Rome • Daniele Salerno was in the bathroom and missed LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson’s 2008 announcement that a temple would be built in his city: Rome.
What Salerno did hear was a communal “whoa,” followed by cheering and shouting coming from the chapel, hardly the typical response from Mormons viewing LDS General Conference on a big screen.
When he emerged into the hallway, Salerno saw fellow Latter-day Saints hugging, crying, clapping and celebrating — as if their soccer team had just won the World Cup.
That moment became pivotal in the young father’s life.
Growing up as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salerno had always heard Italian Mormons say that one day they would have a temple in their midst. Now the Telecom Italian sales consultant drives by the temple site, an hour or so outside Rome’s center, on his way to work every day. The sight of that sacred structure emerging “brick by brick” makes him want to be growing spiritually at least as fast.
“The Lord is blessing us as a community,” Salerno says. “It is an increasing challenge to be a light to our neighbors, friends and family.”
News of a Mormon temple in Rome also brought a rumble of approval in the giant LDS Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City on that October day 3 1/2 years ago.
More than practically any other place, planting a temple in the Eternal City, not far from the seat of Catholicism, carried a symbolic significance for the Utah-based faith. It seemed to say: Mormons have arrived on the world stage and are here to stay.
Long time coming • Mormons landed in the boot-shaped country as early as 1850, when then-apostle Lorenzo Snow and two companions dedicated the place for LDS preaching. The trio even renamed the city La Tour as Mount Brigham, according to the 2012 Church Almanac. Most of the early converts emigrated to Utah, so the Mormon presence there disappeared until after World War II, nearly a century later.
The first LDS stake (a cluster of congregations) was formed in Milan in June 1981, and several others followed in that decade. By 1993, the Italian government formally had recognized the church as a legal entity, allowing it to buy property.
Mormons in Italy, who now number nearly 25,000 in almost 100 congregations, making up seven stakes, have an excellent relationship with the government, says Rome Stake President Massimo DeFeo.
Though most of the country’s recognized churches get some government support through their members’ taxes, the LDS Church does not.
“Part of the agreement ready to be signed between Italy and the LDS Church includes a refusal by the LDS Church to accept tax money,” DeFeo writes in an email. “It is now a matter of a short time to sign the final agreement.”
Though the process to gain all the approvals for the temple was lengthy, it went more smoothly than expected, he says. “We were able to obtain the permission due to the hard work with contacts at the city administration level.”
The church had owned the site for a decade or more, but to build there, it had to ensure no ruins were buried there. While crews dug for bones of buildings, the Mormons fasted.
In the end, some ruins were found within 200 yards of the site, but not within it. The project moved forward.
“It was amazing,” says Jeff Acerson, LDS Rome mission president from 2007 to 2010. “You would think there would have been more obstacles.”
It seemed, well, almost miraculous.
Among the Catholics • Mormon officials believe their temple will enhance Rome’s reputation as a cosmopolitan city that accepts a bounty of faiths.
“We are living in this cultural and religious environment,” explains Raimondo Castellani, an area Seventy and former president of the LDS temple in neighboring Switzerland who directs the faith’s public affairs in Italy. “Mormonism is now part of that culture.”
LDS officials cite “high-level” meetings they have had in recent years with various Catholic and Vatican leaders, including one with a visiting general authority and one Acerson and other religious leaders had with the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.
“It was amazing to see the openness of the Catholic Church,” Acerson says. “They don’t see us taking over the world, but they recognize our church is made up of good people trying to do good things.”
DeFeo, who works at the U.S. Embassy in Rome as the operations supervisor for West Europe, echoes that sentiment.
“Mormons are perceived in general as good people, honest, clean and very respectful,” he says. “The Vatican has great respect for our community — has held several meetings in the past three years to consolidate the relationships and ties between the two faiths — but they do not know that we are Christians yet.”
The bigger problem for the American-born faith may be its invisibility.
“The Mormons are still poorly known in Italy,” says Massimo Introvigne, sociologist and director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR) in Torino.
Introvigne’s center surveyed Italians some years ago and discovered that many believed that Mormons — who account for fewer than half a percent of the country’s populace — still practiced polygamy, though the church officially gave it up more than a century ago.
