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NANTES, France — Elder Romney didn't even have time to put on his shoes.

The 19-year-old missionary was in his apartment when a woman burst in to say some Frenchmen were beating up one of his fellow Mormons down the street.

The barefoot Mitt Romney, who had been in France for just six months, joined his roommates in rushing into the snowy night.

They found a team of rugby players, drowning their sorrows after a lost match, hassling two female missionaries. The women had cried out "Allez-y!" which means "go on," rather than "Allez-vous en," meaning "go away." The male missionary who leapt to their defense had been punched out. Romney ended up with a badly bruised jaw.

"There were about 20 guys, very large and very muscular, and we were a group of very young and very small American guys," Romney would recall 40 years later. "If you get into a fight with Muhammad Ali, you don't return the punch, you just put your arms up."

In a lifetime of good fortune, the January 1967 rumble in Nantes stands out as a rare moment of defeat. But as a snapshot of his 30 months as an LDS missionary, it is less exceptional: His time in France posed one of the great challenges of his life. It was marked by frustration and, ultimately, tragedy. The victories were visible only in hindsight.

Day after day, he knocked on doors urging people, most of them Catholic but many of them hostile to religion and often to the United States as well, to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormonism was a religion of mystery to most French people, recognized mostly for its history of polygamy and, in a country that takes its wine seriously, for its prohibition against alcohol.

Serving as a missionary was an LDS tradition. From the very start, in the 1830s, the Latter-day Saints had sent out missionaries to preach the gospel.

"Your presiding officers have recommended you as one worthy to represent the Church of our Lord as a Minister of the Gospel," said the letter sent to missionaries in 1966 by David O. McKay, who as church president was revered as a living prophet by Mormons.

For 2 1/2 years, Romney would wear the dark suits and white shirts of an LDS missionary. He would be allowed to call home only on Christmas and Mother's Day. There would be no drinking, no smoking, no sex and no dating. He would be alone only in the bathroom — Mormon missionaries are paired always with a companion to reduce the opportunity for mischief. All of his time, all of his energy, would be devoted to trying to persuade the people of France to join the LDS Church.

France was, of course, glamorous and beautiful, and the missionaries had half a day off each week for "diversions," which often meant a chance to visit a chateau. But France was also one of the most inhospitable countries to Mormonism.

The first Mormon missionary had arrived in 1849, but the missionaries had been evicted during the reign of Napoleon III and fled again during World War II. By the time Romney arrived, there were just 6,500 LDS Church members in the entire country.

"Being in a foreign place in a foreign language with a foreign faith, you really do a lot of soul-searching about what you believe and what you're going to do with the rest of your life," Romney would recall decades later.

Romney said he found inspiration in the story of a Utah chemist, Henry Eyring, who, hobbled by cancer, nonetheless struggled to help his church weed an onion patch, only to learn that the row he had worked on didn't need weeding. Eyring, as Romney tells the story, responded, "Well, that's OK, I didn't come here for the onions."

"He came to respond to the call of service," Romney said, "and I think that's what happens to young men or young women who go on a mission."

LDS roots

Romney's family history is intertwined with that of the LDS Church. The Romneys came from the English village of Dalton-in-Furness, about 280 miles northwest of London, and immigrated to America in response to the same kind of missionary work that Mitt would perform.

Mormonism was in its infancy in 1837 when the Romney family, headed by a carpenter named Miles Archibald Romney, heard a missionary speak near their home about the story of the religion's founder and prophet, Joseph Smith.

Born in the little village of Sharon, Vt., Smith was praying in the woods of western New York when, according to his account, he saw "a pillar of light exactly over my head." Two personages, God and Jesus, appeared before him, telling him that other churches "were all wrong." Several years later, in the same woods, the angel Moroni appeared to him, directing him to a set of golden plates on which was recorded the history of an Israelite tribe that migrated to America and became the ancestors of the Native Americans.

The Romneys were so moved by the missionary's story that they were baptized as Mormons and, in 1841, they journeyed to Nauvoo, Ill., where Smith had established a Mormon community. On Aug. 18, 1843, the Romneys had a son named Miles Park Romney, the great-grandfather of Mitt Romney.

A year later, Smith was assassinated and the Mormons were driven out of Nauvoo, headed for a new promised land of Utah.

