By Paul J. Palma
Pentecostal pioneer, Massimiliano Tosetto, was many things—a loving husband, devoted father, pastor, artist, writer, composer, Bible scholar, and church founder. Born in Campiglia dei Berici, Veneto in 1877, from an early age Tosetto proved dedicated to his family, church, and education. He was a diligent student, despite growing up in a town where 80 percent of the population was illiterate. The untimely passing of his mother when he was eighteen prompted him to set out on his own. He entered the study of decorative art at the Art Institute of Milan and proceeded to find work as a fresco painter.
Raised Roman Catholic, Tosetto underwent a religious conversion at twenty-two. After three different priests refused to hear his confession (because his list was too long), he left Catholicism. Graciously offered a Bible by someone from a neighboring Baptist church, Tosetto set out on a new faith journey. His quest for further opportunity, along both economic and religious lines, drove him to emigrate for the New World. He arrived in Chicago in 1902. Impressed with his ability as a painter, Marshall Field’s Co. hired him as an interior decorator.
Tosetto learned of the “baptism in the Spirit” through R. A. Torrey, pastor of the large Moody Church in Chicago. Intrigued by this fuller experience of the Holy Spirit, in 1909 Tosetto attended a service at Chicago’s Assemblea Cristiana, the first Italian Pentecostal church on record. It was here that he discovered the baptism in the Spirit firsthand. In 1914, he married the organist Maria Pontarelli (with whom he had 6 children) of an immigrant family from San Vincenzo, Abruzzi. They plotted their future together through their joint service in the Pentecostal movement. After being miraculously healed of an ear infection, Tosetto left his day work as an artist and gave himself fully to the ministry.
Tosetto went on to found churches in New York, Ontario, Quebec, and in his hometown in Italy. He served twenty-nine years as pastor of Walnut Avenue Christian Church in Niagara Falls. He moved with his family to Niagara Falls in 1916, rented a two story flat, and began hosting worship meetings on the downstairs floor. There they set up Maria’s organ. Together with another family of six, they became the nucleus for a growing congregation. Tosetto put up a sign outside the home that read “Chiesa Cristiana” (Christian Church).
Tosetto built the congregation’s first baptismal pool by hand out of 2x4s. In about two years’ time, the congregation rallied enough funds to purchase a property down the street. Tosetto designed the building plans and erected a new chapel. Over the next several years the congregation thrived. By 1922, the chapel was attended by about 250 congregants. Needing a larger building once again, a novel plan was enacted whereby the existing church edifice was sawed in half. The two halves were moved a distance apart and new center walls, ceiling, and floors were constructed.
Tosetto became the visionary and organizational leader of the flagship Italian Pentecostal denomination, the Christian Church of North America (CCNA). Among the early Italian Pentecostal pioneers, Tosetto stood as a voice of order. It is no surprise that the banner raised above the pulpit of his Niagara Falls church read, “Do all things decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40). In the 1920s, when theological controversy threatened to divide Italian Pentecostalism in North American and Italy, Tosetto encouraged the consolidation of churches into one body. The CCNA’s first General Convention was held in Niagara Falls at Tosetto’s church in 1927. He served as one of five original overseers of the denomination. Today the CCNA, known as the International Fellowship of Christian Assemblies, has a membership of about 1,800,000 in nearly 3,600 congregations across each inhabitable continent of the world.
In addition to founding churches in the US and Canada, Tosetto established the Evangelical Christian Church in his hometown in Italy on August 15, 1908. This feat was accomplished despite strong opposition. Tosetto’s efforts won the support of neighboring churches, including financial backing from the local Methodists. Recently, Assemblies of God (AG) leadership convened at the church in an effort to bring the congregation under the covering of the AG in Italy.
Massimiliano passed away in 1949 on a preaching mission to Montreal, Quebec. His last message, themed “Precious in the Sight of the Lord is the Death of His Saints,” concluded with an exhortation to live in peace and love and with the words, “I feel as though I have wings, ready to fly.” He returned to Niagara Falls to be buried by the church he founded.
I conclude this reflection with a selection of a hymn Tosetto penned, with my translation in English alongside the original Italian. The hymn, “Pace, vera pace” (Peace, True Peace), was originally published as part of the hymnal, Nuovo libro d’inni e salmi spirituali (New book of hymns and spiritual songs):
Let the Lord be praised,
And glorified at every hour,
Blessed and thanked;
He is the peace in our hearts.
(Il Signore sia lodato,
E glorificato ognor,
Benedetto e ringraziato;
Egli è pace ai nostri cuor.)
Paul J. Palma, Ph.D., Adjunct Professor of Biblical Studies and Christian Ministry at Regent University, is the great-grandson of Tosetto. The story of the birth of Pentecostalism among Italian immigrants like Tosetto is chronicled in Palma’s new book, Italian American Pentecostalism and the Struggle for Religious Identity. Please visit Routledge.com for more information.
Do you have Pentecostal historical materials that should be preserved? Please consider depositing these materials at the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center (FPHC). The FPHC, located in the Assemblies of God national offices, is the largest Pentecostal archive in the world. We would like to preserve and make your treasures accessible to those who write the history books.
Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center
1445 North Boonville Avenue
Springfield, Missouri 65802 USA
Phone: 417.862.1447 ext. 4400
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