried out). Its headquarters were at the Palace of Justice in Rome.
On April 19, 1940, in the austere courtroom of the Palace of Justice, the judges were seated at their imposing semicircular bench under the presidency of the widely feared Tringali Casanova. The accused persons were sitting in a row on one side of the court under the surveillance of a number of carabinieri (officers). There were four women and 22 men, the latter in handcuffs. It was a repeat performance of what happened to true Christians in the days of ancient Rome.
Sister Pizzato relates: “The trial was nothing but a farce. It was over and done with in a single day and the sentences had evidently been decided upon in advance. Thinking back after all these years, I remember one incident that seems almost laughable. I was the first one to be summoned before the court, and, as a result of the nervousness I was feeling, I jumped up and darted toward the president of the court. Evidently expecting an act of violence or a stream of abuse, the carabinieri ran after me and kept me at a distance. Prince Tringali Casanova, the acting president of the court, went livid!
“The court had assigned our defense to a number of lawyers from the Rome forum. I must say they made out a good case for the defense and spoke on our behalf with such warmth that the president, with evident sarcasm, asked one of them if by any chance he had been converted to the Jehovah’s Witness religion!”
The seven defending lawyers did their best, but the brothers were inevitably found guilty. One of the lawyers had the courage to call the 26 Witnesses, “the flower of the Italian nation.” Another asked: “If the Fascist regime is as strong as it claims, why is it afraid of these people?” Yet another said: “This trial reminds me of another one held 19 centuries ago when Pilate posed the question, ‘What is truth?’” He then made a gesture in the direction of the brothers and said: “These people here are telling us the truth and yet you want to send them to prison; these good people should be highly respected for their faith.” Another lawyer declared: “Although there are 26 of them, they speak as one man because they all have the same Teacher.”—John 18:33-38.
Before the Tribunal, the brothers were courageous and strong, even though some of them had been threatened under questioning and feared they might be given the death sentence. Brother Guerino D’Angelo recalls:
“Only one of our group of 26 let himself be overwhelmed by the fear of man and compromised. He signed a declaration of submission to the Fascist State, which was read out by one of the judges. Nonetheless, he was sentenced just the same. Turning to the brothers, the judge commented: ‘This man is no good to us or to you.’ Afterward, this person left the truth and was one of the very few who did not keep integrity.”
These brothers were condemned to a total of 186 years and 10 months’ imprisonment. The individual sentences ranged from two to 11 years. The ruling of this Tribunal was final and there was no possibility of appeal. The brothers sentenced remained in prison until the Fascist regime fell. They were released, with some exceptions, after August 1943.
The volume entitled Aula IV—Tutti i processi del Tribunale Speciale fascista (Court Room IV—All the Trials of the Fascist Special Tribunal) mentions verdict No. 50 of April 19, 1940, relative to the 26 Jehovah’s Witnesses, commenting as follows:
“A religious movement that originated in the U.S.A. began to spread in Italy. Its followers, called ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses,’ underwent constant persecution from the Fascists. Nevertheless, they continued to proclaim their aversion to the war, refusing to take up arms against their fellowman and considering the Fascist regime a ‘Satanic emanation.’ The greatest wave of arrests took place in the autumn of 1939. (Formation of an association contrary to the national interest; membership of the same; propaganda; insulting the ‘duce’ and the pope.)”
Some idea of the accusations brought against the brothers can be had from the document issued to Sister Pizzato by the Procura del Re (public prosecutor’s office) of Vicenza. She had been sentenced on five counts: “Five years’ imprisonment for associating with a view to political conspiracy; one year’s imprisonment for offending the dignity and prestige of the ‘Duce’ of Fascism, Head of the Government; two years’ imprisonment for offending the Supreme Pontiff; one year’s imprisonment for offending the dignity of the Head of a Foreign State [Hitler] and two years’ imprisonment for offending the prestige of the King and Emperor.”
Since 13 of the 26 accused Witnesses were from the Abruzzi region, the book Abruzzo, un profilo storico (A Historic Outline of the Abruzzi Region), by Raffaele Colapietra (published by Rocco Carabba), declares: “[In the Abruzzi region] no single political party, not even the Communists, can boast a group so numerous and so hard hit as these meek harmless peasants from the coastal area.”
BROTHERS IN PRISON
Besides giving us an example of courage and faith, the experiences of the brothers who underwent imprisonment during the war years show that Jehovah’s loving assistance never failed them. They zealously continued to speak to others about the “good news” inside prison, and even there they underwent persecution from the clergy.
Santina Cimorosi of Roseto degli Abruzzi, who was 25 years old at the time of her arrest, relates:
“They took us away to the police station saying that we were a danger to the State because we did not agree with the war. My father [Domenico Cimorosi] was put into one cell and I was put into another. The cells were dark inside. The carabiniere switched his torch on to show me where there was a wooden bunk to sleep on. Then he shut me in. When I heard the sound of the door being locked, a wave of discomfort and fear swept over me. I began to cry. I knelt down and prayed to Jehovah out loud. Little by little my fear ebbed away and I stopped crying. Jehovah answered my prayer by sending me strength and courage, and I realized that, without his help, I was nothing at all. I passed the night in prayer and the next morning I was taken to the prison at Teramo, where I was put in a cell with my father, Caterina Di Marco and three other brothers—six of us in all.
“From time to time, we were questioned to find out who our ‘leaders’ were. They often asked me, ‘Are you still a Jehovah’s Witness?’ and naturally I always answered, ‘Yes!’ They tried to frighten me by saying I would never be let out of prison anymore, but I trusted in Jehovah and his power to help me. Later on, an altar was placed in front of my cell door. They had it put there especially for my benefit, and for several weeks the priest continued to say Mass there. The door of my cell would be left open, either to see if I wanted to go back to the Catholic Church, or in the hope that I would disturb the service and merit a longer sentence. But I stayed quietly in my cell as though nothing were going on outside and thanked Jehovah for helping me to act wisely. Seeing that I did not react, they removed the altar sometime afterward and the priest did not come anymore.”
Brother Dante Rioggi, who had learned the truth from Brother Marcello Martinelli, related: “In prison I was not allowed to write to my relatives or anyone else. My literature, money and wristwatch were taken away. From November  to the end of February, I shivered with cold, because not only was the cell unheated but the window had no glass in it. I was not even given a change of clothing, and soon I was reduced to a miserable, repulsive creature afflicted with parasites. Two or three times I was visited by priests who assured me that if I were to return to my parents’ religion I would be freed. I applied to the questura [police headquarters] and obtained a Bible. Thereafter I drew courage from the example of faithful men who had kept their integrity even at the risk of their lives and had been blessed by Jehovah. Prayer was another means of strengthening my faith in Jehovah’s promises.”
Brother Domenico Giorgini, a brother who has been faithful in the service for over 40 years and is still serving as an elder in a congregation in the province of Teramo, relates: “It was October 6, 1939. While we were in the vineyard gathering the grape harvest I saw a truck with two carabiniere officers pull up before my house. They took me back to Teramo prison, and there I stayed for five months. Then I was sentenced to three years’ exile on the island of Ventotene. There I found myself in company with five other brothers and about 600 political prisoners. In this latter group there were a number of well-known political personalities, including a man who later became president of the Republic, and I had the privilege of witnessing to them about God’s kingdom. Since the Fascist government considered many of these political prisoners particularly dangerous, the island was kept under strict surveillance. It was patrolled by a motor launch armed with a machine gun ready to open fire on anyone trying to escape.”
SISTERS IN PRISON
Sister Mariantonia Di Censo, sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment by the Special Tribunal, narrates: “I shall never forget the words of the examining magistrate. He said: ‘I have read their literature to find out what it was all about and I have questioned the 26 accused. They are all coherent with their beliefs and ready to accuse themselves to save their companions. The situation is not so serious as it was thought to be. The clergy have made too much fuss over the matter.’”
Sister Di Censo served her sentence at Perugia. Another sister imprisoned at Perugia was Albina Cuminetti, who died faithful to the heavenly calling in 1962. In a written account we are told: “Once another prisoner asked Albina what she had done. Albina replied, ‘I haven’t done anything. We are in here because we refuse to kill our fellowman.’
“‘What!’ the woman exclaimed, ‘You are in here because you refuse to kill? How many years have they given you?’
“‘Eleven,’ replied Sister Cuminetti.
“At this the other cried: ‘What next? They have given you 11 years for refusing to kill your fellowman, and yet they have given me 10 years for killing my husband. That’s the limit. Either I am crazy or they are!’”
“One day,” the account adds, “Albina had the opportunity of witnessing to the prison governor in the presence of a nun charged with the surveillance of the prisoners.”
LETTER FROM THE PRISON GOVERNOR
In 1953, when Sister Cuminetti and the other three sisters with whom she had been in prison met at an assembly, they wrote a letter to the prison governor at Perugia. In the meantime he had been transferred to Alessandria, but he eventually received the letter and sent back this significant reply dated January 28, 1954:
“Thank you for the kind things you said about me in your letter. You had all been sentenced for an nonexistent crime and I am very happy to know that, in the very city where you were brought for trial, Rome, you have been able to meet together again, this time to sing the praises of your God Jehovah at your assembly.
“If you have the occasion to see or correspond with the other ladies who suffered so much for the God in whom they believed and continue to believe, please remember me to them. I shall always remember you and admire your faith and strength of character.
“Thanking you for the book you sent me, I remain,
Dr. Antonio Paolorosso,
Governor in Chief of the Alessandria Penal Establishments”
“The tested quality of your faith,” wrote the apostle Peter, is, “of much greater value than gold.” (1 Pet. 1:7) The brothers who maintained their integrity under persecution recognize that these difficulties served to strengthen them.
NEUTRALITY A PROTECTION
As in other countries, maintaining neutrality has served as a protection for the brothers in Italy. For example, Aldo Fornerone, a faithful 76-year-old brother imprisoned and sent into exile during World War II, relates this experience:
“Although the Nazis were in retreat, they were still holding the area where I lived, and during a punitive expedition three German soldiers burst into our house. At a glance the officer saw a Bible on the table and a picture on the wall depicting the scene of Isaiah 11:6-9 with a wolf, lambs, a lion, a goat and a calf, all together with a little child. In German he asked, ‘Bibelforscher?’ or, ‘Bible Students?’ I nodded my head.
“Then, in French, he asked my wife to give them something to eat and gave orders to his men to shut the door and stay inside the house. Again in French he explained: ‘I have told my men we shall be all right here because you are Jehovah’s Witnesses, the only people we can trust.’ He also told us he had relatives in Germany who had been sent to a concentration camp because they were Witnesses. While these soldiers ate, shooting could be heard outside, many houses were set on fire and numerous civilians were killed. At the end of the punitive expedition these soldiers left the village, and the officer shook hands with us as he said good-bye.
“Not long afterward the commander of the Italian resistance group arrived with 16 of his men. ‘Why didn’t they take you away with the rest of the civilians?’ he asked. He knew me and also was aware of the fact that I had been in prison and in exile because I would not take part in the war. They all listened as I witnessed to them, and they accepted the booklet Comfort for the People. After having partaken of something to eat and drink, they also went on their way. The commander said: ‘If everyone were like you we wouldn’t be hunted down like wild animals, and there wouldn’t be such trouble in the world.’ This experience made me appreciate more than ever before the value of maintaining one’s neutrality.”
HELP FROM THE BROTHERS
Many brothers who were sent to prison left their wives and small children at home. Did anyone help them? Vincenzo Artusi related:
“When I was exiled to another part of Italy for one year, I was very worried about my wife and three small children. I was also afraid that the clergy might take advantage of my absence to entice my wife away from the truth because she had only been interested for a short time. But Jehovah was watching over them, and with the help of the brothers who still had their freedom my family was sustained materially and spiritually. My wife made a final break with the Catholic Church as a result of the brothers’ loving visits, which were also spiritually upbuilding.”
THE WORK CONTINUES IN SPITE OF THE WAR
The fall of Fascism came about in 1943, and the majority of the brothers were released from prison afterward. Nevertheless, the war was still raging throughout the country, and while the Allies advanced from the south, the Nazi troops slowly retreated to the north, leaving death and destruction behind them.
Even during the darkest period of the war, efforts were made to reestablish contact with the brothers who were still in their homes and enjoying relative freedom of movement. Agostino Fossati, a brother who was faithful until his death in 1980, had been expelled from Switzerland because of the truth. In 1940 and 1941 he did all he could to correspond with certain brothers, sending them various publications, including Watchtower articles that he translated from French. He was arrested in January 1942 and sent into exile.
Sometime afterward, Brother Narciso Riet took refuge in Italy. Born in Germany of Italian parents from the province of Udine, he had lived at Mülheim an der Ruhr until the Gestapo discovered his activity of introducing clandestine copies of The Watchtower into the concentration camps. When it became clear that it was dangerous for him to stay on any longer, a brother working on the railways helped him to reach his wife who had recently gone to live in Italy at Cernobbio on Lake Como, near the Swiss border.
The Swiss branch assigned Brother Riet the task of translating the Watchtower magazines from German into Italian and then forwarding copies to the brothers. To ensure that the police would not intercept them in the mail, deliveries were to be made by hand to brothers not too far away in northern and central Italy.
