Ashli Carnicelli has always been a seeker – she studied many religions to identify the divine. She was adopted as a child and searched for her biological family. In just the past five years, in her late 30s, the pieces have been falling into place.
I hear you have an interesting conversion story.
I was raised Catholic until I was ten years old. My parents were very active – they ran the children’s choir, and we were very close to our priest. But when I was ten, my mom went back to school and was in a class where they studied scripture like a piece of literature or mythology, rather than as the word of God. My mom had really struggled with how she understood misogyny in organized religion – she didn’t like how it seemed very unequal between men and women. The class seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for her. She couldn’t subscribe to it anymore, so we left the church.
All growing up, I was a seeker. I read different religious texts, I went to temple with my Jewish friends. The only book I haven’t read is the Quran. I went on this exploration and always felt very close to Christ, but I still felt something was missing. When I got my driver’s license as a teenager, I started going back to the Catholic parish that we had left. All through college, I went to St. Clement’s and St. Cecilia’s in Boston’s Back Bay.
My husband Tony and I met on the first day of class in college. His family is Italian and Roman Catholic. They’ve been going to the same church for forty years, and that’s where we got married – in the Catholic Church at St. Bonaventure in Allegany, New York with the Franciscan friars. His grandparents were too ill to travel to Boston, so we had a little ceremony for them a few months after our big wedding in Newport, Rhode Island.
After we married, I was still very active in my religious discovery, reading books on The Kabbalah, The Bhagavad Gita, Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nach Han, and I was studying for my yoga teacher certification with Kenpo Lama Migmar Rinpoche, Buddhist Chaplain at Harvard. I remember one day, we were studying Karma. He raised his finger in the air and said, “No one can change your Karma. Not even God!” My reaction was that my heart burst open with love. I felt that I knew a divine truth – that MY God could transform our errors and sins. I knew that I would never be able to get my karma perfect enough in this lifetime to transcend all, as I was being taught, because of all my mistakes and failings, and all my imperfections. But I knew my Lord and Savior had the power to bring me to the highest place through the gift of His Atonement.
I had a lot of exposure to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints before I joined the Church. When my husband was in medical school in Rochester, New York, a more experienced student was assigned to him as a mentor. The mentor and his wife were members of the Church, and we really loved them and spent a lot of time together. The missionaries knocked on our door, but it wasn’t the right time.
Then, when my husband did his residency in Boston, we had an au pair who lived with us, and she was from a large Latter-day Saint family. When I first met Renae, I had a really vivid dream about her – I went into a greenhouse and there were all these women with an older woman who was clearly the mother of the group. They sat me down and said, “You have to help us bring Renae back to the church.” I said okay, and I woke up. I told Renae this and she said, “You’re gonna die. I am number eleven of twelve children, and I’m the only one in my family who has decided not to be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I have six sisters. It’s probably who you met in your dream.” For the year she was with us, the missionaries and people from the local ward knocked on our door. I would open it and find little treats they left for her. Over that year, she talked with me about her qualms, the things she saw that were negative.
Through those same years, I was following an Instagram account by Rachel Parcell – she has a clothing line and a home goods line and at the time had a lifestyle and beauty blog called “Pink Peonies.” A friend sent me one of her posts and said we look like twins – we both have long dark hair, and we both have daughters named Isla Rose. I had no idea she was a Latter-day Saint for years. But one year, she posted a Christmas picture with the hashtag #LightTheWorld and I thought, “Wait a minute. She’s part of this church?!”
You were influenced toward the LDS Church by an Instagram influencer?
I was. It was one of the biggest blessings.
The big turning point in my life when I decided I needed to yoke myself with Christ was when I went through infertility. In 2015, to become pregnant with our second daughter, we went through IVF, and it failed. I mean, it crashed and burned. We lost five babies. It was awful.
I had this little jewelry tray that said, “It is well with my soul,” which is one of my favorite hymns. I kept it on my nightstand and every night when I took off my rings, I felt that my family’s life was in Christ’s hands. I felt His love, and I felt His presence for the first time. Before that, I had understood God as a disdainful patriarch. But through that trial, I entered into relationship with Christ and felt that He was in the weeds with me. He was in my pain and my suffering and my loss and my uncertainty and all of these things that I was struggling with.
The Lord gave us a miracle – I got pregnant spontaneously with our second daughter Everly between IVF cycles. When she was six months old, we moved to Durham, North Carolina. Our backyard looked like the Sacred Grove with a beautiful canopy of trees. I had just gotten my dream job, I found out I was pregnant with our third baby without even trying, just miraculous. Since we were new to the state, I thought, “Okay, what church are we going to join?” I didn’t know the story of Joseph Smith – I had no idea. But I went into the woods behind my house and prayed, and asked, “what church should I join?” (As in, which Catholic parish?)
