Leaving our Family Behind Led Us to 1000’s More: How One Family’s Around-the-World-Journey Changed the Eternities
After years of searching, we finally found him! We finally found Felice. We found him locked up in a damp old church in southern Italy.
Let’s start from the beginning. Let us introduce ourselves. We are the Woods family. An ordinary family. An American family. A family of 6. Our family was living a very comfortable and happy life in Phoenix, AZ when one day, we decided to act on a prompting that we received. A prompting that seemed like a crazy idea. An idea that our family and friends thought we were nuts to execute. But a prompting that we knew we were supposed to do. Without a doubt. We felt impressed to move to another country. And as we acted and prayed and fasted and searched, it was clear that New Zealand was where we were needed.
3 months later, after selling our homes, cars, ¾ of our belongings, packing up a 20-foot shipping container to sail the seas, purchasing passports, and obtaining a visa, we were on our way to live the kiwi way. It was gut-wrenching saying goodbye to our family. Rip your heart out kind of sad. Not knowing when we would see them again. But we knew we were supposed to leave. We knew we were supposed to go on this journey, for whatever reason. Heavenly Father had a plan for us.
We lived in the gorgeous North Island of New Zealand, met wonderful people, served alongside faithful members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and made amazing memories. But as our visa approached expiration, we had a decision to make. Stay in New Zealand or return home to the USA? After heaps of prayer and fasting, we knew we were meant to move on.
But instead of doing the traditional one-way flight back home, we decided to travel the world for 6 months. We had jobs where we could work remotely, we could homeschool our kids along the way, why not?? Well, that decision has been life changing! Eternity changing!
We visited Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, London, Dominican Republic, Italy, Portugal, Morocco, and Spain. But the most life changing country we visited was Italy. Home of our ancestors. Where we were about to experience miracle after miracle.
We spent the first two weeks doing all the wonderful iconic Italian things: Venice, Pisa, Florence, Rome, Tuscany, Pompeii, the Amalfi Coast. And we absolutely loved it all! But we were not expecting to love our last 2 weeks even more.
Our last two weeks in Italy were dedicated to family history. We thought we would take 1-2 days to do a little poking around to see what we could find. Search through a graveyard or two. Visit a church. But that 1-2 days turned into much much more.
The first step in our plan was to visit the local family history center. After driving an hour, we found it was closed. But after a miraculous turn of events, we talked to a person that knew a person that could help us. Here’s the thing. We don’t speak Italian. But with the help of earthly angels, we were able to either communicate in Spanish or English with translation to understand what we needed to know. And our first set of miracles was underway.
Our second miracle happened when we attended church a few days later at the nearby branch. It was fast and testimony meeting and I felt prompted to bare my testimony. A sister missionary translated as I spoke to the small congregation about our desire to find our family in Italy. After sacrament meeting, a sweet woman approached me and insisted on helping us with our family history. The elders in the branch were crucial parts in our plan and they helped us communicate with each other.
As we drove the 2-hour distance to a little town in southern Italy with our new friend Ana Maria, we didn’t know what to expect. We knew some of the Catholic priests could be grumpy. We knew they could be possessive of their records. But we prayed. And all of our family back home prayed too.
When we arrived, a small quaint town with rolling green hills and cobblestone paths, and old stone buildings, our fears were confirmed. This priest was grumpy. And he was possessive of his church’s records. We struck out. He had in his office, stacks of hand-written records with our family names on them. But we couldn’t touch them. They were right there!
Leaving the Catholic church discouraged, we headed to the one and only cemetery. We walked row after row searching for family names. But we found nothing!! How could there be no graves with Florios, Fiores, Barbaritos, Iacouzzis?? In the one and only cemetery? But as we kept looking, we came across a worker. And in broken Italian and English she connected us with a man who had a book of the history of the town. Miracle 3!!
We drove to his home and he allowed us to take pictures, page by page, of this town book. It had pages of crucial information for us! He was such a friendly man and we communicated mostly in smiles and hand gestures, but he was truly an angel!
After leaving this quaint town with a little success, we were not going to let a grumpy old priest stand in our way. So over the next few days we fasted and prayed some more. Dear Ana Maria called the priest for us and made an appointment in hopes that he would have a change of heart. And this is where the biggest and best miracle of all comes in!
We drove the winding roads to the charming town again with a prayer in our hearts and hope that we would have better success. Our kids had their ipads and computers to keep them entertained and snacks packed because we were in this for the long haul. As we entered the church, our priest was almost jolly. He smiled at the kids. He led us to his office. And he let us look through the 6-inch thick handwritten ancient records of the town. Just like that. Wow.
At first we just focused on finding one particular name. It was a tedious task. As the priest saw that we were harmless, he got up and left the room. So we got to working even faster. We looked page after page for Felice Florio. A name we had been searching for for years. And after a lot of searching and scanning, we spotted him! We took a picture of his name and moved on to the next. As our kids were busy on their devices, we were busy searching for names.
And as we realized that these tasks could take forever combing through each page for particular names, we decided to start taking pictures of each page instead. We whipped out our phones and camera and started snapping away as fast as we could. The church was dark and cold. The lighting was not conducive to photography. So pulled out a light that we just happened to throw into our bag at the last minute that morning and set up a system of efficient picture taking. Our kids joined in so we could be as quick as possible.
Our priest, I call him our priest because he was our angel, came in and out to check on us and he seemed ok with our process. So we continued on. We powered through. We worked consistently for hours recording the pages. 600 pages later, and we had documented the entire book, index and all. We were freezing, hungry, and our necks and arms hurt, but we had found true success. We had a precious gift given to us that would help us find countless family members.
But it doesn’t end there. Yes, we had miracle after miracle in helping us find these names. But what good does it do to have just the names? Since recording all of those aged pages, we have combed through name after name searching for our individual family members. We have done their temple work.
Our son was baptized and confirmed for Felice Florio in the Madrid, Spain temple. And my husband did the rest of his temple work. We knelt around the alter in the Redlands, CA temple with my parents and brother and sister-in-law and sealed a family of 12 children to their parents. Nieces, nephews, cousins, sisters, brothers, grandma, parents, aunts, and uncles have all pitched in to find names from these pages, index the pages that we have recorded, and do temple work for them daily.
Yes, it was painful leaving our family for New Zealand. We missed them dearly. But because we chose to leave, it has brought us to family we didn’t know we had. It has introduced us to family members from long ago that have been anxiously awaiting their names to be found and their work to be done. And it couldn’t have been done if we didn’t personally visit the small town in southern Italy on our around-the-world journey.
Leaving our family was hard. But it led us to thousands more. And I’m sure they are anxiously awaiting to meet us on the other side of the veil. What’s our plan next?? We have family from Germany and Wales, so maybe we’ll head there and do it all again!