Brother Riet bought a typewriter and immediately set to work to translate the main articles of the magazines. He was helped by Brother Agostino Fossati, who had returned from his year in exile, and later by Sister Maria Pizzato when she was released in 1943. The magazines were introduced into Italy by underground methods. After translation, copies were run off on a duplicator and given to Brother Fossati, who was in charge of deliveries. He traveled to Pescara, Trent, Sondrio, Aosta and Pinerolo to take this spiritual food to the brothers, under constant risk of arrest and imprisonment.
After the arrival of Sister Pizzato, the Nazis, helped by their Fascist henchmen, found out where Brother Riet was living, and, as Sister Pizzato relates: “One day at the end of December, his house was surrounded, and an SS officer and his men burst in. Narciso was arrested and kept at gunpoint while the soldiers searched the house. They soon found the ‘criminal’ evidence they were looking for—two Bibles and a few letters! Narciso was sent on a long journey back to Germany, where he was imprisoned in Dachau concentration camp. There he was horribly tortured. For a long time he was kept chained up like a dog in a low narrow cell, where he was forced to remain curled up day and night. After much suffering inflicted in one camp after another, he was put to death with other unfortunate prisoners before the Allies occupied Berlin. His remains were never found.”
Sister Pizzato continued the work begun by Brother Riet, and when Brother Fossati was arrested again she also had to deliver the spiritual food herself. After making about 70 copies of each translated article, she delivered them personally, as long as it was possible to travel.
When all the lines of communication had been interrupted by bombing, she decided to send the translation of the main article in The Watchtower of January 1, 1945 (English ed.) by mail to brothers at Castione Andevenno, in the province of Sondrio. The article was intercepted and handed over to the police, so Sister Pizzato was taken in for questioning once again. She was, however, allowed to go home afterward, and she quickly decided to take the opportunity of leaving the area so that others would not be involved. That same night she destroyed the evidence of her activity from December 1943 to March 1945, and she was helped by friends to reach Switzerland, together with Brother Riet’s widow.
At the end of the war all refugees had to return to Italy, and the two sisters went back to Cernobbio. The Swiss branch gave Sister Pizzato the job of establishing fresh contacts with the brothers, now that Fascism had been definitely swept away and the war had ended. The brothers had been severely tried, but they were grateful to Jehovah and full of zeal. Very few of them had fallen victim to the Devil’s snares. Now a large doorway to vast activity was open before them.—1 Cor. 16:9.
WORK REORGANIZED AND BRANCH OFFICE OPENED
Toward the end of 1945, Brother N. H. Knorr, then the president of the Watch Tower Society, and his secretary M. G. Henschel, made a visit to Europe. The Swiss branch invited Sister Pizzato to go to Berne to give Brother Knorr a report on the activity in Italy. With regard to that meeting Sister Pizzato writes:
“Brother Knorr realized the immediate necessity of having booklets printed in Italian so that the preaching work could be started up again. To this end, while we were waiting for literature to arrive from the United States, he left instructions that it should be arranged for certain booklets to be printed either at Milan or at Como. He also told me that, although my help in these matters was much appreciated, it could only be regarded as a temporary arrangement and that it was already planned to send a brother from the United States to take charge of the work as soon as possible.”
Brother Umberto Vannozzi, a young man residing in Switzerland but with Italian nationality also, was present at that meeting. He was assigned for a time to visit small groups of brothers to strengthen and instruct them in Jehovah’s way.
As soon as printing facilities were found at Como, 20,000 copies of the booklets Freedom in the New World and ‘The Meek Inherit the Earth’ were printed, as well as 25,000 copies of “Be Glad, Ye Nations” and 50,000 copies of The Joy of All the People.
At that time Cernobbio was a small town of about 3,000 inhabitants and hardly suitable as a center of operations in view of the hoped-for expansion. For this reason, in the spring of 1946 Brother Knorr instructed the brothers to find a place suitable to house a small Bethel family of six or seven persons. With the help of a brother from the Berne office, a six-room house was bought at 20 Via Vegezio in Milan, and we transferred the center of our newly established activity there. This took place in July 1946. That year saw an average of 95 Kingdom publishers, with a peak of 120 from 35 small congregations. This was the basis for our future expansion.
In October 1946, Brother George Fredianelli arrived from the United States. In 1943 he had graduated in the first class of the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead and had since served as a circuit overseer. He was now assigned to visit the brothers in our only existing circuit, which went from the Alps down to the island of Sicily.
In January 1947, two other missionaries, Joseph Romano and his wife Angela, arrived. Since Brother Romano had been appointed to be branch overseer, he immediately set to work in the new Bethel at Milan. A few months later, yet another couple of Gilead graduates were sent over. They were Carmelo and Constance Benanti. Then, on March 14, 1949, it was a bonanza when another 28 missionaries arrived in the country! They really were one of Jehovah’s provisions to start things rolling with a view to expansion. At first they were assigned to groups working in five cities: Milan, Genoa, Rome, Naples and Palermo.
In 1946, when things got off to a new start after the war, there were little more than 100 publishers scattered here and there throughout the country. They were out of contact with one another and the organization. No regular meetings were being held, although the publishers did their best to meet together anywhere they could, in private homes and even in cow stalls. They would read one publication or another, looking up the scriptures and commenting on them as well as they could. For the most part, the preaching work consisted of speaking to friends or relatives, and the theocratic structure of the Christian congregation was almost unknown.
“It was only in about 1944,” wrote Domenico Cimorosi, “that we learned that assignments of responsibility should be allocated theocratically and not by common vote. Since we did not know how to go about things, we thought we would adopt the method used to select Matthias. (Acts 1:23-26) We wrote the names of 10 brothers, chosen from among the older ones in the group, on pieces of paper that were then folded and placed in an urn. A little girl then took the papers out one by one, and the first name extracted was to be that of the overseer. I was chosen in this way, and this is how we carried on until the arrival of our first circuit overseer.”
The brothers used to build themselves up spiritually with the scarce means at their disposal, and evidently the holy spirit compensated for a great deal. Now, however, the time had arrived for Jehovah to ‘speed up’ the increase of his people.—Isa. 60:22.
FIRST POSTWAR ASSEMBLY
After the opening of the branch office at Milan, Brother Knorr decided to pay us a visit to give added impetus to the newly organized activity. In connection with his visit, a one-day assembly was arranged. It was to be the first assembly of the postwar period. All the brothers and interested persons were looking forward to it and the meeting with Brothers Knorr and Henschel.
On May 16, 1947, they all arrived at Cinema Zara, where the assembly was to be held. At the morning and afternoon sessions 239 persons were present from various parts of Italy, even far-off Sicily, and the number of those then baptized was 31, of whom 13 were sisters. It is surprising to note that this latter group included some of those sentenced by the Fascist Tribunal and who, because of their limited knowledge of Christian requirements, had yet to be baptized. The public talk, held at 8:30 in the evening on the theme “The Joy of all the People,” climaxed the proceedings. Seven hundred were present.
The brothers had to make great sacrifices to go to that assembly, not only because they were so poor that traveling and overnight expenses seemed very high, but also because the railways were still disrupted by the aftermath of the war. Teresa Russo, an elderly sister from Cerignola, narrates:
“We were so poor at that time we did not have the money to go to the assembly. Where were we to get it? I remember, as though it were yesterday, how we began to put our sugar aside instead of using it. Then, we would find a way of selling this reserve to pay for our train tickets and overnight expenses. We filled our cases with sugar and hung sacks of it around our waists, rather like hunters who carry their food in this way. We all looked very fat. Nevertheless, this is how seven of us were able to go to Milan and have the joyful experience of seeing so many brothers there.”
Some of those present still remember their feelings when they found themselves freely assembling with brothers they had previously met in prison or in exile. Aldo Fornerone, who was present at that assembly, says:
“I shall never forget how moved I was to meet and embrace those dear brothers from central and southern Italy who had been in prison or in exile with me. Only Jehovah knows how grateful we were to be able to meet together in a country where freedom of worship had been reestablished. Our gratitude went out to Him, the great God, Jehovah, for his intervention in favor of his people.”
During the assembly Brother Knorr outlined a program for theocratic expansion in the country. From the month of June onward a monthly sheet of congregation instructions, called the Informant, was to be issued. Groups and congregations would be visited every six months by a circuit overseer, and circuit assemblies would also be held.
The Informant of June 1947 was the first number to come out, and for a few months it was run off on a duplicator. The first issue, commenting on the program of activity announced by the Society’s president, concluded with this rousing exhortation: “So, then, brothers, let us go forward in the hope that, here in Italy, the true God may have a flock of consecrated persons singing his praises together with his people in other nations!”
CIRCUIT ACTIVITY BEGINS
There can be no doubt that the expansion of Kingdom interests was greatly encouraged by the activity of the traveling overseers who visited the congregations to upbuild the brothers, teaching them theocratic principles and training them in the preaching work. Do you remember Umberto Vannozzi who met Brother Knorr and Sister Maria Pizzato in 1945? During the 1930’s he had carried on pioneer service in France, Belgium and Holland, largely underground. After meeting Brother Knorr, he went on to visit the brothers scattered in various parts of Italy, to reestablish contact with them before the arrival of the missionaries. So it was that during the months of May and June 1946 he visited the largest existing groups of brothers.
The first appointed circuit overseer, however, was Brother George Fredianelli, who began his visits in November 1946. He was accompanied the first time around by Brother Vannozzi.
In 1947 the second circuit was formed and originally assigned to Brother Giuseppe Tubini. When this brother entered Bethel service a few months later, Brother Piero Gatti took his place. Both these brothers had come to a knowledge of the truth in Switzerland in one of the many refugee camps full of thousands of Italian soldiers who had fled to escape the Nazis. Many more brothers who had learned the truth abroad came back in the immediate postwar period to bring the Kingdom message to Italy. After 33 years Brother Tubini and Brother Gatti are still in the full-time service, the former at Bethel and the latter in the circuit work.
BROTHER VANNOZZI’S TRAVELS
An account of Brother Vannozzi’s travels will help us to realize the many discomforts traveling overseers had to put up with in those days. He wrote:
“I left Como and, after all kinds of adventures, I finally reached Foggia in the region of Puglia. I looked around for the station, but all in vain—it had been razed to the ground in a bombing raid. I took a train for Cerignola, where I was directed for my first visit, but at a certain point I was told that the train did not go any farther and I had to proceed by truck. I arrived at my destination at seven o’clock in the evening of the day after, very tired and dusty. In spite of everything, I felt rewarded when, at the meeting, a brother thanked Jehovah in prayer that after all these years of waiting, they had finally been visited by someone from the organization. The brothers cried at the end of the visit and I was also deeply moved.
“I traveled throughout Italy on roads still damaged due to the ravages of war, and I never saw a bridge left standing. Twenty-two thousand bridges had been blown up, and those that could be crossed were those that had been temporarily repaired by the Allies. I saw hundreds of burned-out railway carriages and locomotives, and all the towns had suffered bomb damage.
“I left Cerignola at six in the morning to visit the group at Pietrelcina, in the province of Benevento. I arrived at Benevento at seven in the evening, after having sat for three hours on my luggage in a cattle wagon! When I arrived at the station, I waited as agreed with a Watchtower magazine in my hand so that the brothers would recognize me. But nobody turned up. What should I do?
“Pietrelcina was still about 12 kilometers [7 mi.] away, and at that time in the evening there was no means of getting there. As I was standing there waiting, a man with a horse-drawn two-wheeled buggy offered me a lift. It was 9:30 in the evening and I started to look for the house of Brother Michele Cavalluzzo in the dark. It was no easy undertaking. But Jehovah’s angel was watching over me and did not leave me in despair. Finally, I found the house and Brother Michele Cavalluzzo joyfully had a meal quickly prepared for me. Was I hungry! I hadn’t eaten anything since the previous evening. I was also very tired and longing to go to bed, but dear Brother Cavalluzzo had many questions to ask me and wanted to tell me, from beginning to end, how he had come into the truth. So we stayed up till midnight. The next morning the telegram announcing my arrival was delivered, but I had won the race—I got there first!
“Nearly every evening about 35 people attended the meetings, although there were almost no baptized brothers. I left Pietrelcina for Foggia at 4 a.m. I climbed up on a horse-drawn cart driven by one of the brothers and accompanied by the overseer, Brother Donato Iadanza. Although we were no longer in the 1920’s, this was the commonest means of transport immediately after the war. We arrived at Benevento at 6 a.m. but, alas, the train had already left.
“At this point someone suggested I talk with a train engineer who was taking a locomotive through to Foggia. I caught up with him as he was grumbling to some other people, who were also trying to get a ride. I heard him say he had no room for passengers. In spite of this we all climbed aboard, and Brother Iadanza just managed to run after the engine in time to pass me my case. I squeezed into the narrow space inside the locomotive with about 10 other people, and there we stayed, packed like sardines for the whole five-hour journey. We were all sweating because of the heat and lack of air and were abundantly singed by the sparks flying out from underneath the boiler. When we arrived near Foggia, the engineer stopped the locomotive in the middle of the countryside, and we all got off.
“After that I visited the groups at Spoltore, Pianella, Montesilvano, Roseto degli Abruzzi and Villa Vomano. My last visit of the series was to Faenza, where about 50 persons were attending the meetings. I encouraged the younger ones to take up the pioneer service, and in my report on the group I wrote: ‘Let us hope that one day some of these young people will decide to enroll in the ranks of those carrying on this privileged service.’”