Every step I took, all the way up through my temple endowment, I had no idea what I was really doing. I just knew that Christ had seen me through that terrible trial. Another question was – I’d been reading the Bible my entire life and understood that we need to be like Jesus; we need to embody all these qualities. I wanted to, but I didn’t know how. My answer has been making and keeping sacred covenants with the Lord. Christ is always in our story. I feel like He’s always reaching out to us.
As I was praying in my backyard, the Holy Ghost said, “Read the Book of Mormon.” I thought about Renae, our au pair who struggled with the Church, and kind of compared her to Rachel – she was an everyday woman like me, married, had two kids and a career, and I felt a really deep connection with her. I thought, “I will give it a read. If Rachel is part of this church, it must be really special.” So I sent away for a Book of Mormon, which of course was delivered by the sister missionaries. I still keep in touch with them! I took one lesson, two lessons, and that was it. I was baptized in December 2017. That was it; there was no turning back for me.
Rachel, her family, and I ended up being connected in a miraculous way – her ministering sister’s son was the Elder who baptized me, which we found out four years later!! Shortly after, her parents were visiting North Carolina and attended church at the same building as my ward, and we were able to meet. I had to hug them and tell them that they were the reason I was there! These tender mercies are not lost on me!
You were doing all these things and then decided to commit your life to Christ. But it sounds to me like you had committed to Christ your entire life. What was the difference?
There was a period of time when I sort of wandered. Right before my husband and I were married, I went to school to become a massage therapist. I was introduced to all of the New Age things. I also got my yoga teacher certification from Lama Magmar. He’s a Tibetan Lama and is the Buddhist chaplain at Harvard. So I was still getting exposed to all different faiths and religions.
But here’s what happened – and this was a pitfall for me. I found all these New Age things, and I think they are wonderful when used appropriately, such as thinking good thoughts, staying positive in trials, and overcoming challenges. All of that is good. However, I started to believe that I was the center of my life. I genuinely started to believe that, yes, God is great. I’m glad He’s there, but I don’t actually need Him. I can manifest my life. I can do it all myself. Then, infertility and IVF brought me to my knees. I was doing all the things – all of the injections, all the acupuncture, all the positive thinking, all the exercise, all of the supplements and herbs and meditations…and yet I could not create and “manifest” this baby by myself. I couldn’t will her into being. That was the big turning point for me. I realized, wait a minute. There is something and someone who’s so much bigger than me, who cares about me, and my life is not as locked up and within my control as I was leading myself to believe. Maybe, just maybe, life was designed for me – for us – to need Christ.
What does your family think of your baptism and commitment to the Church?
Tony is very supportive, and he does all the things with us – Family Home Evening, family scripture study, family prayer. He comes to sacrament meeting when he’s not working or sleeping from working overnight – he’s a cardiologist. He loves the Lord. The fact that he participates and supports really means a lot. He’s coming from a family that has been Catholic for generations.
I am my parents’ only child, and I am adopted. I know my biological mom, and she has two other children who are both younger than me. And then my biological dad, I have a younger half-brother from him.
My parents are so great. They have moved with us whenever we’ve had to move for different medical training areas. They live 15 minutes away now. They’re very kind, very loving, very involved grandparents. They’ve been very supportive about the Church – they have come to the girls’ baby blessings, and they came to Isla’s baptism when she turned eight. My mom even played the piano for a piece that Isla and I sang for her baptism.
They did leave religion entirely when I was ten, but they have always supported my own walk. My dad just retired from being vice president of operations for an HVAC company (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) that has contracts with Latter-day Saint temples to service their equipment. He’s been to the Salt Lake Temple visitor’s center a few times, and my mom even went with him once.
How did you get to know your biological family? Does that play into your conversion to the Church, or was it independent from your religious seeking?
They are connected. When I met my birth mom, I was 18, she was 38. She was 19 when I was born. I was 11 months old when she gave me up for adoption, which I hadn’t realized until I met her as an adult – I thought I was in the foster care system as a baby, but I was with her. I was only in the foster care system for maybe two months before my adoptive parents were able to take me home. There was a year probation period before her rights were fully suspended. My adoption was finalized when I was almost two.
When I met her, she told me, “I don’t know who your biological dad is, I think it might be this guy, but I don’t know.” I was absolutely horrified if I’m being honest. Up to that point, I had such a traditional life – my parents were high school sweethearts, they’ve been married since they were 18 years old, very religious and very devout and traditional. Even after they left religion, they still carried those values. So I found it very hard to swallow that part of my background was missing.
Between ages 18 and 35 – when I joined the Church, that’s a long window of time – I was seeking a connection with God, and I was searching for my biological dad. My husband even got me a DNA test one year for Mother’s Day. Satan was really whispering a lot of lies to me, like, “You were born out of sin, so you’re not as good as other people. Your biological parents weren’t married when they conceived you. You don’t deserve to be here. Your worth has to be earned in the world by achievements. Your birth mom rejected you. And if she rejected you, no one can really ever deeply love you.” I’m talking really mean things, “You were an accident. You weren’t meant to be here.” That was a big one: you were an accident.