“Now Mormons are generally associated with [presidential candidate Mitt] Romney,” Introvigne writes in an email. “The Romney phenomenon has increased the interest for Mormonism in the Vatican. There, the authorities look for information from scholars and from [Catholic] bishops in the United States, whose views of the Mormons are quite balanced and mostly positive. This is balanced by negative views by bishops in Latin America and elsewhere afraid of Mormon missionaries’ proselytism.”
Rome has a section quite far away from the city’s heart where the Great Mosque and a large Jehovah’s Witness center are located.
“They do not disturb the Romans and in fact the Great Mosque, one of the largest in Europe, has been converted into a tourist attraction,” he says. “While a Mormon temple in the city center would disturb many, in fact the temple … will be just as invisible as the mosque is.”
Introvigne points to the Catholic — or Italian — view of new religions.
When it comes to proselytizing, he says, Italians think first of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have 400,000 members in the country. Mormons, with their much smaller numbers, don’t register; even Mormon missionaries are not “well-known.”
The temple may help introduce Mormons to the country, he says, as long as it is done artfully.
It could be “an opportunity to explain what 21st-century Mormonism is all about,” he writes. “But my personal impression, as a social scientist, is that it will all depend on how much the Mormon factor becomes part of the Romney-Obama campaign.”
Castellani, 62, says most Mormons think little or nothing about Romney and American politics, but they do care about building bridges with their neighbors — Catholics and others.
“I joined the church when I was 33 years old, and I think I know well both religions,” he says. “I believe that the Catholic Church is still looking at the LDS Church with some suspicion, mostly because of misinformation. But I think there is a good dialogue.”
The temple, he believes, will propel that dialogue.
Missionaries and members • Because Italy, like much of Europe, is awash in traditions and secularism, it has not been a particularly ripe area for LDS conversions.
That makes it tough for Mormon missionaries, says Acerson, because the people don’t see religion as important to their lives.
Still, the temple announcement had a big impact.
“Baptisms increased even as the number of missionaries decreased,” he says.“It gave the missionaries an added push in excitement.”
The American-born faith has been especially attractive to a large number of immigrants, especially those from South America. They seem to be filling up pews in LDS chapels such as the one that houses the Rome Second Ward. Most members take public transportation to the area, but cars are packed in tightly on the streets surrounding the meetinghouse. The chapel is overflowing, with the speakers piped in to an upstairs classroom and believers leaning in through patio windows.
Serving in Italy is definitely “as hard as you think,” says Mary Celeste Lewis, a Mormon missionary from Morgan, after a service in Rome. “But these are the most amazingly strong people I’ve ever seen; they deserve their own temple.”
Indeed, Italian Mormons have been avid templegoers for years, taking time off from work to travel to Switzerland, Acerson says. “Some 80 percent of temple work done in the Swiss temple was done by Italians.”
And young LDS couples seem to be leading the way.
“They were taught in their youth, embraced it,” says Acerson, who lives in Lindon and teaches leadership at Utah Valley University, “and now form a strong foundation for the church going forward.”
Alessandro Dini Ciacci was very religious, an altar boy who went to Catholic school and loved it. He learned “great principles and met great people,” he says. “But when Mormon missionaries came, I started wondering about lots of things.”
He read the signature LDS scripture, the Book of Mormon, he says, “in order to refute it.”
After about eight months, Dini Ciacci joined and later was called to the Athens, Greece, mission, where he met his future wife, Sara Squarcia, a third-generation Mormon, whose mother also served a mission. They’ve been married for six years and have two children and another on the way.
“When the temple comes,” Dini Ciacci says, “it will be our weekly date night.”
Daniele and Norma Salerno are second-generation Mormons who met at church young-adult activities. The couple were “sealed” for eternity in the Swiss temple, immediately after being married in an Italian public wedding.
When the Rome temple opens sometime in the second half of 2014, the husband and wife plan to attend often to participate in sacred ceremonies.
“Now we won’t have that long journey,” Norma Salerno says. “We really think, as a family, we will be blessed to go each week. We want our children to love the atmosphere of the temple grounds.”
Having a temple close by is “the dream of the dreams,” DeFeo says, “both to practice temple work more easily for all members from all over Italy, but also as a missionary tool to let the church come out of obscurity.”
He added: “It will greatly improve the image of the church among the people of Italy — not only the image in Rome but Europewide.”
That, he says, is “true happiness.”
Italy’s Mormons by the numbers
24,443 • Members
98 • Congregations
49 • Family history centers
2 • Missions