CIRCUIT ACTIVITY OF BROTHER FREDIANELLI
Brother George Fredianelli, now a member of the Branch Committee, recalls the following events from his circuit activity:
“When I called on brothers I would find relatives and friends all waiting for me and anxious to listen. Even on return visits people called in their relatives. In actual fact, the circuit overseer didn’t give just one public talk a week, but one a few hours long at every return visit. At these calls there might even be 30 persons present and sometimes many more gathered together to listen attentively.
“The aftermath of the war often made life in the circuit work difficult. The brothers, like most other people, were very poor, but their loving-kindness made up for it. They wholeheartedly shared the little food they had, and often they would insist that I sleep on the bed while they lay down on the floor without covers because they were too poor to have any extra ones. Sometimes I had to sleep in the cow stall on a heap of straw or dried corn leaves.
“On one occasion, I arrived at the station of Caltanissetta in Sicily with a face as black as a chimney sweep’s from the soot flying out of the steam engine in front. Although it had taken me 14 hours to travel about 80 to 100 kilometers [50 to 60 mi.], my spirits rose on arrival, as I conjured up visions of a nice bath followed by a well-earned rest in some hotel or other. However, it was not to be. Caltanissetta was teeming with people for the celebration of St. Michael’s Day, and every hotel in town was packed full of priests and nuns. Finally I went back to the station with the idea of lying down on a bench that I had seen in the waiting room, but even that hope vanished when I found the station closed after the arrival of the last evening train. The only place I found to sit down and rest a while was the steps in front of the station.”
With the help of the circuit overseers the congregations began to hold regular Watchtower and book studies. Furthermore, as we improved the quality of service meetings, the brothers became more and more qualified in the preaching and teaching work.
SPIRITUAL CONDITION OF THE CERIGNOLA GROUP
Do you remember the Cerignola group, the one formed as a result of the preaching done by Professor Banchetti? “The spiritual condition of this group was not as it should be,” says Brother Fredianelli. He explains:
“There was a strange situation existing there. The congregation, if I can so describe the group, was principally made up of Protestants and Communists claiming to be Jehovah’s Witnesses. I had to reason with them for hours to convince them of the need to break away from false religion and to keep a neutral attitude toward politics.
“During a subsequent visit I gave the Memorial discourse, clearly explaining that only the anointed class could partake of the emblems. Everything went well until after the meeting. As soon as it ended, one of the group who considered himself in charge, openly opposed me, maintaining that what I had said about the emblems was not true. The perplexity that this aroused in the group was evident, so I thought it best to call upon those present to make an immediate decision. I said: ‘Those for the truth and Jehovah’s Witnesses follow me outside! Those against the truth can remain.’
“To my relief nearly everybody followed me outside. Only three or four stayed with the opposer, who was a prominent leader of the local Communist party. Then, with the exception of very few, those present followed me into another room and afterward continued to progress in the truth.”
FIRST CIRCUIT ASSEMBLY
In September 1947 the first circuit assembly was held at Roseto degli Abruzzi. It should have been held at Pescara, but there, as a result of clergy opposition, permission to use the hall was canceled. Undaunted, the brothers met in a private cul-de-sac that could be reached only through Brother Domenico Cimorosi’s garden. The road was closed and covered with tarpaulins, and a table was placed under a shady canopy of vines to serve as the speaker’s podium. About 100 happy brothers attended.
Usually, in the early 1950’s, assemblies would open with only 40 to 60 present, while at the public talk there would generally be an average attendance of 200 persons. The brothers thought it was marvelous to have such a number!
The work continued to progress, and in 1954 Brother George Fredianelli was assigned to work as district overseer.
In January 1945, the Society launched a public talk campaign in most countries. In Italy it could not be carried out until a few years later. The Informant of February 1948 announced the beginning of the campaign on March 28, and during the following month 13 public talks were given. Several years were to pass before they could be held regularly in every congregation.
Since it was evident that the brothers were in need of training, the Theocratic Ministry School was established in 1948. At first, the brothers held these meetings as best they could because there were not suitable publications available in Italian. In congregations where someone could understand English, the lessons were translated from Theocratic Aid to Kingdom Publishers. But in 1948 there were very few brothers who knew English. Later, toward the end of 1950, the congregations began to receive duplicated sheets containing the lessons from the book “Equipped for Every Good Work,” which helped considerably to improve the quality of the School.
In 1956 further progress was made. The Watchtower of January 1, 1956 (Italian ed.), began the serial publication of the lessons in the “Equipped” book, while Awake! of January 8, 1956 (Italian ed.), began a similar series from Qualified to Be Ministers. The “Equipped” book was eventually printed in Italian in 1960, followed by Qualified to Be Ministers in 1963, so that newly associated brothers could also follow the program and prepare for the meetings.
BRANCH OFFICE MOVED TO ROME
Since Milan is situated in the extreme north of Italy, it was felt it would be easier to cope with the growing activity if the branch office was moved to a more central locality. Rome was the obvious choice because, as capital of the country, it is also the center of national administration. A three-story house with basement was acquired in September 1948. Besides having a dozen rooms and modern facilities, it was also situated in a very attractive area with trees and gardens at Via Monte Maloia. The office was transferred there the same month. Later, the Milan property was sold, but the house at Via Monte Maloia still belongs to the Watch Tower Society and is fully utilized to this day.
The translation of the book “Let God Be True” was completed at the new Bethel and that publication came off the press the following year, in 1949. It dealt with doctrinal points that were very interesting to people with a religious background, and it has helped thousands of persons to find the truth.
CONSPIRACY TO EXPEL THE MISSIONARIES
In this country, where people had never heard anything about the Bible for centuries, the missionary activity has borne abundant fruitage. As has been mentioned, the largest group of missionaries came to Italy in the spring of 1949, and congregations sprang up everywhere they were assigned to work. People really were “thirsting” for God’s Word.
Apart from the usual problems associated with settling in a foreign country and learning the language, our missionaries had to overcome a much more difficult obstacle. This was the obtaining of permission from the authorities to stay in the country after their passport visas had expired. The branch office had filed a request at the Ministry for Home Affairs for permits for the year 1949. Instead of the permits, like a bolt from the blue, the missionaries received an order to leave the country, and only after much insistence were they permitted to stay on until December 31, 1949. By that date, they were all to have left the country. This would have been a serious blow to their activity, which had got off to such a promising start!
Why had the missionaries been ordered to leave Italy? Who was behind it all? The maneuvers going on behind the scenes were uncovered by a Yearbook (English ed.) report of 1951, also printed in The Watchtower (Italian ed.) of March 1, 1951. It stated:
“Even before the twenty-eight missionaries had arrived in Italy in March, 1949, the office had made regular application requesting one-year visas for all of them. At first the officials indicated that the government looked at the matter from an economic point of view and hence the situation seemed quite assuring for our missionaries. After six months we suddenly received a communication from the Ministry of the Interior ordering our brethren to leave the country by the end of the month, with less than a week’s notice. Naturally, we refused to accept this order without a legal battle, and every effort was made to get at the bottom of the matter to find out who was responsible for this foul blow. By contacting individuals who worked in the Ministry we learned that our files revealed no complaints by the police or other authorities and that, therefore, only some ‘higher up’ could be responsible. Who could it be? A friend in the Ministry informed us that the action against our missionaries was quite strange, since the government’s policy was very lenient and favorable as regards American citizens.
“Maybe the embassy might be of help. Personal visits at the embassy and numerous conferences with the ambassador’s secretary all proved futile. It was most evident, even as American officials admitted, that some one who wielded much power in the Italian government did not want Watch Tower missionaries preaching in Italy. Against this strong power American diplomats only shrugged their shoulders and said, ‘Well, you know, the Catholic Church is the state religion here and they practically do what they please.’
“From September to December we stalled the Ministry’s action against the missionaries. Finally, a deadline was set; the missionaries had to be out of the country by December 31. There was nothing left to do but comply with these orders. We sent the missionaries into the Italian-speaking section of Switzerland. In a few months the entire group was back in Italy, preaching once more.
“This time they were assigned to different cities, but, then, this would only make the work spread out all the better.
“And what about the good-will interest that the missionaries had found in the previous cities assigned? The ‘sheep’ were not to be abandoned. Brother Knorr approved the selection of new Italian special pioneers to occupy the homes of the missionaries and carry on the good work. No time was lost in accomplishing the transition and the work did not suffer. The result of this incident was that the Word went into new virgin fields.”
How did the missionaries manage to get back into the country after their expulsion? They did this by availing themselves of a three-month tourist visa, which meant that every three months they had to go abroad and come back into Italy a few days later—each time with the fear that the visa might not be renewed. In certain towns the clergy managed to identify them and put pressure on the local authorities to have them sent away. In these cases they were obliged to move somewhere else, always on the alert and acting as cautiously as possible.
The clergy had made their calculations: “Get rid of the missionaries and their little group of followers will melt away like snow in the sunshine.” What they did not realize was that they could not stand in the way of God’s purpose nor combat his irresistible power to carry it out.
EXPERIENCES IN THE MISSIONARY WORK
Carmelo and Constance Benanti have been in the missionary service in Italy for over 33 years. Brother Benanti relates:
“While we were at Brescia my wife concentrated her efforts in an area where the people were under the influence of a nearby religious institution and one of the friars in particular. In spite of this influence 16 persons accepted the truth. Many years later, my wife and I returned to Brescia to visit the brothers we had helped to come to a knowledge of the truth. While we were having a meal with a group of brothers, they asked us to tell them how the work first started in the area. So my wife told them about one occasion when the friar encouraged a crowd of boys to harass her. They were hidden behind the wall of a bombed house ready to jump out and throw stones at her. Realizing this, she prayed to Jehovah that she should not come to any harm. At this point, an overseer in one of the Brescia congregations said: ‘Sister, I was one of those boys. Of course, I was very young at the time and the friar had promised us some sweets if we threw stones at you. We didn’t know ourselves why we didn’t do it in the end.’”
Another missionary narrated: “While I was at Naples I was once taken for quite a well-to-do person on account of my proper dress. As I was walking along the street I realized a man was following me, probably with the idea of robbing me. I decided to turn around and speak to him about the truth. He was taken by surprise at this and was very struck by the message—in fact he eventually accepted the truth. I learned later that he had indeed intended to rob me. Naturally, when he opened his heart to the truth, he changed his ways. This ex-thief became a special pioneer and was faithful to Jehovah until his death.”
THE FIRST MEETING HALLS
A brief description of the places where the brothers used to meet together during the early postwar years will help you to appreciate how the work has progressed in this country since then. At one time almost all the Kingdom Halls were in private homes. One of the reasons for this was that the clergy used to intimidate the owners of suitable buildings so that they would rarely agree to rent them to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Brother William Wengert, a Gilead graduate, now in the district work, relates:
“In those days we often had our halls in the cities in basements. There was no central heating and some halls did not even have a toilet. Instead of electric lighting, we often had to make do with two oil lamps, one on the platform and one for the audience. Yet, when I think back I realize that, at the time, we accepted these things as being quite normal, and, in compensation, the brothers were always happy and full of warm love for one another. I was particularly struck with how loudly the songs were sung, and I must say the Italians sing with gusto. Jehovah has blessed the work in this country, providing very nice halls where the brothers can now meet together to praise his holy name.”
Although they had to be satisfied with makeshift halls, those dear brothers of the 1950’s were a happy crowd and showed great appreciation for the meetings. This is borne out by what Brother Nicola Magni has to say: “Often the lectern was an upturned cardboard box on a kitchen table, but it worked. The joy of the brothers present shone out of their eyes and flashed in their vivid glances across the dim, lamp-lit room.”
As a result of the conditions often existing in meeting places, unusual situations sometimes occurred. Brother Francesco Bontempi, a traveling overseer, recalls one of the first Kingdom Halls at Milan and says:
“Although the Kingdom Hall was in a basement it was very clean inside. One evening the meeting was already under way when we had an unusual visitor—a very tiny mouse! It came into the hall and climbed up on the chair of a rather plump sister who was paying rapt attention to the program. It came to a halt near one of the rungs of the chair and sat there for a few interminable minutes. I dared not intervene because I didn’t want to interrupt the meeting, and I could just imagine what the sister’s reaction would be! Finally, the mouse skirted around the chair, just missing the sister’s feet and silently disappeared—much to my relief. But in spite of these small inconveniences the congregation displayed much brotherly love and zeal for the service!”
According to the 1975 Yearbook (English ed.), it is thought that the first Kingdom Hall built by the brothers in the United States was that of Roseto in Pennsylvania, in 1927, inaugurated by a public talk given by Brother Giovanni DeCecca. By a curious coincidence, the first hall built by the brothers in Italy was also at a place called Roseto, Roseto degli Abruzzi. It was completed in 1953, 26 years after its American forerunner.
THE CLERGY STIR UP MORE TROUBLE
The freedom now enjoyed in Italy goes back to the important date of December 27, 1947, when the Constitution of the Italian Republic went into force. The Constitution recognized basic rights directly pertinent to our work of announcing Jehovah’s kingdom and which had been ruthlessly trampled underfoot during the dictatorship.
In spite of the new Constitution, however, difficulties were not yet over for Jehovah’s Witnesses. Although the Catholic hierarchy no longer had a dictatorship to lean upon, it could still boast powerful connections with the most important political party in the country. The clergy did their best to suffocate Kingdom interests by appealing to that body of Fascist law that was contrary to the Constitution and that had not yet been abolished.
