My name is James Woodrow DiStefano and I served in the Southern States Mission from 1939 to 1941.
Braden is my great grandson from his father’s side.
I was born in Magna and raised in Tabiona, Utah. Both of my parents were full Italian. My father, Gerolomo, came to the USA as a stow-away from Palermo, Siciy, Italy at the age of 16 to avoid being drafted into the Sicilian army. He eventually came to Utah and worked at the Kennecott mine.
He and my mother, Katherine Jennie Luisi, married and were the parents of 9 children. They moved from Magna to Tabiona where my father owned a store in Hanna as a front for bootlegging liquor. Needless to say, we were not members of the LDS faith.
Because of my association with the young members of the ward, at age 12, I ask my father if I could be baptized but he refused permission. I lost interest until I was about 20 years old. With a renewed desire to join the LDS faith, I was baptized on July 31, 1938.
Called to Serve
I was called on a mission to the Southern States on January 15, 1939, just six months after my baptism. I was to represent the Duchesne Stake and Tabiona ward, whom committed to fund my mission.
My mother had died a year earlier and my father was no longer with the family. My three older brothers were working elsewhere so accepting a mission call required my five younger siblings, ages 6 to 17, to live with relatives in Magna. It was a troublesome decision for me to make.
However, I entered the Mission Home in Salt Lake on March 20, 1939 and was the first missionary of full Italian decent to be called to fulfill a mission for Lord through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “I had the privilege of hearing President Heber J. Grant talk and had opportunity of shaking hands with him. I can still feel the touch of those long slender fingers.”
I arrived by train in Atlanta, Georgia on April 2, 1939. My mission president was Elder Merrill D. Clayson. In 1940, I served under William P. Whitaker. The Southern States mission consisted of four states: South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. I served in South Carolina and Georgia.
April 4th, 1939 – Aiken South Carolina
“Today was my first day tracting. The way I feel tonight I don’t like it and would much rather be home. However, I will pray and be humble as possible and have faith in God to help me learn the scriptures and learn to love my work. I didn’t tract alone, I went with Elder Tate who did all the talking. Two years ago today, Elaine Loveland told me she loved me.”
May 11, 1939 – Aiken South Carolina
“Today was my first day of tracking alone. I can now see how some of the missionaries like tracting. The first house I visited was down in the Northern district. I went to a door and uttered a prayer in my heart and rang the door. A man came from next door and I talk to him and his wife. She refused literature so I went on my way. In the whole day’s tracting, I distributed about 30 tracts in four hours without a good conversation. I was not able to loan out one Book of Mormon.”
October 14, 1939 – Anderson South Carolina
“No money from home this morning. I wrote a letter to President Heber Moon of the Duchesne Stake. I told him of my financial condition and ask him if he would support me here for five more months to make my mission last a year. I have lost confidence in the ward. I also wrote to President Clayson and told him the same thing. I now owe the office $11.00, rent $10.00, my companion $9.00. I have been feeling too blue to write to anyone else. But I have ask God, with tears in my eyes, to help me at this time. If I am to go home, I pray it will be His will.”
July 7, 1940 – Winnsboro, South Carolina
“The picture here is of me in the baptismal font in which the ordinances are preformed. It was my first experience to act in God’s name in that capacity. Words cannot express the thrill I received by doing it. I can still see Mrs. Fant as she looked under the water. It thrills me now to think of it and to think that I have been an instrument in the hands of the Lord to teach such a wonderful person about the plan of salvation and have the opportunity to bring her within the fold.”
“Mrs. Fant is as nice a woman as I have ever met. She will be a great power in the church. Her mission is great. Someday I expect to see her in Salt Lake City doing temple work for her dead ancestors. (Note: Mrs. Fant came to Utah in the about 1956 to go through the temple for herself and family.)”
Oct 7, 1940 (Letter from Allie Fant to Elder DiStefano)
“Dear Elder DiStefano
Just three months ago today since you baptized me. Thank the Lord for your life, your mission and the privilege I have had of knowing you and the blessing of receiving the lessons in the gospel from you. I realize how the tears of yesterday, from the ones of your congregation that love you so dearly, will make your departure difficult.
But, cheer up dear boy, you have added stars to your crown in eternal glory by your divine efforts here. Your consecration to the gospel, your love of God and his kingdom is the key to your success.
I will miss you always but will always be thankful for you. May God’s richest blessing ever be with you. May I be your foster mother?
Sincerely, your truest friend.
November 21, 1940 – Thanksgiving – Savannah, Georgia
“This morning we all cleaned up and visited Bro. Hamilton’s farm “out yonder.” We had a very nice dinner, but no Turkey. I think this has been my first Thanksgiving without turkey and my second with out Italian spaghetti.
After dinner we rode up town and brought Sister Evelyn home from work. She is a very attractive girl. I like her quite well, probably better than any girls in the branch but I say, “Get thee behind me Satan and don’t push.”
March 30, 1941 – Savannah, Georgia
“Well, here I go, leaving the work I love, also leaving the hosts of people that were Mothers, Fathers, Brothers and Sisters to me. Will I ever see any of them again??? This has been a day I’ve dreaded to see come. Now it is here, I will have to make the best of it.”
Note: After being home for nearly a year, in February of 1942, I left Utah again for the South. Because of my ill health, a physician living in the Savannah branch offered to put me in a hospital and look after my getting well. While attending Mutual in Savannah, I became re-acquainted with Sister Evelyn Hamilton, and we were married in the Salt Lake Temple on August 17th, 1942. We have 6 daughters, one of which is Braden’s Nana. Her son, my grandson Wade, is Braden’s father.
In 1984, I had the privilege of going to Italy with two of my brothers to gather genealogy. It was a wonderful and successful experience. Two years later I passed away on March 16th, 1986 at the age of 68.