The Mormons believed that the great mountains of the West would protect them from persecution and from hostility toward polygamy. Mormon men had begun taking "plural wives" after Smith said God told him to revive the Old Testament practice of polygamy.

When Miles Park Romney turned 18, he followed instructions from Mormon leader Brigham Young that he find a wife. On May 10, 1862, Miles married a woman who would eventually bear him 10 children, Hannah Hood Hill. One month later, with Hannah pregnant, Miles left to perform church missionary duties in England for nearly 3 years.

Two months after the marriage, on July 8, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed an antibigamy act, which prohibited polygamy in Utah and the other territories. Miles believed strongly in the church's practices and was committed to his mission to bring converts to America. He laid out his beliefs in England in an article titled "Persecution."

"Many, now, wonder why it is that we are so despised," Miles wrote. But Miles stood by his faith, writing that "from the earliest ages of the history of man, Truth and those who strictly adhere to its principles have been unpopular."

Miles returned to Utah in October 1865, meeting his 2-year-old daughter for the first time. The family was poor, possessing a small cook stove, a bed, three chairs and a small table. Miles, a carpenter, bought land and built a two-room wooden house. Hannah became pregnant again, and a second daughter was born.

"We were happy," Hannah recalled, in an autobiography written for her family when she was 80 years old. "We had two sweet little girls to bless our home and make it more happy and they bound us together in love and union."

Addition to marriage

It was then, in 1867, that Miles P. Romney had a fateful meeting with Young.

"Brother Miles P., I want you to take another wife," Young requested, according to Hannah's autobiography.

Miles faced the choice of obeying U.S. law, under which polygamy was illegal, or the head of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He chose the church.

Hannah was distraught.

"I felt that was more than I could endure, to have him divide his time and affections," Hannah wrote later. "I She "used to walk the floor and shed tears of sorrow. If anything will make a woman's heart ache, it is for her husband to take another wife, but I put my trust in my Heavenly Father and prayed and pleaded with him to give me strength to bear this great trial."

Then Hannah performed her duty: She prepared a room for her husband's new wife, Caroline Lambourne. Hannah wrote, "I was able to live in the principle of polygamy and give my husband many wives." But her despair deepened when her younger daughter died at 10 months.

Soon, Young gave Miles and his two wives a new mission: Sell your home, and move to the southern Utah town of St. George. The new settlement about 300 miles south of Salt Lake was in a vast desert, surrounded by red-toned ridges in a region where summer temperatures often topped 100 degrees.

Young prophesied that, "There will yet be built between these volcanic ridges, a city, with spires and towers and steeples, with homes containing many inhabitants." The Romneys sold their Salt Lake City home and moved to St. George, where they lived "in a little shanty, a small board room and a wagon box," Hannah wrote.

From the shanty, the Romneys wrote themselves into church history as builders. Miles played a major role in the construction of St. George Temple. Then, Brigham Young hired Miles to build a two-story addition to his winter home in St. George. Miles took on the task with zeal, constructing one of the most lavish residences in Utah, a sandstone brick dwelling with an elaborate porch painted red and green. The restored home is visited today by Mormons from around the world, who are told of Miles's role in building the house. Pictures of Young and Romney hang in an adjoining building.

But while Miles was prospering as a builder, he had increasing trouble handling two wives. Hannah wrote that Caroline "was very jealous of me.... She wanted all my husband's attention. When she couldn't get it there was always a fuss in the house. (Miles), being a just man, didn't give way to her tantrums."

Miles and Caroline had two children, whom Hannah helped to care for. But Caroline was not satisfied. She asked Young for permission to return to her parents in Salt Lake City. The separation was "the severest trial ever experienced" by Miles, according to "Life Story of Miles Park Romney," written by his son, Thomas. Miles and Hannah "made a special trip of three hundred miles by wagon to try to induce Carrie to return to her home in Saint George. But all their pleadings were in vain," and a divorce was granted, according to the biography.

Miles, meanwhile, was climbing in prominence in the church. He was given a new responsibility: defeat a congressional effort to enforce antipolygamy prohibitions.

Miles and four other Mormon leaders signed a letter stating that "the Anti-polygamy bill ... is unconstitutional and is an act of special legislation and ostracism, never before heard of in a republican government and its parallel hardly to be found in the most absolute despotisms, disfranchising and discriminating, as it does, 200,000 free and loyal citizens, because of a particular tenet in their religious faith."