Sometimes priests stirred up mobs of fanatics against the brothers while they were at meetings or in the field ministry. For example, in an article entitled “A Priest Stirs Up a Mob of Women and Children Against ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses’ at Molfetta,” the daily newspaper L’Unità of September 22, 1954, said:
“The religious fanaticism stirred up by a priest [name and address given] against honest citizens, whose only fault is that of professing a different religion from that of the above-named cleric, is of a particularly serious nature . . .
“A few days ago the hardworking and orderly town of Molfetta witnessed a most disgusting scene of religious persecution, worthy of the most obscure period of the Inquisition. About ten of the townspeople were met together as usual at no. 7 Via Zuppetta when the priest [name given] came along chanting hymns and followed by a mob of women, children and youths. He then gave the signal to start a disorderly uproar that went on for over two hours. The demonstration included a constant hail of stones against the doors and windows of the meeting place, accompanied by rowdiness and the shouting of threats and abuse from the crowd. . . .
“Obliged to come out into the open to avoid the worst, these people were subjected to ridicule, insults and threats and then surrounded by the unruly women and children. They were punched and hit by stones before they managed to reach the police station, not only to obtain protection but also to ask that the instigators of this unlawful aggression be punished. However, the official in charge, obviously sympathizing with the other side, had no intention of intervening to guarantee respect for the law and constitutional rights. So instigators and perpetrators went unpunished with the tacit approval of those whose duty it should be to safeguard the basic rights of the individual and personal safety. In this particular case these rights were trampled underfoot and violated in the most vile and degrading manner.”
The same newspaper, in its issue of January 3, 1959, published an article entitled “Outbreak of Religious Intolerance Against ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses’ at Lapio.” What had happened this time? On December 29, 1958, two publishers, Antonio Puglielli and Francesco Vitelli, were preaching the “good news” at Lapio, a small town in the province of Avellino. At about eleven o’clock in the morning they were confronted by a mob of youths and children led by the local Catholic priest who began shouting, “Go away!” and then, “You are ignorant good-for-nothing peddlers of lies! You don’t understand the Bible. You just ruin the flock.”
Since the mob evidently meant business, the two brothers took refuge in the town hall, and the priest followed them up the stairs to the upper floor where the mayor intervened to protect them. What about the other brothers preaching in the town? The two brothers declared: “Accompanied by municipal guards we went to the part of the town where the others were working. We found them surrounded by a crowd led by a threatening priest and it was only with some difficulty that we were able to free them and get them back to the bus that was to take us away. Once we were on the bus the priest stood in front of it so that it could not leave and tried to incite the crowd to further violence. Fortunately the people did not obey anymore.”
These are just a few of the clergy-inspired incidents. For obvious reasons, the newspapers that denounced these acts were usually controlled by the political opposition, while those controlled by the Catholic majority usually passed them over without comment.
This persistent opposition by the Catholic Church is hardly surprising. Rather, it is consistent with the attitude she has generally maintained when dealing with other religions. A clear delineation of this policy is given by “Father” Cavalli in the Jesuit semimonthly, Civiltà Cattolica of March 27, 1948:
“The Catholic Church is convinced of her divine right, as the one true church, to claim freedom of action for herself alone, so that this privilege be reserved exclusively for truth and be denied to error. As for other religions, the Church will never take up the literal sword against them but she will make use of legitimate channels and worthy means to see that they are not allowed to spread their false doctrines. Consequently, in a predominantly Catholic state the Church will insist that erroneous beliefs be denied legal recognition and that, if certain religious minorities persist, they should be allowed a mere de facto existence and be denied the possibility of spreading their beliefs. In cases where existing circumstances render a stringent application of this principle impossible, either due to government hostility or the numerical consistency of dissident groups, the Church will try to obtain the greatest concessions for herself and will tolerate the lawful existence of other cults as a minor evil. In some countries, Catholics will themselves be forced to sustain the absolute right to freedom of religion and resign themselves to coexistence with other cults where they alone should have the right to thrive . . .” (Italics ours)
In other words, the Catholic clergy clearly says to those like Jehovah’s Witnesses, ‘If we had our way we would get rid of you.’ But Jehovah has not permitted this opposition to prevail against the people who have ‘come to know his name.’—Ps. 91:14.
EFFORTS TO DISTURB ASSEMBLIES
The clergy did everything within its power to disturb our peaceful activity, adopting various means to interrupt our assemblies. For example, priests would infiltrate the audience with hecklers, usually young people. These would go inside and sit quietly among the delegates for a while, and then they would start to upset the meeting by shouting and creating a disturbance. At this point the police would take a hand, but, instead of removing those responsible for the trouble, they would often stop the assembly on the pretext that the meeting was “disturbing the peace.”
William Wengert recalls: “When we started an assembly we were never sure whether we would be able to finish it. There were so many interruptions and difficulties in those days!”
The circuit and district overseers who organized the assemblies found a simple and practical remedy. They would see to it that there was a very efficient group of strapping ushers and put plenty of them near the entrance. One traveling overseer relates: “The circuit assembly had just begun and clergy interference was expected. The district overseer had given instructions to the ushers on duty at the entrance to stop anyone they did not know and casually ask them a couple of questions, such as, ‘Where are you from?’ or, ‘Who is the overseer in your congregation?’ Those answering in a convincing way were allowed to enter.
“But what if a troublemaker managed to slip in among the audience? In this case the ‘flying squad,’ a group of very determined-looking ushers, came on the scene and they kindly invited opposers to be silent. If the disturbance continued the ‘squad’ would very discreetly lift the heckler out of his seat and ‘help’ him to leave the hall. Since the police did not sustain our right to hold meetings undisturbed, we had to resolve the problem ourselves.”
Let us now mention a few of the many incidents sparked off by the clergy. The first of these happened at a circuit assembly held at Sulmona, a small town in central Italy in a fertile valley of the Abruzzi region. On Sunday, September 26, 1948, there were about 2,000 persons present at the public talk—a tremendous crowd if we remember that there were only 472 publishers in the whole country at the time. What happened on this occasion? An extract from the 1950 Yearbook (English ed.) narrates:
“Sunday morning at 10:30 found more than 2,000 people swelling out the largest theater in the city, and the doors had to be closed minutes before the time set for the talk. Many had to be turned away, but not before having received a booklet; there simply was no more room left, even the aisles were occupied! Inside, an extremely attentive audience showed its appreciation and approval of truth by applauding several times during the lecture and upon its conclusion.
“However, before the meeting was closed, a young religionist who had been standing in the rear of the hall taking notes from two priests made his way to the platform, raised his hands and began shouting, demanding to be heard. The chairman calmly explained that questions of the public would be answered personally and privately after the close of the meeting. That this fanatic was bent on making trouble and using our public meeting to spread his religious propaganda was evident. No doubt he, like the clergy, was aware of the empty pews in the churches these days and was seeking other places to harangue the people. Goaded on by his sneaky, priestly advisors, he scrambled to the top of the platform as soon as the assembly was dismissed, waved his arms like a madman and yelled at the top of his lungs for attention. The two priests in the rear, ducking their heads down to hide their reversed collars, shouted and whistled in approval, hoping thus to arouse a wave of enthusiasm for their hireling. It did not work. The audience turned down his uninvited attempt to do religious proselyting. Instead of applauding and permitting him to speak, those in the audience drowned out his protesting voice with cries of: ‘Fascistone!’ [Fascist!] ‘Vergogna!’ [Shame on you!] ‘How much are they paying you to do this?’ Seeing things were not going so well, the would-be interloper soon leaped off the stage and quickly disappeared with his priestly companions. Then, orderly and quietly, the audience made its way out of the theater, accepting gladly the free booklet that was offered.”
The account ended by saying: “The tables had been turned on them and once more Jehovah gave the victory.”
FIRST DISTRICT CONVENTION
Now let us describe another episode of religious intolerance. We were to hold the first district convention ever to take place in Italy, at the Teatro dell’Arte, Milan, from October 27 to 29, 1950. At the last minute the chief of police canceled our permit to hold the convention there. The two brothers in charge of convention organization were told that the measure had been taken to avoid the danger of reaction from Catholics who might be offended by a Protestant meeting! This was absurd! It was just an excuse to deprive honest citizens of their right to meet together peaceably.
Even though these and other arguments put forward by the brothers were obviously logical, the chief of police would not go back on his decision. When, as a last resort, the brothers threatened to inform the press of this abuse of authority, he did not know what to say and threw them out of his office. Coupling what had been said with other facts in our possession, we were sure that the clergy had had a hand in the matter. This time they had devised a different method, using their influence with the police force.
Brother George Fredianelli, the assistant overseer at that convention, recalls:
“This was the situation: there were barely 24 hours before the assembly was due to begin, brothers were arriving at Milan from all over Italy, and we couldn’t find another hall anywhere! What were we to do? We were very worried. But once again Jehovah intervened in our favor.
“The morning before the assembly, Brother Antonio Sideris, the assembly overseer, and I were out looking for another hall. As we were passing by a piece of ground surrounded by a fence, we suddenly had an idea, ‘Why not ask the proprietor if he would let us use it for three days?’ He rented us the land at a very reasonable price, and off we went to look for some large tents under which the assembly could be held. Finally we found a well-known tent factory willing to rent us marquees and even to help us put them up. They were pleased with the prospect of extra publicity.
“The next problem facing us was that of getting permission from the authorities all over again. Since there was little or no chance that it would be given in time, we decided to present them with an accomplished fact. There was no other way. We just couldn’t send all the brothers back home again. We put the marquees up and organized the various departments overnight before anyone noticed, and at nine o’clock in the morning the assembly punctually got off to a start.
“The police arrived soon afterward. They jumped out of their jeep armed to the teeth. What a glaring contrast they made! What a ridiculous situation it was! Armed policemen sent to control people peacefully sitting there singing religious hymns. Brother Sideris told them that if they interrupted the assembly, they would be sorry. We would report the fact to the local and international press to show that Italy’s new constitution was not being observed and that there was a return of the Fascist dictatorship. The intimidated policemen went away to ask for instructions from higher up and later returned to inform us that we could carry on with our assembly.”
About 800 were present at the public talk and 45 were baptized. Since the tents had been put up in an area where there were several factories, the brothers had the opportunity of giving a witness to many of the workmen who took advantage of their lunch break to see what was going on. What was it like sitting inside those marquees on the cold, damp October days? Fern Fraese recalls: “As we listened to the program we kept our coats on, and many of us were holding hot-water bottles to keep warm. Nevertheless, we were very happy and rejoiced to receive such good spiritual food.”
CLERGY INTOLERANCE BACKFIRES
Another episode of clergy-inspired intolerance took place the last week in June 1951 with regard to a circuit assembly to be held at Cerignola. What happened on this occasion? The 1952 Yearbook report (English ed.) states:
“At noon two policemen came over to the hall to advise us that our private meetings there were being forbidden. Immediately we called on the local office of the commissario [police commissioner] to find out what this was all about. As we entered the police station, a young priest was leaving the place with a big smile on his face. Evidently he was quite joyful, and we soon learned that the police had given him reason to feel contented. The commissario himself made it very plain to us that our police permit was being canceled for reasons over which he had no control. The authorities gave as the ‘reason’, the unsafe condition of the hall, but no one was expected to believe that. After a somewhat heated discussion of the matter, we were advised to go to the capital of the province and talk to the provincial ‘boss’, the questore.
“A few hours later we were walking into the provincial police headquarters, and to our surprise we found there the same Catholic priest we had met in the commissario’s office, this time accompanied by an older and more important-looking priest. We found out later that the latter was the vicario of the city where we were holding our assembly. The priests were waiting to talk with the questore, but when his assistant, the chief of police, came in they asked to be shown into his office instead. A few minutes later the questore arrived . . . He clearly showed that his mind had already been made up for him before hearing what we had to say and . . . he started out by threatening us with arrest for having rented a hall that was, in his opinion, unfit for meetings. His tactics were to frighten us and make it seem as if we were the ones that had done wrong and hence deserving reproof. . . .
“We were determined not to give in to this arbitrary, fascist-like action of the police without a battle, and for more than one hour we stayed in the questore’s office and debated the legal aspect of our case.”
In spite of this, the questore did not change his decision. So what happened about the assembly? The report continues:
“We went back and made arrangements to hold the assembly in two private homes, and by means of loud-speaking equipment we had the same program in both places at the same time. The intolerance of the clergy aroused the indignation of many honest persons, even though the priests tried to cover up by announcing in church the next morning that no one should attend the public meeting of Jehovah’s witnesses that day (when they knew all the time that it had been forbidden and therefore would not be held!). . . . But here again the priests were defeated, because Jehovah’s witnesses do not keep their mouths shut but continue to expose the hypocrisy and the erroneous teachings of the false religionists, resulting in more persons of good will getting their eyes opened.”
A LONG LEGAL BATTLE
There were about 190,000 non-Catholics in Italy in 1956. At that time the Kingdom publishers were only a few thousand in number, but they were active and zealous. In contrast with the extraordinary growth of Jehovah’s people, other religions have generally suffered a progressive decline. The truth spread like wildfire, especially along the Adriatic coast in the two regions of Abruzzi and Romagna, where zealous publishers went out in busloads to preach in nearby towns until congregations were established there too.
