*the next time someone shows a lack of appreciation for the Bible, make sure to speak up and remind them how much effort and sacrifice went into making the Scriptures (and related literature) available for us to have access to. It's so easy to forget how many men and women have dedicated their entire lives making sure the information contained in the Bible was carefully preserved and passed along for the benefit of future generations. Including intense research and ongoing study in order to thoroughly understand the information contained within it...which has led to the publication of so many Bible study 'aids' that make it easier for us to understand the contents better.
That's why I really enjoy reading these older experiences,...because they provide us with a glimpse of what life was like for so many people in the past, and are a constant reminder of how much freedom we take for granted and why we should be appreciative of it. We have an *enormous* wealth of knowledge available at our fingertips...(including more 'spiritual food' than we could possibly keep up with reading). The men and women who helped make that possible, would probably cry if they could see how the printed 'Word' -(which they worked so hard to translate & lovingly instruct others about), was now available in so many different languages all throughout the world. And that the average person can obtain a copy in just about any bookstore, library, or even more impressive - electronically through the internet. Just a few clicks on the web takes us to just about any Bible translation we want to read...yet these brothers & sisters had to study the Scriptures in secret, and were told by their own religious leaders and govt officials that they weren't allowed to have a Bible!
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. (Matthew 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...
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!”—Matthew 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 Corinthians 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.” (what ?!?) 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.”