During college, it was sinking in that I wasn’t going to know who my biological dad was, and it really bothered me. What if there’s some devastating health thing, and I want to have kids, and I don’t know about it? I want to know where I come from. My whole sense of identity was challenged. One time, I was attending the Catholic church and taking communion, and I was crying about this situation. All of a sudden, it was the Lord speaking through the Holy Ghost, and He said, “It doesn’t matter who made you, Ashli, because I made you.” I knew that what He was saying was true.
A couple of months after I was baptized, in February 2018, I shared the story of what the Holy Ghost said in fast and testimony meeting. I shared that I know that family history is such an important part of our church. I know that the Lord will fill in the gaps for me, and I’m grateful that He gave me wonderful parents. I closed by saying that I’m also grateful that God has allowed me to become a mother myself.
Two days later, I got an email from 23 And Me – a woman said that we matched as first cousins. “My dad has only one brother, and I think he’s your father.” I had literally just shared that testimony and the Lord filled in the gap. My biological dad had no idea I existed, but he remembered my birth mom. They were together only one night, and here I am. He was overjoyed. He told me, “I’ve been having dreams that I had a daughter. I kept having dreams about your birth mom. I didn’t understand why; now I know!”
This was 100 percent because of the Lord. I was convinced I wasn’t going to know who he was, I wasn’t going to have those questions answered until I was on the other side of the veil. I truly had accepted that I wasn’t going to know.
I have an inkling as to why the Lord revealed my whole biological side of the family to me – now I have all this temple work! A couple of weeks after I found my biological dad, my birth mom called me and said, “You’ll never believe this.” She was on ancestry.com and her whole family tree just lit up – she had found her biological dad, and all her siblings. So I’m going to the temple for ordinances for my family, my husband’s family, AND my biological family. I’ve had a few friends do ordinances, and oh my heck, the things that come through the mouths of those women – messages from my family. “Jesus Christ sent you here. We are aware of you. You came for a reason. You were sent here on purpose. The conditions of your birth were chosen by your Heavenly Parents. You’re not an accident.” It’s been so, so healing for me.
One friend visited me and mentioned she was going to the temple that night and asked if I had any family names that needed to be done. I just handed her a card, I didn’t look at the name. After the session, she said, “Listen, I don’t know who this relative is to you, but when they talked about posterity, clear as day, I saw your face. And this woman said, tell her we are aware of her. Tell her that we know her, that we celebrated her coming, that we love her.” Her name was Mary Coyle, and she’s my biological mom’s biological dad’s mother, my biological great-grandma. I shared it with my birth mom because she had felt the same things – abandoned by her birth dad, that she was an accident. She carried that hurt, and I got to share that with her – “Your grandma knows that you were there. She knows I’m there. So she knows you’re there because I wouldn’t be here without you.” It was so healing.
You have adoptive parents, you have biological parents, and you know them all. What a wonderful extended family you’ve gathered. With seeking your family and seeking religion and a relationship with God, how has all of this come together?
When I prayed as a little Catholic girl, I prayed to Heavenly Father, to Jesus Christ, and to Mary. I wasn’t sure if it was Mary I was connecting with, but I definitely felt something from a loving female. My little six-year-old self had a witness of a Heavenly Mother.
When I was a new convert, I was in the Sunday School class for investigators and new people, and we sang, “O My Father.” I was sitting with one of the sister missionaries, and pointed to the lyrics and said, “Wait a minute, we have a doctrine that there’s a Heavenly Mother?” And she said, “Oh, yeah. We believe there’s a Heavenly Mother.” All the bells went off, and I practically leaped out of my chair. “I knew it!!!!! I knew it!!!!!”
I always, always, always had a deep desire to please the Lord and to serve Him. Even amid leaving the Catholic church, coming back, and all of this spiritual discovery, I always had a deep desire to know what God wants me to do, how He wants me to live and be, and obey Him. Through obedience to my covenants, I have seen the power and the blessings of the sealing ordinance in the temple – the welding link between members of my family, my husband’s family, my biological family, and ultimately the human family. It’s all connected. We are each so important to Him. Each and every one of us matters to Him. After all of my searching, I know this for certain now.
At A Glance
Name: Ashli Elizabeth Carnicelli
Location: Charleston, South Carolina
Marital History: Married for 16 years this June
Children: 4 daughters
Occupation: Full time Mom, author, and nursing student
Convert to the Church: 12/14/2017
Schools Attended: Bachelors of Music from Boston Conservatory at Berklee
Languages Spoken At Home: English
Favorite Hymn: Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing
Website or Social Media You Would Like Featured:: https://pearlsoflight.substack.com/