Sensing imminent danger, the Catholic hierarchy tried to organize a campaign against our preaching work. L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican mouthpiece, in its issue of February 1 and 2, 1954, encouraged clergy and church members to oppose the work carried on by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Although the article does not mention any names, it is obvious it was chiefly aimed at the Witnesses. It states:
“We also wish to draw attention to an intensifying of Protestant propaganda, usually of foreign origin, which has the purpose of sowing pernicious errors in this country . . . We would invite all parish priests, church organizations and members of the flock to watch out assiduously for manifestations of the same and inform the competent authorities with all due alacrity.” (Italics ours.)
The “competent authorities” here mentioned could only be a reference to the police. So the Vatican was really inciting priests to have the publishers arrested. In fact, hundreds of them were taken into custody after being stopped by the police. Many were released right away; others were fined or arrested. Jehovah’s people had to carry on a long legal battle right up to the early 1970’s. From 1947 to 1970 over 100 cases involving Jehovah’s Witnesses were brought before the courts.
The publishers were accused of violating articles 113, 121 and 156 of the Fascist code of police law. These articles required that those distributing printed matter (art. 113), door-to-door vendors (art. 121) or those collecting money for a specific cause (art. 156), should be in possession of a license or enrolled in official registers.
It is evident that Kingdom publishers do not carry on a commercial activity, nor are they engaged in collecting money. As they preach the “good news,” they leave magazines or other publications on a contribution covering printing costs when the person is in a position to contribute. Our work is, therefore, to be classified as the spreading of religious convictions, or, as approved by article 19 of the Italian Constitution, a way of “propagandizing” one’s faith. Evidently, at that time an attempt was being made to enforce laws to repress freedom of worship. Finally, in 1956, that part of article 113 forbidding the distribution of printed matter without a license was recognized as contrary to the Constitution and abolished.
Almost all the cases had a favorable outcome, and the few brothers who were convicted were later acquitted on appeal. A few cases had to be examined by the Court of Cassation, Italy’s supreme court in questions of jurisdiction; but these were all decided in favor of the brothers.
Let us examine just one of these cases to illustrate how the accusations brought against our brothers were mere pretexts to stop the work. Brother Romolo Dell’Elice, who has been in Bethel service for over 32 years now, was sentenced by the Rome district court “to the fine of four thousand lire . . . for having carried on begging activities in connection with the distribution of booklets and leaflets.” Brother Dell’Elice appealed and was acquitted by the Rome Tribunal on December 2, 1959. It was acknowledged that “the distribution of the aforesaid booklets and leaflets in no way constituted begging; rather, it was part of religious propaganda carried on in favor of . . . Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
CONVENTION IN ROME!
A convention in Rome was something the brothers had ardently desired to see for many years. Even the brothers tried before the Special Tribunal had secretly wondered: “Who knows if one day we shall have an assembly in Rome and be able to meet together freely in this very city where we are now imprisoned?”
These expectations were fulfilled in December 1951 when a national convention was held on the premises of the Rome Trades Fair. Its theme, “Pure Worship,” was a significant contrast with the religion traditionally flourishing in that historic city. Since brothers from 14 other European nations were present, the convention took on an international character. The 1953 Yearbook (English ed.) published the following report:
“The Rome convention was the unforgettable event of the year. When it was announced that the president of the Society would preside at the assembly the Italian brothers determined to make great sacrifices to get there. The poverty in Italy makes it difficult for one to leave the country for an international convention. So, when Brother Knorr suggested that neighboring countries be invited to attend the Rome assembly, the response was excellent. There were about 700 or 800 delegates from England, Denmark, France, Belgium, Switzerland, and many other European countries. This made the Rome assembly an international convention that the Italian brothers will never forget. It was their first taste of the love and unity that exists among brothers who are of different nationalities and races. Now we can look forward to similarly blessed gatherings of Jehovah’s people in Italy as well as in other lands, and we know that greater efforts will be made by our brothers to attend future assemblies.”
SPECIAL BOOKLET CAMPAIGN
There were two important events in 1955. The first of these was a special worldwide campaign with the booklet Christendom or Christianity—Which One Is “the Light of the World”? Every publisher was asked to distribute 30 copies of the booklet, and all the members of the clergy in the country were to receive a copy by mail. It required an enormous amount of work to obtain all the addresses and send out 100,000 copies, each with an accompanying letter.
Hardly any of the clergy replied to the publishers’ letters, but some did react violently with letters to the newspapers. For example, on September 4, 1955, the Catholic newspaper Il Piccolo of Faenza published an article carrying the glaring headlines “Beware of False Prophets—Our Reply to Jehovah’s Witnesses.” In the article we read:
“Recently Jehovah’s Witnesses (called Bible bigots by most people) have sent a booklet of their propaganda to priests and religious institutions, asking them for a reply.” After having described the Witnesses as “poor fools” in possession of “incredible ignorance and outrageous presumption and obstinacy,” the article concluded by advising them to “meditate” on an extract from Dante’s Divine Comedy.
This kind of article and similar ones were written against Jehovah’s people. Sometimes the articles had the effect of arousing people’s curiosity, causing them to ask a lot of questions when they were visited at their homes.
TRIUMPHANT KINGDOM ASSEMBLY
The other outstanding event of the year 1955 was the Triumphant Kingdom Assembly. Among the 4,351 in attendance at this international convention were delegates from 32 nations, and 378 were baptized. This meant that almost 10 percent of those present symbolized their dedication by water baptism, a truly remarkable figure. Five special trains arrived from Paris full of brothers, most of whom were from the United States. Their arrival caused quite a stir because it was the first time Rome had seen such a large group of American tourists arrive all at once.
It had not been easy to get the Palazzo dei Congressi for our convention. At that time it was one of the best convention halls in Europe, completely overlaid in white marble and surrounded by green parks for the use of assembly delegates. Our first application had been accepted, and everything seemed to be going well, when, 10 days before the convention was due to begin, we were told that permission to use the hall had been withdrawn. Officially we were told that it was needed for another engagement. Finally, two days before the deadline, when it seemed the convention could no longer be held in Rome, the management informed us we could hold our congress after all.
What was behind these obscure maneuvers? The answer is to be found in an article entitled “The Tower of Babel—A Crow in Campidoglio,” published by the newspaper Meridiano d’Italia of October 30, 1955, which declared:
“It seems that Mr. Cornacchiola, [his name literally means ‘little crow’] Christian Democrat City of Rome Councillor, is even more pro-Vatican than Mr. Rebecchini [then mayor of Rome], who has a position, be it only an honorary one, in Vatican City.
“In fact, Mr. Cornacchiola—yes, that is his name, Cornacchiola—questioned the Mayor of Rome to find out ‘why premises at EUR [Esposizione Universale Roma] were to be used by a Protestant sect “Jehovah’s Witnesses,” for their assembly.’ On behalf of the people of Rome, councillor Cornacchiola said he wished, ‘to protest about this and reprimand those responsible for the whole affair. Rome, as residence of the Vicar of Our Lord Jesus Christ, cannot tolerate similar gatherings that offend the residence of the Pope.’”
“Now,” the newspaper continues, “apart from the fact that the permission in question has been obtained from the Prefettura (in the person of the minister, Mr. Tambroni, an important member of Azione Cattolica [Catholic Action]), it should be kept in mind that Rome is the residence of the Head of State of the Italian Republic, while the Vicar of Christ resides in Vatican City.
“Among his other functions, President Gronchi has the task of safeguarding the Constitution of the Italian Republic, which states, in article 8, that ‘all creeds have equal right to be freely exercised and to organize themselves according to their individual statutes.’
“If Mr. Cornacchiola takes exception to the Italian Constitution he ought to begin by resigning from his position on the Rome City Council.”
The press also commented favorably on the behavior of the Witnesses. Il Giornale d’Italia of Sunday, August 7, 1955, had this to say:
“An impartial observer will be impressed by three things in particular: first, the exemplary behavior of those present, as they follow what is being said in respectful silence and with evident spiritual affinity; second, the fact that so many races can be gathered together in the name of a religion that seemingly inspires their thoughts and actions with as much serenity as moral rectitude; third, the exceptional number of children from one to thirteen years of age—black, white or yellow, but all strangely well behaved or even busy consulting verses in the Holy Bible as they follow the words of their preacher.”
New publication releases were greeted with great enthusiasm, and the news that Awake! magazine would be published in Italian beginning with the issue of August 8, 1955, was particularly thrilling. Literature released in Italian included the book “New Heavens and a New Earth” and the booklets Basis for Belief in a New World, World Conquest Soon—by God’s Kingdom and “This Good News of the Kingdom.”
TWO SIGNIFICANT VICTORIES IN 1957
In 1957 Jehovah’s people won two significant victories in Italy. The first of these was in relation to the 26 brothers sentenced by the Special Tribunal. After the fall of Fascism many people sentenced by this court had their cases reviewed and were acquitted. The faithful brothers knew they had suffered an injustice because of their stand; and, although they were not excessively worried about their personal standing in the eyes of the world, they decided to apply to have their cases reviewed to vindicate the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses as a people. This was necessary because the Special Tribunal accused the theocratic organization of being “a secret society carrying on activity aimed at changing the form of government and spreading propaganda detrimental to the national identity,” and of pursuing “criminal intentions.”
It was, therefore, in our best interests to have this sentence annulled with a view to establishing good relations with the governmental authorities.
The case was reviewed by the Appeal Court of Aquila on March 20, 1957, in the presence of 11 of the 26 brothers concerned. Nicola Romualdi was one of the defense lawyers. Although not a Witness, this lawyer has not hesitated to defend our brothers’ rights since the early 1950’s when it was very difficult to find lawyers willing to defend us in our legal cases. For more than 30 years now, he has readily defended some hundreds of our brothers in their fight to uphold their right to Christian neutrality and their freedom to preach the “good news.”
The account of the proceedings shows that when Mr. Romualdi explained to the court that Jehovah’s Witnesses consider the Catholic hierarchy to be a harlot because of her meddling in political affairs, “the judges smilingly exchanged meaningful glances.” The court decided to annul the previous sentences and consequently recognized that the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses was neither illegal nor subversive.
The other victory was achieved at the Milan district convention at the end of June. It opened on the Thursday afternoon at the hall of the Odeon Winter Gardens, and all went well until just before the close of the evening session when something unusual occurred. Brother Roberto Franceschetti relates:
“There were still 10 minutes of the program to go when the last speaker, Giuseppe Tubini, concluded his talk rather hurriedly and invited those present to prepare themselves for the final prayer. Everybody noticed the rapid conclusion and the absence of the closing song. Why had it been left out? While we Witnesses standing by the main entrance respectfully bowed our heads in prayer, we found ourselves surrounded by individuals with their heads erect and their hats on while the prayer was said. They could only be police agents!
“Later on we learned the details. At least 30 or 40 police agents had come into the hall and ordered the convention to be closed down. The pretext was that the owners of the hall had failed to apply for the necessary permit. Those in charge of the convention tried to make it clear that the closure order would penalize the Witnesses not the owners, but all in vain. Friday morning had been set aside for field witnessing; territory, magazine and literature departments were operated by the brothers in a nearby street. Everyone was supplied with what was needed as the work was carried out as planned. But time was passing rapidly as we feverishly searched for another hall. As late as two hours before the program was due to start we had not found a solution.
“Then the owners of the Winter Gardens sent word that they had found a place for us at the Arenella Cinema. All the brothers lent a hand, and the departments were transferred from one place to the other with a will. Just in time! In spite of everything, the session began on the dot.
“But the police did not give up. They came along to the new hall to create further difficulties. I had been assigned as an usher and had been told not to let any outsiders into the hall, not even the police. I soon found myself confronted by a police commissario and two of his men. I stopped them and asked them to wait for a moment. They were not at all impressed by this and persisted in their intentions to enter. So I was forced to put my hand out and halt the commissario on a level with his watch chain. My knees were shaking but fortunately the convention overseer intervened at this point.”
The assembly was held and the brothers were exceptionally upbuilt and exultant as a result of this significant victory. However, this was not the end of the affair. An unprecedented press campaign was also carried on in our favor. Many newspapers described the way in which the police had acted as an “unheard of abuse of authority,” and the illegal intervention was the object of questions in parliament during a senate sitting. In this regard Il Paese of February 8, 1958, stated:
“The most lively part of the sitting came at question time. In fact, there were several questions on a rather touchy subject—that of interference in religious activities. The Republican senator, Mr. Spallicci, asked to know why the Milan Questura had ordered the immediate closure of an assembly held by the cultural and religious Association of ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses’ (Bible students), which was being held in a private hall. In his reply the Under Secretary for Home Affairs, the Right Honorable Bisori, was rather evasive. He explained that steps had been taken on organizational grounds. In an atmosphere of general irony the government representative said the action taken was not intended to restrict freedom of worship. Rather, it had been provoked by lack of observance of public security regulations.”
