I could almost feel the jar of the
wagon wheels as they crunched the rocks and churned the dust in the deeply
rutted trail. It was an evening like many others during my teenage years in
Paris, but on this particular night I was absorbed in a French television
documentary about the Mormon pioneers. I had never seen anything like it before,
and I marveled at the similarities between the Mormon trek and the exodus of
ancient Israel from Egypt. The courage and suffering of the Mormon pioneers
touched something deep within me.
I had never heard of the Mormons before, and I became
interested in learning about them. But I soon became distracted by my busy life
as a student and forgot the soft stirrings within me. Besides, I was only
intellectually curious, or so I told myself. Little did I know then how the
turning of those pioneer wagon wheels would change my life.
My mother worked in a fashion boutique in Paris and liked the
Americans she met there. She grew to love the English language and encouraged me
to study English even as a young child. During the summers, she sent me to
England or Scotland to stay with English-speaking families. One year she
encouraged me to get involved in an American summer camp exchange program.
Through this program I became a camp counselor in Sharon, Vermont—the
birthplace of Joseph Smith. Perhaps the Lord, even then, was trying to turn the
wheels once more. Unfortunately, I heard nothing of Joseph Smith or the Mormons
while I was there.
Several years later, however, the wheels turned again, with
great power. I was studying English, with a specific focus on American culture,
at Paris’s Sorbonne University. As I began thinking about a master’s thesis
topic, I remembered the documentary about the Mormon pioneers. I asked my
adviser if I could do something on them. No one at the Sorbonne had written a
thesis about the Mormons, and so my adviser thought the subject might prove
interesting. But he insisted that I pick an aspect of Mormonism that was unique.
After doing some preliminary research, I discovered that there
was not enough information about the Mormons in the university library. I
concluded I would have to talk to them. By then I had learned that the official
name of the Mormon Church was The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
With that information, I located the headquarters of the Paris Mission and
boldly knocked on the front door. I asked the missionary who answered, "Is
there someone here who can tell me about the Mormons?"
The surprised young man managed to stutter, "Yes, yes,
As my research at the mission home progressed, I learned that
Latter-day Saints believe in ordinances performed for dead ancestors. The more I
read about temple work for the dead, the more I wanted to use that topic. The
title I finally chose for my thesis was enough to make even long-time members of
the Church pause: "Genealogy and the Mormon Church." That’s how I
became known in the Paris Mission as the "Genealogy Girl."
It was at this point, just two months after my first visit to
the mission home, that I met my future husband. He was a freelance American
photographer and writer traveling in France. The missionaries told him about me,
and he decided to interview me for a possible article for the Church magazines.
After talking with me about the Church, he asked if I had ever considered
joining. I shrugged my shoulders and said, "I’m really just
But as an afterthought, I reflected, "There is something
unusual about your church. I always feel a sense of peace when I come to the
mission home. Actually, I welcome reasons to come back." Still, I insisted
that my interest was only academic curiosity.
A few months later I decided to continue my thesis research by
visiting the famous genealogical facilities in Salt Lake City. I arrived in Utah
the day before President Joseph Fielding Smith’s funeral, and I went to the
public viewing with an LDS girl I had corresponded with while I was in France. I
was impressed by the lack of despair at the services.
During this time, the photographer I met in Paris returned to
Salt Lake City, and we became reacquainted. I asked him to help proofread my
thesis, and as time went on, he noticed my comments in the thesis becoming more
and more positive—starting with "the Mormons believe …" and later
expressing, without my realizing it, "We believe …"
One evening, he asked if I would like to take the missionary
lessons. I hesitated and gave my former response, "I’m only
curious." But there was less certainty in my voice, so he suggested,
"What have you got to lose?"
I smiled and said, "Well, nothing, I guess. OK."
Three weeks later, I was baptized, and the wagon wheels turned again as I became
a pioneer myself—the only member of the Church in my family.
A year and a half after my baptism, the photographer and I
were married in the Salt Lake Temple. Little did he know when he met me how the
wagon wheels shown in a French documentary would affect his life.
Now it is 1997, the 150th anniversary of the pioneers entering
the Salt Lake Valley, and as I tell my story I truly do feel the jar of the
wagon wheels as they crunch the rocks and churn the dust in a deeply rutted
trail. It is a day like many others, and I am pulling a handcart as part of the
1997 Sesquicentennial Mormon Trail Wagon Train on the old historic pioneer route
near Big Sandy Crossing, Wyoming. During this reenactment, I am playing the part
of an actual pioneer girl from France who joined the Church in Italy and came to
Zion in the 1850s. It seems incredible that I am walking the same trail,
breathing the same dust, and hearing the same sounds as she and so many other
pioneers did so long ago.
As I walk, I remember the documentary I saw when I was a young
girl in France, and I can feel the presence of the many Latter-day Saints who
lived and died along this trail. However, the part I am playing is not just a
story from our pioneer past, it is also my story—for I am a pioneer, too.