Miles and the others said the legislation violated the Declaration of Independence's guarantee that all men had the rights of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" and the Constitution's guarantee of freedom of religion.

The lobbying paid off and the bill died in the Senate, but other antipolygamy laws remained on the books.

For a brief time, with Caroline having left, Miles and Hannah were once again in a single-wife marriage. It was then, in 1871, that Hannah gave birth to Gaskell, the grandfather of Mitt Romney.

Two years after Gaskell's birth, however, Miles met the fair-skinned Catharine Cottam, who had flowing hair, a serene smile, and was described by her brother as the "prettiest girl in St. George." Miles married Catharine in Salt Lake City on Sept. 15, 1873.

Hannah, seven months pregnant, did not attend the wedding. Instead, she prepared a room for Catharine, whom she called "a girl of good principles and a good Latter-day Saint."

"I cannot explain how I suffered in my feelings while I was doing all this hard work, but I felt that I would do my duty if my heart did ache," Hannah wrote.

Two months after Miles and Catharine were married, the child of Miles and Hannah died during delivery. Hannah blamed herself.

"I felt I had caused it by doing so much hard work," Hannah wrote.

Nearly four years later, Miles married again, taking as his wife Annie M. Woodbury, a schoolteacher.

Miles's life in St. George with Hannah, Catharine and Annie briefly settled into a comfortable, devout routine. But church leaders in Salt Lake City intervened, devising a plan to plant Mormon communities in an arc throughout the West. Miles was told by church leaders to uproot his family and help settle the town of St. Johns, Ariz.

The journey of almost 500 miles was harrowing, requiring the wagon trains to skirt the northern rim of the Grand Canyon.

"Here you can see the river hundreds of feet below you winding its way between perpendicular banks of solid rock without a tree to be seen and devoid of vegetation," Catharine wrote her parents, as quoted in a volume compiled by her great-granddaughter, titled, "Letters of Catharine Cottam Romney, Plural Wife."

Finally, the Romneys arrived in St. Johns. It was a sparsely settled town, a Wild West amalgamation of gun-toting farmers and laborers, including American Indians and Mexicans, who were especially resentful of new settlers such as the Mormons. The local newspaper, the Apache Chief, urged on May 30, 1884, that "the shotgun and rope" be used to get rid of Mormon settlers.

"Hang a few of their polygamist leaders such as ... Romney ... and a stop will be put to it," the newspaper said.

Catharine began to fear her surroundings, writing, "I believe there are some as wicked people here as can be found anywhere on the footstool of God."

The tensions accelerated as local authorities sought to try Romney on charges of polygamy. To avoid prosecution, Miles sent Catharine and Annie into hiding.

But authorities brought new charges, alleging that Miles lied about having title to his land. One night, a marshal arrived at the Romney home after midnight, demanding that Miles surrender.

"The marshal had a gun in one hand and handcuffs in the other," Hannah wrote.

A colony in Mexico

Miles fled to Utah, where he was told by church leaders "to go to Old Mexico and build a city of refuge for the people that would have to go there on account of persecutions of polygamy," Hannah wrote. Miles agreed and decided it was safest to go with only one of his wives, Annie. He left behind Hannah and Catharine and their children, hoping they would reunite in the coming months.

After weeks of travel, Miles reached a vantage point in the Mexican mountains.

Gazing upon a valley that extended for miles on the banks of the Piedras Verdes River, Miles Romney saw mesquite and cactus carpeting the flatlands, with stands of scrub oak shading the riverbanks. The valley floor was 5,000 feet high, providing a climate cool enough to support peach and apple trees. Beyond brown hills, the towering, pine-covered peaks of the Sierra Madre curtained the valley, catching the winter snows that would provide ample water for irrigation. This would be the colony of Juarez — Colonia Juarez.

At first, Miles was desperately poor and responsible for an enormous family. He lived out of a wagon, and then a crude hut.

On Dec. 27, 1885, shortly after helping establish the colony, Miles despaired of his plight. He feared federal marshals might come to Mexico to arrest him. He was uncertain about the fate of Hannah and Catharine.

"I sometimes think that I am only an injury now to both my family and my friends," Miles wrote to Catharine's brother Thomas. "I have borrowed my friends' money, and my family receive no support from me, and the prospect ahead seems as black as midnight darkness."