As a result of this issue, the name of Jehovah and his people were brought to general attention even in high government circles! But who was really interested in stopping the assembly? The Rome liberal weekly Il Mondo of July 30, 1957, commented:
“Article 17 of the Constitution guarantees the right of all citizens to meet together in an orderly fashion and specifies in its first paragraph that ‘the authorities shall not require advance notification about public meetings.’ Moreover, the assembly at the Odeon was set aside for adherents to a religious association and since the hall in question had been leased for four days, it should have been considered a private place of meeting for the duration of the contract. Not only, therefore, had everything been arranged in accordance with the law, but some credit should have been given to the organizers for their scrupulous correctness in having notified the Questura about the meeting in due time. After all, Jehovah’s Witnesses are not shady conspirators against State security nor dangerous agitators.
“It is evident that scrupulous respect for the law and civic responsibility count very little when State officials take advantage of security regulations dating back to Fascist times to satisfy the archbishop [Giovanni Battista Montini, who later became Pope Paul VI].”
AN OUTSPOKEN RESOLUTION
The summer of 1958 was a memorable one for Jehovah’s Witnesses all over the world. It was marked by the Divine Will International Assembly held simultaneously at Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds in New York city. Among the 253,922 delegates in attendance there was a small group of Italians. They returned home bubbling over with joy and wonder at the things they had seen and heard.
The New York convention program was repeated at the three district conventions held at Florence, Naples and Messina, and those present will surely never forget the outspoken resolution entitled “How Has Christendom Failed All Mankind?” which was adopted during the course of the program.
As could be expected, enthusiasm among the brothers ran high, especially when they learned that the resolution was to be distributed during a special campaign. In December 1958 each publisher was asked to give out 100 copies, and half a million were distributed throughout the country.
TRUE LIBERTY IN SAN MARINO
As tourists motor along the main highway to San Marino, the oldest republic in the world, they are greeted by the slogan “Welcome to the age-old land of liberty.” The work of Jehovah’s Witnesses in this independent republic, completely surrounded by Italian territory, comes under the supervision of the Italian branch office.
When was true liberty brought to this little state, barely 60 square kilometers (20 sq. mi.) in size? Special pioneers began to work the territory in 1958. Over 10 years later a small group of nine publishers was established. The group gained congregation status in 1971. In 1972, the first circuit assembly was held in the republic, with 1,700 in attendance. This unusual event certainly gave the local inhabitants something to think about. Today, there are 81 publishers at work in the congregation, a very fine number if we consider that San Marino has one Witness to every 252 inhabitants!
THE NEUTRALITY ISSUE
Young men in the Christian congregation have taken to heart the inspired exhortation to “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning shears” (Isa. 2:4) and have taken a personal stand to maintain their neutrality with respect to world controversies.—John 17:14, 16.
We have already described Remigio Cuminetti’s “odyssey” and the trials undergone by young Witnesses during the 1930’s. Nevertheless, the problem of Christian neutrality was to become even more acute after World War II, when there were greater numbers of young Christian men conscientiously desiring to keep themselves separate from the world.
The first brothers sent for trial in this period were given very heavy sentences and had a difficult time of it in prison. Some were tried five and six times, receiving sentences that added up to four or more years of imprisonment. This was because when a young Witness came out of prison he was drafted for military service again and sent back to prison every time he refused to comply. In theory, this chain of events could have gone on until one reached 45 years of age, when one is no longer subject to military call-up. However, after repeating the sentence a few times, the military authorities usually exempted the brothers on health grounds to avoid making martyrs out of them. They were classified as suffering from “religious paranoia” or “religious delirium.” In other words, they were considered mentally infirm.
A few brief experiences from some of the brothers who overcame this test will be upbuilding for all of us. Ennio Alfarano, sentenced five times during the 1950’s, remembers how he managed to come through this critical experience:
“I was imprisoned at Gaeta. The captain tried to compel three of us to give the military salute, and when we all refused he punished us by having our arms and legs tied tightly behind our backs for eight hours. It was very painful. Nonetheless, we kept our courage high by prayer and by the singing of songs to cheer one another up, and it helped us. After this, we were supposed to be kept on bread and water for three days, but other brothers in the prison got to know about this and always managed to bring us enough food to keep us going.”
Giuseppe Timoncini, also sentenced five times from 1956 to 1961, recalls:
“The military authorities tried to discourage me by saying: ‘None of Jehovah’s Witnesses resist for long. At the most they go through one trial and then they decide to do military service.’ I used to answer that this was not true. At this point they would reel off a list of names of those who had agreed to join the army. Of course, the names were invented.
“To help myself bear the months of close confinement I tried to think as little as possible about the end of my sentence, and sometimes I would completely forget how many months and days I still had to serve. I think this period of my life provided much useful training. It helped me to learn to adapt myself to any situation and to be humble and confide more closely in Jehovah God.”
Gino Tosetti, who spent more than four years in prison, relates:
“My first days in prison in solitary confinement were very hard to bear. I remember what happened at Palermo. One morning the guard woke me up saying, ‘Get out of that bed Tosetti; there’s a pile of wood waiting to be chopped!’ He had had me on wood chopping every morning up till then, but that day I was in no condition to do it anymore. My hands were so blistered and sore I would not have been able to grip the ax.
“I asked to see the doctor. ‘You can only stay in bed if you have a temperature. If you haven’t got one you’ll be in trouble!’ he shot at me as he walked out. Thinking the worst was about to happen, I prayed to Jehovah to help me, and when they came to take my temperature I was as surprised as they were when the thermometer registered 39° C (102° F.).
“I had plenty of opportunities to witness. Once I was able to speak to a group of about 40 soldiers who stood around me listening carefully for nearly two hours. Our good conduct encouraged many, including our guards, to accept the truth. One morning a soldier on guard duty said to me: ‘Tosetti, please forgive me for all the bad things I have done to you. In spite of my behavior you never tried to get back at me. Last night on guard duty I read your magazine The Watchtower and it helped me to understand lots of things I didn’t think were important. I want you to help me understand them better.’
“This young soldier had been only too ready to cause trouble for me, but I was more than willing to forgive him. Afterward, we lost sight of each other, and several years passed by. By this time I had regained my freedom and was attending a district assembly when a person came up to me saying: ‘Why, don’t you remember me [he told me his name] when I used to open and close the prison gates for you and you used to speak to me about the truth?’ He had become a brother. We threw our arms around each other with tears in our eyes.”
As the number of Witnesses increased, the issue was continually brought to the attention of the public and the authorities alike. Finally, a law was approved decreeing that those who do not agree to do alternative service shall be sentenced to one single prison term, so that our young brothers are now given from 12 to 15 months’ imprisonment.
In the meantime, living conditions in military prisons have also improved. The Witnesses can hold regular meetings and have a theocratic library to help them with their personal study. They can have circuit assembly and district convention programs and even do the Bible dramas in costume. They have also been permitted to baptize some who have decided to dedicate their lives to Jehovah while still in prison. Each military prison is regularly visited by Christian elders who are specially assigned to this service.
From 1978 to 1980 there have been, on an average, 500 young brothers a year in prison on account of the neutrality issue. It is calculated that up to the present, several thousand Witnesses have kept a clear conscience before Jehovah God in this respect. In December 1980, the defense minister announced over national television that a parliamentary bill that would further improve the position of our brothers is under consideration. During the interview he described the Witnesses as “decent people” and declared that with the new law “the State will show respect for all religions.”
The conduct of young Witnesses with regard to Christian neutrality has served to enhance the esteem enjoyed by Jehovah’s people. For example, Il Corriere di Trieste stated:
“Jehovah’s Witnesses should be admired for their firmness and coherence. Contrary to other religions, their oneness as a people prevents them from praying to the same God, in the name of the same Christ, to bless two opposing sides of a conflict, or from mixing politics with religion to serve the interests of Heads of State or political parties. Last but not least, they are ready to face death rather than violate the basic precept set forth for man’s salvation: the commandment THOU SHALT NOT KILL!”
THE “EVERLASTING GOOD NEWS” ASSEMBLY
The “Everlasting Good News” Assembly was an important milestone in our history. It was not possible to hold it, however, in Rome. The Catholic Church had decided to hold the Vatican Council II in 1963, and a government official clearly told our representative that it was not considered convenient to allow a non-Catholic religion to hold a convention in Rome at that time. He also said that Rome would be considered off limits for non-Catholics in 1963. They would be allowed to visit the city as tourists but collective manifestations would be barred.
For this reason our eight-day international assembly was held in Milan, at the Velodromo Vigorelli, a bicycle racing arena. The organization of such a large assembly, expected to draw about 20,000 delegates, was a new experience for the Italian brothers. What was their most difficult problem? Brother Giuseppe Cialini, a traveling overseer who took part in preassembly work on that occasion, says: “Besides the accommodations put at our disposition by the various hotels, we needed thousands of extra rooms. So it was decided to find accommodations in private homes and special pioneers were called in to do the rooming work. It was the first time accommodations had been found in private homes in Italy and about 6,000 brothers were allotted rooms in this way.”
It was hardly surprising that the clergy soon began to oppose our efforts. A few days before the convention was due to begin the priests started to warn their parishioners not to accommodate Jehovah’s Witnesses. The parish priest of St. Andrew’s in Milan posted an eye-catching notice on his church wall saying: “Jehovah’s Witnesses are not Christians.” As a result of clergy propaganda a number of persons did withdraw their offer of rooms.
Not all priests, however, were hostile to the assembly organization, as can be seen from the experience of a special pioneer. He relates:
“I discussed the price of the accommodations with the householder and found she was willing to reduce the amount we had proposed on the first visit. She explained why. She had been to ask her priest if she should rent us the rooms and he had said: ‘By all means give accommodations to Jehovah’s Witnesses coming here for their assembly. They’re the only sincere people who meet together to talk about their God. These days we could do with more people like them—ready to meet together with the excellent purpose of getting to know God better. Those who show Jehovah’s Witnesses hospitality are doing humanity a good turn.’”
The rooming work was also very successful from another point of view. It resulted in a concentrated witness being given throughout the city of Milan, and many householders learned to appreciate the conduct of Jehovah’s Witnesses, as a special pioneer sister relates:
“A lady answered my knock at the door. After I had explained the purpose of my visit, she said she had room for about 10 persons but that she wanted to ask the advice of a friend of hers, a police official, before making any promises. When I called back the next day, the lady welcomed me with a radiant smile and said: ‘My dear young lady, I shall be very pleased to accommodate 10 persons for you. Do you know what my friend said? Well, I want to tell you his very words. He said: “Signora, not only can you safely accommodate these people, you can give them the door keys and go away to America if you like.” I’m really sorry I can’t go away during your congress, because I would be happy to let you have the whole apartment.’”
One of our most arduous preassembly tasks was that of cleaning the cycling arena. Why was it such a big job? Brother Antonio Capparelli recalls: “Some time before our assembly at the Velodromo there had been a Catholic meeting called by Cardinal Montini, just before the death of Pope John XXIII. Every one of the Catholics present at that meeting was holding a lighted candle and therefore the steps of the arena were coated with candle wax and chewing gum. It took hundreds of brothers, some of whom came from as far away as Turin, to scrape and clean everywhere. It took a whole week to do the job.”
At this convention there were delegates from as many as 52 nations. The audience was divided into four sections, French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish, so that the program could be presented simultaneously in these languages. There were also a number of sessions in English. At the end of the Wednesday afternoon session the audience was overjoyed to hear from Brother Knorr that copies of the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures could now be obtained in the languages of the four national groups present at the convention, as well as in German and Dutch!
A few of the 70 participants at the very first assembly held at Pinerolo in 1925 were present on that memorable occasion. As can be imagined, it was an unforgettable thrill for them to find themselves among the crowd of 20,516 present at the public talk. One of these sisters wrote: “After having attended the Pinerolo assembly, you can imagine what it meant to me to be in Milan nearly 40 years later. This experience alone would suffice to explain my profound joy.”
At the end of the convention nobody wanted to leave, and brothers of different nationalities lingered over their good-byes, rather sad that the time had come for departure. Many of us still remember the Spanish and Portuguese brothers sitting on the steps to wave farewell to their brothers with hundreds of fluttering handkerchiefs.
OVERSIGHT AT THE BRANCH OFFICE
On his arrival in Italy in 1947, Brother Joseph Romano was appointed branch overseer, and he served in this capacity until May 1954. From 1954 to 1960, Brother Anthony Sideris was assigned to this position, and then Brother Romano replaced him for a while, until, in 1964, when Brother Valter Farneti became the branch overseer. You may remember Brother Vannozzi’s visit to the Faenza congregation years before, after which he wrote: “Let us hope that one day some of these young people will decide to enroll in the ranks of those carrying on this privileged service [pioneering].” Well, one of these young people was Brother Farneti. After serving as a district overseer, he attended a 10-month course at the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead and was then appointed branch overseer. He is still the branch coordinator.
TWO PUBLICATIONS STIMULATE PROGRESS
What better means of encouraging progress than the provision of our own version of the Holy Bible together with a small handbook explaining it in clear language? It can truly be said that the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures and the book The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life came along at the right time to edify true worshipers.
The New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures has been available in Italian since 1963, but although its publication represented a considerable step forward, it was evident that God’s people needed to have the translation of the entire Bible. The Italian Witnesses had been buying the largest quantities of Catholic and Protestant Bibles at quite high prices. At the meetings, when a speaker read a scripture from one version, the audience had to make mental adjustments to adapt what they heard to the words written in the various versions they had before them. Even when the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures was used, another version had to be kept ready for quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures.
