Italian Latter-day Saint Reflects on Conversion and Church Growth in Rome Over the Last 43 Years
Contributed By Trent Toone, Deseret News
- Italian Latter-day Saint Roberto Deni remembers his conversion story.
- The Rome Italy Temple will be a blessing to the people of that area.
“I cried a lot. … When you work hard a long time in the Church and you can't have everything because of difficulties, for us getting a temple was a dream. The Lord is blessing this area.” —Roberto Deni
Roberto Deni, a self-proclaimed “proud Italian,” recalls removing his glasses and using a tissue to dab at his eyes, first in 2008 when President Thomas S. Monson announced that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would build a temple in Rome; then again when ground was broken at the new temple site.
As a boy, Deni said he played on the ground where the temple would one day be constructed. Many years later, as a Latter-day Saint convert and local Church leader, the temple site was one of three he and two other members had scouted and recommended to Church leaders for a future temple, he said.
“I cried a lot,” the 70-year-old Deni said with a thick Italian accent. “When you work hard a long time in the Church and you can't have everything because of difficulties, for us getting a temple was a dream. The Lord is blessing this area.”
Now with the Rome temple dedicated, Deni, who lives with his wife in the Murray area and serves in a local Spanish ward bishopric, gladly reflected on fond memories of his time in Italy in an interview with the Deseret News.
Deni was first introduced to missionaries from the Church in 1976. At that time, the local branch of less than 80 members met in a rented space on the fifth floor of a building just outside of Rome.
Deni wasn't very interested at first and told the missionaries to come back another time just to get them to leave. But return the missionaries did.
For the next few months the missionaries, with the help of another local convert named Nicoletta Pangani, taught Deni while he attempted to let go of drinking and smoking habits.
Finally the missionaries reached a point where Deni wasn't progressing and had to say, “Ciao, Roberto,” Deni said.
“We can do nothing more for you. You need to decide what you want to do,” Deni recalled the missionaries saying. “You know everything. What are you waiting for?”
Deni was a little angry with the missionaries and didn't believe God would answer him. Yet, that night he couldn't sleep. Around 4 a.m., Deni decided to pray.
“Hey, God, what happened? If you can hear me, let me know. I need to know if the Church is good for me,” Deni said in his prayer. “Then I felt something that made my heart explode.”
Around 7 a.m., Deni called one of the missionaries, Elder Sharman Smoot, the son of Sister Mary Ellen Smoot, who served as Relief Society General President from 1997–2002. Deni told Elder Smoot about his experience and was baptized on December 3, 1976, Deni said.
“I had received revelation for the first time,” he said. “With the missionaries watching, I smashed my pack of cigarettes and I trashed them. The couple of beers I had I dumped in the sink. It was the beginning of my conversion.”
Within three years, Deni was called as a branch president.
When the branch became large enough to divide, the district president told Deni he needed to find a new place for his branch to meet with a week’s notice. When he failed to locate a place, Deni hosted more than 40 members for Sunday services in his home. Later, he rented a hotel room, and after that, a villa that was near where the temple now stands, he said.
In the decades that followed, Deni continued to serve and saw the growth of the Church in Italy. He assisted in planning missionary activities that shared the story of the Church. He helped organize a Boy Scout troop that went to the World Jamboree in Germany. He also became a close friend of Elder Massimo De Feo, a General Authority Seventy from Italy.
More than a decade ago, Deni had an opportunity to come to Utah and work with an Italian friend as a chef in his restaurant. He eventually met his wife, Maria Gonzalez, and they married in the Bountiful Utah Temple, he said.
Deni has not yet returned to Italy to tour the new temple, but he hopes to visit this summer.
Left, Elder Massimo De Feo, a General Authority Seventy, stands with Roberto and Maria Deni. Several years ago, Elder De Feo and Deni served together in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Italy. Photo courtesy of Roberto Deni.
Right, Roberto Deni stands with Sharman Smoot, one of the Latter-day Saint missionaries who taught and baptized Deni in Italy in the 1970s. Photo courtesy of Roberto Deni.
Left, Roberto Deni served as a branch president in Rome, Italy, about 40 years ago. Photo courtesy of Roberto Deni.
A group of Latter-day Saints smiles outside a chapel in Rome, Italy. Photo courtesy of Roberto Deni.
Roberto Deni recalled helping plan an event with missionaries aimed at introducing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to people in the community. Photo courtesy of Roberto Deni.
While living in Italy, Roberto Deni recalled helping plan an event with missionaries aimed at introducing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to people in the community. Photo courtesy of Roberto Deni.
While living in Italy, Roberto Deni helped organize a Boy Scout troop that later attended a World Jamboree. Photo courtesy of Roberto Deni.
Roberto Deni helped organize a Boy Scout troop in Italy that later attended a World Jamboree. Photo courtesy of Roberto Deni.