Soon, Hannah arrived. Then, more than a year after Romney arrived in Mexico, Catharine joined them. A festive reunion followed, with Miles, his three wives, and their children. "21 of us all together had a splendid dinner," Catharine wrote her parents.

The town, meanwhile, began to take shape, due in significant part to Gaskell Romney. At 15, he helped build the canal that irrigated the fields, and helped build a family farm known as Cliff Ranch, in the mountains overlooking Colonia Juarez.

Then the family's world came crashing down once again. Back in Utah, some of the same LDS leaders who had urged Romney to create a refuge for polygamy now turned against the practice.

In September 1890, church President Wilford Woodruff issued what was called the Manifesto: "I now publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land."

The careful wording of the Manifesto might have given some solace to the Romneys. They may have believed that Woodruff was referring to the law in the United States, not Mexico. They continued their practice of plural marriage but even more isolated than before. Indian attacks and crop failures were common.

Miles moved to a nearby town called Colonia Dublan and, in 1897, seven years after the Manifesto, married for a fifth time, to a wealthy widow named Emily Henrietta Eyring Snow, the only wife with whom he did not have children.

Gaskell, meanwhile, married Anna Amelia Pratt, who would become Mitt Romney's grandmother. Anna descended from one of the most important families in the LDS faith. Her grandfather, Parley Pratt, had 12 wives and was chosen by Joseph Smith as one of the 12 apostles.

Gaskell and Anna broke with their family traditions and did not engage in plural marriage.

After 12 years of marriage, the couple had a boy whom they named George W. Romney, the fourth of their seven children.

Revolution and return

The family lived happily in Mexico, where Gaskell and his family operated a prosperous ranch. But in 1912, after a revolution that ousted dictator Porfirio Diaz, rebel factions began mounting attacks throughout the countryside. Gaskell and other Mormons stockpiled guns. In July, the Romneys learned that hundreds of revolutionaries were nearby.

The family, including 5-year-old George, packed whatever they could carry and boarded an overloaded train to El Paso. For years afterward, the often-destitute Romneys moved from house to house, from California to Idaho to Utah. Gaskell eventually rebuilt his life, constructing homes in Salt Lake City and becoming bishop of the church's wealthiest ward. In the Great Depression, Gaskell "lost all he had and more," a family biography says.

He regained his financial footing from an unlikely source: Mexico. He had never given up trying to obtain financial compensation from the Mexican government for losing his family property.

Twenty-six years after the Romneys were forced from Mexico, the case of "Gaskell Romney vs. United States of Mexico" was heard in Salt Lake City in 1938. Gaskell requested $28,753 in damages. He was awarded $9,163, court records show — a sizable amount then.

The records say Gaskell gave half of the award to his son, George, which would have helped to put him on his road to becoming chairman of American Motors and governor of Michigan.

In 1941, three years after receiving the Mexican financial settlement, the Romneys made a sentimental return to Mexico, retracing the route of Miles P. Romney and his wives from Utah to Arizona to Mexico. Throughout the journey, Gaskell told George about his hardships but also his pride in establishing the remote Mormon outpost.

"Despite his many hardships he was never bitter about them," George wrote about his father. "His religion and the Kingdom of God always came first, and as a result he enabled his children to live through economic difficulties without their feeling deprived or losing faith in their future."

It was a lesson that George would impart to Mitt.

Mission test

Mitt Romney's missionary work began not in glamorous Paris but in gritty Le Havre, a seaport along the English Channel.

The one-bedroom apartment that he shared with three other missionaries had no telephone, no television and no radio. There were also no Mormons in Le Havre, so the four American missionaries would hold worship in their apartment, taking turns preaching and singing and offering each other the sacrament of bread and water.

"I remember we went down and we went to a place where they had used mattresses off of ships, and so these mattresses were quite good mattresses but they were very narrow, and so we got some cinder blocks and some plywood doors and a mattress and that's what we had for beds," said Donald K. Miller, then Romney's senior companion, and now a dentist in Calgary.

The missionaries would wake up at 6 a.m., eat breakfast, study the Bible, the Book of Mormon and French, and knock on doors, with breaks for meals and a required bedtime of 10 p.m. They traveled on Solex motorized bicycles, wearing their suits and carrying satchels with pamphlets about Mormonism.