How thrilled the brothers were when they received the news that the complete New World Translation had finally been printed in Italian! The first consignment, which arrived in the spring of 1968, was very soon depleted because a special campaign to distribute these Bibles was held in the month of June. Since then over 1,600,000 of them have been distributed. God’s people have been able to develop a oneness of speech as they praise the Author of this book and teach its precepts to sincere persons.
The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life can appropriately be described as the “right book at the right time.” Its release was announced at the summer assemblies in 1968 and congregations were able to obtain copies by the autumn. This publication, of which over 4,000,000 copies in Italian had already been distributed by 1980, has certainly helped to accelerate the progress of the Kingdom work.
THE “PEACE ON EARTH” INTERNATIONAL ASSEMBLY
In the summer of 1969, another large spiritual banquet was held in Rome: the “Peace on Earth” International Assembly. The Spanish brothers, who were at that time denied the freedom to meet together in their own country, were also present. The Italians had their program in the beautiful Palazzo dello Sport while the Spaniards were at the Palazzo dei Congressi, where the Triumphant Kingdom Assembly had been held in 1955.
Delegates from 35 nations were in attendance, and a total of 25,648 were present at the public talk. The number of those baptized came to 2,212. No one had expected the immersion candidates to be so numerous. It was a sign that a great increase was under way.
The press gave unusually wide publicity to the assembly. The daily newspaper Roma of August 15, 1969, in its report on the baptism, commented: “Everything [proceeded] in an atmosphere of great peace and tranquillity, so much so that the carabinieri, sent there to cope with heaven knows what emergency, looked very much out of place. In the face of so much orderly patience, one could not help thinking yesterday morning, that if there were more Jehovah’s Witnesses in Italy many things, like getting on buses, taking one’s turn in public places, queuing at the stadium and (why not) traveling on Bank Holidays, would be a lot easier.”
THE WORK IN LIBYA
Libya occupies a vast, almost completely desert area bordering the Mediterranean Sea. It has a population of almost 2,500,000 inhabitants, for the most part Arabs of the Moslem faith. Before World War II and its outcome the country was under Italian rule and it had a flourishing Italian community. However, by the end of the 1960’s most of these Italians had been obliged to leave Libya.
The work of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Libya began in April 1950, when Michel Antonovic arrived at Tripoli from Egypt to carry on his secular activity. This brother’s preaching soon began to bear fruit, especially among the Italian population. So it was that in January 1953 it was decided to transfer the oversight of the work in this country from the Egyptian to the Italian branch. As the work progressed, various difficulties arose. There were arrests, court cases, confiscation of literature, and so forth.
In 1957 an application was made to have the work legally recognized, but it was turned down as a result of false accusations against us, including allegations that we were a secret society affiliated with the Zionist movement. In spite of this the work progressed until, in 1959, there were 89 publishers and one special pioneer. Soon afterward the work declined because the authorities expelled many brothers and they were forced to return to Italy.
In 1964 the work was banned, and, after the change of government in 1969, almost all the Italians, including the remaining brothers, had to leave. So, then, while it can be said that Libya produced first-quality fruits in the past, the future is now in Jehovah’s hands.
BUILDING THE NEW BETHEL
During his visit to the branch in Italy in 1968 Brother Knorr instructed the brothers to find a piece of land suitable for the construction of a new Bethel complex. A particularly suitable site was found on the northeasterly outskirts of Rome. Furthermore, the area was near the “Sun Highway,” the most important of Italy’s motorways, and therefore convenient for transport.
Plans were submitted to the Rome City Council to obtain permission to build, but difficulties arose because the theocratic organization was still not officially recognized by the State. In 1969, however, those responsible for the City Development Scheme learned from the press that over 25,000 persons had taken part in our international congress. As a result they were at last convinced that this religion had become a reality that could no longer be ignored. Finally, in March 1971 building permission was obtained and work was begun immediately. Construction work was done almost exclusively by brothers, and in the spring of 1972 the three-story building, complete with basement, was finished.
The new Bethel was inaugurated on May 27, 1972. The next day Brother Knorr gave the talk “A House for Spiritual Instruction” before an audience of 15,700 persons gathered at Flaminio Stadium. Many of these brothers went to visit the new Bethel and were very happy to see that Jehovah was blessing the work in the Italian field.
“DIVINE VICTORY” ASSEMBLY
“Divine Victory” was the electrifying theme of the national assembly held in August 1973 at Flaminio Stadium. Italy’s 30,000 publishers were thrilled to see 57,000 in attendance. The stadium was packed, and this impressive crowd was in itself a clear indication of the size of the ingathering going on. The baptism, which saw 3,366 persons symbolize their dedication to Jehovah, was the largest collective immersion ever held in Italy.
Newspaper columns totaling about 6,000 centimeters (2,400 in.) in length spoke of “an exceptionally large crowd” and of the “spectacular increase” of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Il Messaggero of August 11, 1973, stated: “All those believers, so young, so zealous, so fervent and so full of brotherly love . . .”
Il Tempo of August 14, 1973, commented: “In a world where institutions are falling apart and people tend to invent their own moral code and even their own religion, it is interesting to see people from all walks of life and very different cultural backgrounds gathered together in perfect harmony to further their belief in a sure means of common salvation.”
JEHOVAH’S BLESSING ON HIS PEOPLE
“Your blessing is upon your people,” said the psalmist. (Ps. 3:8) Do you remember the small group of 120 publishers in 1946? Well, after a slow and difficult start these loyal worshipers have been blessed and have participated in the ingathering of ever more abundant “harvests.” The accompanying charts show the marvelous increase enjoyed by Jehovah’s people especially after the mid-1960’s. In 1980 there were 84,847 publishers in Italy and in June 1981 the number has further increased to 90,191.
Not only do the figures in the accompanying tables give evidence of the expansion that has taken place in Kingdom interests, but they also are indicative of the excellent future prospects.
The 1,357 congregations now existing are organized into 87 circuits and five districts. Reliable statistics also indicate that Jehovah’s Witnesses are the largest non-Catholic religion in the country. Nonetheless, statistics apart, we realize that what is important in Jehovah’s eyes is to be recipients of his approval and blessing.—Prov. 10:22.
THE MAGAZINES ARE PRINTED AT BETHEL
As the number of Kingdom publishers and magazine subscribers continued to rise, there was an increasing demand for more and more copies of the Watchtower and Awake! magazines in the Italian language. At one time the magazines arrived directly from Brooklyn. After 1969, they were printed at the London branch for a while. Then from April 1971 onward they were printed at the Swiss branch. But all of this created some problems. So beginning with the June 1972 issues, The Watchtower and Awake! were printed by a commercial firm in Rome. As a result of strikes and other inconveniences, this arrangement soon revealed its inadequacies, and there were frequent consignment delays.
In view of this situation the Society made plans to install a rotary press at Bethel in Rome. This was eventually done. Finally, at the end of 1975, the Rome printing plant was ready to start producing its own magazines. The January 22, 1976, issue of Awake! and the February 1, 1976, issue of The Watchtower were the first to come off the press.
During the 1980 service year over 18,500,000 magazines were printed in Italy. The average Italian Watchtower circulation reached 520,000 copies per issue, and Awake! approximately 470,000.
STREET WORK WITH THE MAGAZINES
Until 1974 the Watchtower and Awake! magazines were distributed by the Italian publishers from house to house but not on the streets or in public squares. What was the reason for this? You will remember that the brothers had been obliged to engage in more than 100 court cases to establish their right to preach the “good news.” Well, although there was no law against doing street work with the magazines, the Society’s legal advisers had suggested that it would be better to proceed by degrees. First, we wanted to affirm our right to preach from house to house, and then we could take the matter further.
Since the work was proceeding nicely throughout the country, it was thought that the time had come to expand our activities. Before starting street work with the magazines on a national scale, however, an experimental campaign was tried out in a few cities, such as Milan, Florence and Naples. In view of the excellent results and the fact that no difficulties had arisen, the Kingdom Ministry of November 1975 gave instructions on how to do street work with the magazines in accordance with the law of the land. From then on this particular work has been carried out everywhere in Italy.
THE ORGANIZATION IS LEGALLY RECOGNIZED
An attempt to get the theocratic organization officially recognized was made in 1951. A legal association was formed in Milan, and an application was filed to have it legally recognized. On February 11, 1953, the Milan prefettura (prefecture) turned our application down on the grounds that “the necessary conditions for the granting of the request” did not exist. What were these “necessary conditions” on which legal recognition depended? By law there were basically two conditions to be fulfilled: (1) the religion should be “known” by the government and, (2) its aims should not be contrary to the interests of law and order or public morality.
In the late 1950’s another attempt was made with the Ministry for Home Affairs, once more without success. The prime reason for this was that our organization was little known in government circles and was often put in bad light. The lawyer in charge of our case wrote that in Italy “the lack of a traditionally liberal spirit” was still felt.
Several years went by. Assisted by God’s holy spirit, the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses prospered, and the brothers became well known in the land for their excellent moral qualities. In February 1976 the application was renewed and, at long last, accepted. The branch office was notified of the decision in June of that same year—the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania was legally recognized.
As a result, new prospects were opened up. In fact, at the end of 1976 we obtained permission from the State to nominate religious ministers authorized to perform marriages. Furthermore, in 1976 and 1979, two ministerial decrees were issued enabling those in the full-time service to gain access to the health services and pensions available to religious ministers. Recently, another agreement has been concluded authorizing a certain number of overseers to visit persons in prison who request assistance from Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Recognition of the Watch Tower Society means that property can now be registered under this name, and several congregations are buying or building their own Kingdom Halls and registering the property in the Society’s name. Previously almost all the Kingdom Halls were rented. Very few belonged to Jehovah’s Witnesses because the congregations were obliged to register them in the name of one or more of the brothers.
There are now two assembly halls in Italy. The first one, inaugurated in Milan in October 1977, is a former cinema that has been renovated and adapted to our requirements. The other one, on the outskirts of Turin, was specially built for its purpose and was inaugurated in May 1979.
Without doubt, since the organization has been officially recognized by the Italian government, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been able to operate with greater freedom and are using ever more effective means to further the interests of pure worship.
RADIO AND TELEVISION PROGRAMS
It is reported that there are 3,000 radio stations and 600 television transmitters in Italy in addition to the national networks. In 1976 we began to make use of these private networks to spread the “good news” more extensively. At present our programs are regularly transmitted free of charge by 280 radio and 30 TV stations. With regard to TV programs, the branch office supplies the brothers with outlines for conversations or interviews and even illustrated programs based on slides taken from the talks given by circuit overseers. Up to now, we have put nearly 200 radio and 50 TV programs into circulation.
From reports received, it seems that these programs are very successful. Sometimes they bring immediate results, as at Oristano in Sardinia, where 15 persons asked to be visited by Jehovah’s Witnesses at their homes. In three towns in the province of Salerno about 35 persons have begun to study the Bible with us after hearing our programs. One overseer reports: “In the province of Ragusa [Sicily], a publisher going from house to house met a man who said: ‘I was expecting you. I follow your program every Thursday and I was sure you would call on me sooner or later.’ He accepted the offer of a Bible study.”
Of course, there are not always such immediate results. However, thanks to our programs, in some parts of the territory many persons have a better attitude toward the Kingdom message, and when the publishers call, the householders listen with greater attention.
THE CAMPAIGN WITH THE “BLOOD” BOOKLET
In Italy the blood transfusion issue came to the fore during the 1960’s. At that time doctors considered blood transfusions to be indispensable therapy in many cases, and they gave very little attention to the risks involved. It was, therefore, very difficult to find surgeons willing to operate without blood, and publishers often had to go from one city to another to find a surgeon willing to operate. When certain emergencies arose, the newspapers published articles that amounted to publicity campaigns against us. In such circumstances, it was very difficult for the brothers to cope with great hostility shown in some areas.
By the mid 1970’s the situation was improving as more and more doctors began to understand our point of view. But there is no doubt that a marked improvement was experienced after December 1977. Why was this? In that month we held a national campaign with the booklet Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Question of Blood. In Italy the booklet was distributed to 87,000 doctors, 48,000 lawyers and magistrates and approximately 200,000 nurses. The results of this campaign were very positive, certainly beyond our expectations.
In the first place, Jehovah’s name has been cleared of much of the blame unjustly heaped upon it because we firmly “abstain . . . from blood.” (Acts 15:19, 20, 28, 29) Now the brothers themselves have a better grasp on the fundamentals of the question and are more confident in their contacts with the medical profession. Furthermore, many more doctors, willing to respect our convictions, have now come forward.
CONFERENCES ON BLOOD TRANSFUSIONS
As a result of the interest aroused by the distribution of the booklet a number of conferences were called by experts to delve into the matter. On February 21, 1978, at the well-known “Carlo Erba Foundation” in Milan, a conference was held on the theme “Surgery, Blood Transfusions and Jehovah’s Witnesses.” The conference, under the chairmanship of Professor Carlo Sirtori, a world-famous scientist, resulted in many expressions showing understanding of our position on the issue.
On April 21, 1979, another conference was organized by the University Institute of Legal Medicine at Siena. The theme of the conference, “The Refusal of Blood Transfusions by Adult Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Constitutional Order,” was introduced by the speaker, Professor Mauro Barni, Head of the Institute of Legal Medicine and a former Rector of the University. He stated:
“The fundamental question to be settled is how we shall consider the conduct of a doctor who decides to go ahead with a blood transfusion in spite of an explicit refusal on the part of a Jehovah’s Witness. Well, now, there is no doubt that such conduct is inadmissible from an ethical point of view and is certainly to be classified under article 610 of the Penal Code regarding the violent coercion to undergo something expressly refused.”
