ROME — Just over two years ago, Italian Mormons gathered in chapels across the country to watch a broadcast of general conference. They were surprised with a happy announcement: a temple would be built in Rome.
They didn't take the news with measured restraint.
"There was a big shout from all the people," said Sami Cantafio, a church convert from Rome. "It was thrilling."
Now Cantafio and fellow Mormons living across Europe's "boot" have more to celebrate. President Thomas S. Monson is expected to preside here over Saturday's temple groundbreaking ceremony. His visit will mark the first time in more than 30 years that a president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been in Italy. President Spencer W. Kimball stopped here in August of 1977.
At the ceremony, President Monson is planning to share remarks and then offer a dedicatory prayer on the temple construction project and property that will one day be home to Italy's first temple. Located in northeast Rome, the sprawling future temple site was once a working farm and still features a functioning well and a grove of olive trees that yield first-rate olive oil.
Some 500 people are expected to attend Saturday's groundbreaking ceremony. Many more LDS Italians will view a recording of the event on Sunday in meetinghouses all over the nation.
News of President Monson's expected visit brought back happy memories to Vincenzo Modugno. More than 30 years ago, Modugno took his seat with a small congregation of members to listen to counsel from then-Elder Thomas S. Monson, who was visiting southern Italy.
"It will be very special to see President Monson once again," he said.
A Utahn with close ties to the LDS Church in Italy was also excited for Saturday's event in a capital city that's synonymous with history. Orem's Francesco Lepore was born and raised in Italy. He was baptized before immigrating to the Beehive State some three decades ago. Since then, he has kept a trained eye on LDS developments in his native land.
He spent the day Friday at the temple construction site helping prepare for Saturday's groundbreaking ceremony.
"I'm in Rome visiting my mom — but when I learned the groundbreaking was happening, I wanted to be here," said Ledore. "I'm not in charge of anything (at the ceremony), but I'll do whatever they ask me to do."
Sami Cantafio said President Monson's participation in Saturday's ceremony will help LDS Italians everywhere prepare for a temple of their own.
"President Monson is loved by the Italian people," he said. "For us, he is like a great pastor."