"You knock on the door very simply, you say, 'Bonjour, Madame. Nous sommes deux jeunes Americains,'" Romney would recall. "That means 'We are two young Americans.' And continuing, 'We're talking to people in your neighborhood about our faith and wonder if you'd like to ...' BANG! The door shuts. And most people assumed we were salesmen and said, 'No, I don't want any,' and would shut the door. A lot of people would say, 'Americans? Get out of Vietnam!' BANG!"

Romney became a passionate defender of America's role in Vietnam. And he worked hard to memorize key French words and phrases that would help in his missionary work.

"Whenever we had a discussion he hadn't learned, he would go have a long, hot bath, and when he would come out, he would have the discussion memorized," Miller recalled. "I was dumbfounded."

Romney also stood out for his rarefied background. One of his fellow missionaries, Gerald Anderson, now an Alberta agrologist, recalled how Romney, on a trip to Paris, stunned everyone with his familiarity with the fine French perfumes in a shop on the Champs Elysees.

At the urging of a church official from Utah, Romney encouraged his fellow missionaries to read "Think and Grow Rich!" a 1937 self-help book by Napoleon Hill that had been reissued in 1960. The book argued that wealth and success grew out of the rigorous application of personal beliefs. There was little that was rich or comfortable in the missionary experience, but fellow missionaries say Romney applied himself with the faith of a true believer.

In the "Conversion Diary," then a newsletter of the French Mission, he is mentioned repeatedly for standout numbers of hours spent door-knocking, numbers of copies of the Book of Mormon distributed and numbers of invitations for return visits. He was promoted through the ranks, first to zone leader in Bordeaux, and then to the highest position attainable by a missionary, that of assistant to the mission president in Paris.

But his time in Paris was marred by the car accident that killed Leola Anderson, wife of the mission president, Duane Anderson. Romney was driving when the crowded Citroen was hit by another car.

Romney's injuries were serious enough that his father asked Mitt's brother-in-law, Dr. Bruce Robinson, to fly to France to oversee the medical care. But within a few weeks, Mitt was seemingly back to normal, and his friends were struck by how quickly he threw himself back into work, determined not to let the tragedy slow the mission.

"His resilience was truly astounding," said Joel H. McKinnon, who was the senior assistant to the president in the mission home. "He would have 20 ideas in 35 minutes, and it'd take me a week to have that many.... He didn't seem to be particularly pensive or particularly concerned about the accident, as to what had happened to him and how close he'd come to death.... He was back and ready to work."

In the absence of the mission president, who had returned to the United States after his wife's death, Romney took on a greater leadership role. It was during this period, in late 1968, that some people say they saw the first glimpses of the super-organized achiever who many knew in later years.

He devised innovative ways to engage the French. In a letter to his parents, he talked about reaching out to people through "singing, basketball exhibitions, archelogy (sic) lectures, street meetings.... Why even last Sat night my comp (companion) and I went into bars, explaining that we had a message of great happiness and joy."

Noticing some French people's interest in America, he staged USA nights to show slides about America; in one city he offered a talk on American politics. In November, just before finishing his mission, he gave a talk at a missionary conference based upon the Book of Alma in the Book of Mormon, about "desire" and "how we can obtain anything we want in life — if we want it badly enough" according to a missionary's journal.

Romney would go on to great material success, and the LDS Church continued to play a big role in his life. Over the years, he would give millions of dollars to the church, following a LDS requirement for tithing, or contributing 10 percent of one's income; he would visit temples throughout the world; and he would serve in several key church roles, as bishop of a ward in Belmont and president of the Boston stake, a group of about a dozen congregations in eastern Massachusetts.

In the late 1990s, a new LDS temple, serving all of the Northeast, rose over his hometown of Belmont.

Now, as he runs for president, he points to his time in France as a key moment in his spiritual development: "I came to know my faith a great deal better by virtue of my two years in France."

On the campaign trail, he angered some Mormons by denouncing the church's history of plural marriage, saying on CBS's "60 Minutes," "I can't imagine anything more awful than polygamy."

But his family's history, like that of his church, is an ever-present part of his life: In the first-floor hallway of his home the portraits of five generations of Romneys hang in an unbroken line: Miles Archibald, Miles Park, Gaskell, George and Mitt.

Contributing: Michael Kranish reported from Mexico; Michael Paulson reported from France. Globe correspondent Julie Chazyn contributed from France.

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