On July 7, 1979, in the small town of Ripatransone, in the province of Ascoli Piceno (central Italy), a local hospital organized a conference on the theme “Blood Transfusions and Alternative Treatment.” One of the chief speakers, Dr. Cesare Buresta, discussed the results of over 240 surgical operations successfully carried out without blood transfusions. The periodical Panorama of July 23, 1979, had this to say:
“For years they have been turned away from hospitals, shunned by doctors, left to themselves, deceived, condemned. . . . Today, however, thanks to the development of new alternative techniques, even Jehovah’s Witnesses, one of the most active and organized religious minorities at work in Italy . . . seems to be nearing the end of a long nightmare. . . . According to Dr. Buresta, the use of these [alternative] techniques, makes it possible to operate without blood in 99 percent of all cases. The results of this research will lead to considerable advantages.”
Never in our fondest dreams would we have expected so much understanding of our position with regard to blood transfusions, after the persistent unfavorable publicity for so many years. Jehovah’s people are grateful because He has blessed the distribution of the booklet Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Question of Blood.
THE “VICTORIOUS FAITH” CONVENTION
The enormous crowd gathered together for the “Victorious Faith” Convention was undeniable evidence that faith in the true God had proved victorious over the opposition of the past years. In 1978 it was necessary to hold two conventions to accommodate all the brothers, one in Milan and one in Rome. All together 111,320 persons were in attendance.
A peak attendance for a series of assemblies was reached in 1981 with 132,200 present at the 22 “Kingdom Loyalty” District Conventions.
PIONEERS A GREAT HELP
The certainty that Jehovah does not forget our efforts and the love showed for his name has encouraged many to serve him more fully. (Heb. 6:10) In 1946 there was only one pioneer in the whole country. Then, as the years passed, the number of those undertaking this precious service progressively increased. In 1980 there were over 500 special pioneers. A new peak of 2,142 regular pioneers was reached in February 1981. In May 1981, 10,051 publishers shared in the Kingdom-preaching work as auxiliary pioneers.
The largest number of special pioneers are assigned to work in the islands of Sicily and Sardinia, and, as a result, excellent progress is being made in both of these territories. In Sicily there are seven circuits and 125 congregations. In Sardinia, where the work began more recently, there are three circuits and 53 congregations, although the region is much more sparsely populated. Thanks to the work done by pioneers, 99 percent of the national territory is assigned and worked regularly. The remaining 1 percent is worked occasionally.
BROTHERS IN TIMES OF NEED
Since Italy lies along one of the world’s earthquake belts, it is hardly surprising that the greater part of the natural disasters hitting the country are of seismic origin. In May 1976 one of these quakes ravaged most of the region of Friuli up near the Austro-Yugoslavian border, causing the death of almost 1,000 persons and the destruction of thousands of homes. Although many Witnesses lost their homes, none of them were killed or seriously injured. Immediately after the disaster brothers in nearby areas set to work to care for the most urgent needs of those in the earthquake zone.
The earthquake that hit a wide area of southern Italy at 7:34 p.m. on Sunday, November 23, 1980, was of even more disastrous proportions. Tremors were felt throughout the whole country. Reports from the regions of Campania and Basilicata spoke of thousands of dead and injured while whole towns had been knocked flat. There were 130 congregations in the area, and branch records indicated that there were about 8,500 publishers and 4,500 interested persons, a total of 13,000 individuals.
At first there was considerable anxiety about what might have happened to them. By the morning after the disaster the branch office already had precise information. None of Jehovah’s Witnesses or the interested persons were among the dead or injured! In spite of our sadness over the number of deaths and the sufferings of many survivors, it was a great relief to hear that our brothers were alive.
The publishers in the stricken area showed their trust in Jehovah right through those critical moments when the ground and the buildings around them shook, and they continued to do so afterward as they faced the rigors of winter under difficult circumstances. Some congregations were having meetings when the earthquake struck. An elder of the congregation of Eboli (Salerno) relates:
“We had just started the Watchtower study when suddenly we felt the floor of the Kingdom Hall shake violently while the walls and the ceiling above our heads creaked ominously as they moved from side to side. For a few seconds we were all petrified, and before we could realize what was happening there was another more violent shock. We thought the four stories of the building were going to collapse on top of us. Those terrible moments were the longest we shall ever remember!
“As study conductor I realized I must make an immediate decision to protect those present. But what were we to do? We could either stay together where we were in the hall or go outside. I prayed intensely to Jehovah for guidance to make the right decision. Then I remembered a similar situation regarding the brothers of Gemona in Friuli a few years earlier. I invited the brothers to stay in the Hall while I said a prayer. None of the 130 present ran outside or showed signs of panic. Then, trusting in Jehovah, we continued the Watchtower study, while outside the whole town was in turmoil.
“We concluded the meeting with a heartfelt prayer of thanks, and many of those present shed tears of gratitude because we had received such evident protection. How thankful we were to have been obedient to the apostle Paul’s exhortation at Hebrews 10:24, 25! Obedience to this command had saved our lives! We immediately got in touch with our brothers in a nearby town, where 50 of them had been at the meeting. They also were safe and sound, while all around buildings were seriously damaged; and the two largest churches in town were partly destroyed.”
An overseer of the congregation at Bellizzi (Salerno) recalls: “Five minutes after the meeting finished we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a nightmare. The Kingdom Hall seemed to have gone crazy. Someone cried out, ‘Jehovah, save us!’ I shouted to the brothers, ‘Keep calm, don’t go down the stairs!’ We were all safe.”
Brothers in the earthquake area were ready to help one another, and Witnesses throughout the country and in other European nations did not hold back from contributing money, clothing and other articles. An emergency relief center was set up to direct help to where it was most needed. The first of the Society’s trucks loaded with food, tents, blankets and clothing arrived in the area the evening after the earthquake.
“The brothers were amazed how quickly the necessary help arrived,” said a traveling overseer assigned to the area. He also relates: “We immediately set up our own kitchen from which food cooked by sisters was distributed to the brothers every day. The other inhabitants of the town had yet to receive assistance and were doing the best they could by themselves. Of course, the brothers were not selfish, and food was shared with many non-Witnesses. When we took provisions to the village of Montella, families living near the brothers were given pasta, rice, oil, sugar, bread and milk while their children were given biscuits.”
In the month of the disaster a new national peak of 86,192 publishers was reached, and this means that the brothers in the earthquake zone contributed to this increase by maintaining their excellent zeal for the Lord’s work. We are grateful for the love shown to these brothers by fellow worshipers in various nations who, besides sending material help, did not forget their brothers in their prayers. Our thanks go to Jehovah because he is the One coming to our aid in times of trouble.—Ps. 54:4.
BETHEL IS ENLARGED
When the new Bethel was inaugurated in the spring of 1972, no one imagined that only four years later it would be too small. At the time there were approximately 25,000 worshipers of the true God in the country, but by 1976 the building was already inadequate to cope with the needs of our publishers, the number of which had by then swelled to an incredible 60,000.
In 1975 and 1976 an additional two lots adjacent to our original property were bought, so that the total area at our disposition was now in the region of 14 hectares (35 acres). However, the Rome City Development Plan allowed us to build only a single farm building on the new ground. An application was filed to get the plan modified, and in the meantime we asked for permission to set up a small farm with a cowshed and barns to raise produce for the Bethel family. Work on this project was begun in 1978, and the small farming unit was finished in the spring of 1980.
Finally, in October 1979, permission to build the new Bethel home and a structure to house the printing department was received. We began work immediately and in October 1980 the printing department was finished. The rotary press and the magazine department are already installed. On the other hand, we still have plenty to do to finish the Bethel construction. Building has been done exclusively by the brothers. It is encouraging to see them arrive from all over Italy to share in this work because they realize it is necessary to cope with the expansion going on in the country. When completed, the building will contain 70 rooms, a dining room, a kitchen, a Kingdom Hall and other necessary facilities.
At present there are 98 brothers assigned to Bethel, forming a happy family at the service of their fellow Christians. Some of them work in the farming unit to cover the material needs of the family, while others are assigned to the shipping department and are busy sending out literature, magazines and other necessary supplies to the congregations.
GETTING LITERATURE TO THE CONGREGATIONS
At one time, as a result of postal delays and strikes, the more distant congregations often did not receive consignments on time. A circuit overseer recalls: “During my visit to a congregation in Sicily, I was going from house to house with a sister. I felt compelled to remark on the fact that she was distributing magazines that were two months out of date. At this the sister replied that these were the latest magazines the congregation had received.”
In view of these delays, the majority of our deliveries are made by four trucks that the Society has bought for the purpose. One of these, complete with trailer, has a capacity of 34 tons and is also used to collect the literature from the German branch at Wiesbaden. Congregation orders are delivered to more than 120 depots scattered throughout the peninsula and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. In turn, these depots redistribute the literature locally. Under this arrangement the congregations receive the necessary spiritual food on time and expenses are reduced considerably.
GRATITUDE FOR DIVINE PROTECTION
This is the modern history of the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Italy. Credit for what has been accomplished during these years cannot be ascribed to man. Although certain individuals have been mentioned by name, this story is the chronicle of how a people came into existence, how they withstood intense opposition from the clergy and how they have prospered, thanks to divine guidance and protection.
More than 1,920 years have passed by since the apostle Paul fulfilled his earnest desire to see the Christian congregation at Rome “to impart some spiritual gift” to them. (Rom. 1:11) Since then the great apostasy kept the country in dense spiritual darkness for many centuries. But this is no longer the case. Times such as those at the beginning of this century, when the first faint rays of truth illuminated the path of a few scattered individuals, are also past, together with the wave of persistent religious persecution, loyally borne by Jehovah’s people.
The present situation is enough to gladden our hearts. Compared with an average of some 90 Kingdom publishers at the close of World War II, Italy now has over 90,000 proclaimers of the “good news”! The future is full of excellent prospects. In May 1981, Italy reached a peak of 62,068 Bible studies. And for the Memorial in 1981 there were 187,165 in attendance! In the historic city of Rome there are now 51 congregations at work.
These figures would indicate that, with divine approval, we shall have further increase that will render still more praise to our God Jehovah. His happy worshipers are ready to attribute the merit of their present prosperous condition to Him alone. And, as they look back on these chapters of the modern history of true Christianity in Italy, they express their gratitude, as did the psalmist David when he was moved to exclaim:
“Had it not been that Jehovah proved to be for us when men rose up against us, then they would have swallowed us up even alive, when their anger was burning against us. Blessed be Jehovah, who has not given us as a prey to their teeth. Our soul is like a bird that is escaped from the trap of baiters. The trap is broken, and we ourselves have escaped. Our help is in the name of Jehovah, the Maker of heaven and earth.”—Ps. 124:2, 3, 6-8.
The passages cited from the three circulars have been taken from the book Provvedimenti ostativi dell’autorità di polizia e garanzie costituzionali per il libero esercizio dei culti ammessi (Repressive Measures Taken by Police Authorities and the Freedom to Practice Certain Cults as Guaranteed by the Constitution), by Giorgio Peyrot and published by Giuffrè.
[Graph on page 247]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
INCREASE IN PUBLISHERS
120 1,742 3,491 6,304
0 1946 1951 1956 1961 1966 1971 1976 1981
[Graph on page 248]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
INCREASE IN CONGREGATIONS
35 97 139 242 275
0 1946 1951 1956 1961 1966 1971 1976 1981
[Graph on page 249]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
INCREASE IN MEMORIAL ATTENDANCE
200 2,897 5,790 12,113 19,682
0 1946 1951 1956 1961 1966 1971 1976 1981
[Map on page 114]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
[Picture on page 119]
Fanny Lugli’s home near Pinerolo where the first meetings were held on the ground floor under the balcony
[Picture on page 127]
Remigio Cuminetti, the first Italian Witness to take a stand for Christian neutrality and the first Italian brother in charge of the work in Italy
[Picture on page 135]
Ignazio Protti and his two sisters, Albina and Adele, who moved from Switzerland to serve zealously in Italy as colporteurs
[Picture on page 137]
Hotel Corona Grossa in Pinerolo where, in 1925, the first convention in Italy was held
[Picture on page 153]
Maria Pizzato, whose mother bought some copies of the “Watch Tower” magazine from this newsstand in Vicenza during 1903 and 1904, leading to Maria’s learning the truth
[Picture on page 176]
Aldo Fornerone, who experienced, firsthand, the value of Christian neutrality during World War II, still serves as an elder
[Picture on page 193]
First circuit assembly in Italy, held in 1947 at Roseto degli Abruzzi; brothers met under a fig tree and a canopy of vines along a private road
[Picture on page 209]
First district convention in Italy, held in large tents in Milan, October 27-29, 1950, despite clergy opposition
[Picture on page 223]
Palazzo dei Congressi, where, in 1955, the international Triumphant Kingdom Assembly was held in Rome
[Pictures on page 240, 241]
Branch buildings. Upper left: The building acquired in 1948 in Rome. Upper right: The branch building completed in 1972. Lower right: A side view of the Bethel complex showing the latest additions
[Picture on page 250]
Turin Assembly Hall inaugurated in 1979