Pioneers in Every Land

Latter-day Saints in Italy: A Legacy of Faith


The history of the Church in Italy begins in New Testament times, when the capital of the Roman Empire was home to a group of faithful Christians. The Bible doesn’t record who originally took the gospel to Rome, but a branch of the Church had been there for “many years” (Romans 15:23) when the Apostle Paul sent a letter to the Romans in about a.d. 57.

Paul described the Christians in Rome as “full of goodness” (15:14). He was acquainted with some of them, and his epistle contained a long list of beloved Saints to whom he sent greetings (see 16:1–15).

Paul extolled the faith of those Christians and told them that he prayed fervently for them. He longed to see them and hoped God would grant that he might visit them soon (see 1:8–15).

When he did at last go to Rome, it was as a prisoner, but the Church members’ anticipation of his arrival was such that some of the brethren traveled 43 miles (69 km) to meet him at the Appii forum. Seeing them, “he thanked God, and took courage” (Acts 28:15).

Later, Paul suffered martyrdom in Rome, where Christians were severely persecuted by Nero and other emperors. Eventually the Church fell into apostasy, but the early Roman Saints left a legacy of faith at the center of the empire, setting the stage for Christianity to spread throughout the world.

A People Hidden Up by the Lord

In 1849, Elder Lorenzo Snow (1814–1901) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was called to establish a mission in Italy. As he was contemplating where to commence, he learned about the Waldensians, a religious community in the Piedmont mountains of northwestern Italy.

The Waldensians had endured extreme persecutions over seven centuries because of their beliefs. Predating the Protestant Reformation by several hundred years, they preached that Christ’s early Church had fallen into apostasy. They separated themselves from the Roman Catholic Church and were declared heretics, driven from cities, tortured, and slaughtered. Rather than renounce their faith, they fled to the upper mountains.1

“A flood of light seemed to burst upon my mind when I thought upon [the Waldensians],” recorded Elder Snow. In a letter home he wrote, “I believe that the Lord has there hidden up a people amid the Alpine mountains.”2

In other regions of Italy, laws were not favorable for missionary activity. But two years before Elder Snow arrived, the Waldensians in the Piedmont region had been granted religious freedom after centuries of persecution.3 Not only that, but several among them had received remarkable dreams and visions preparing them to receive the missionaries’ message.4

Elder Snow, accompanied by two missionary companions, dedicated Italy for the preaching of the gospel on September 19, 1850. Elder Snow recorded, “From that day opportunities began to occur for proclaiming our message.”5

Over the next four years, the missionaries’ efforts met with both success and opposition. They published two missionary tracts and an Italian translation of the Book of Mormon. They baptized a number of converts. But by 1854, the work had dwindled—the missionaries were called away to other areas, the staunchest converts were immigrating to Utah, and persecution was growing. In 1862 all active proselyting was discontinued, and the mission was closed in 1867.

The Italian Mission was active only 12 years, but during that time, 12 families and seven individuals were converted and immigrated to Utah. The Waldensians who embraced the gospel infused the Church in Utah with strength, and today tens of thousands of members trace their heritage back to the 72 faithful Waldensians who left the home of their forefathers to join the Latter-day Saints in the Rocky Mountains.6

Hastening the Work

After the Italian Mission closed, no official missionary work was done in Italy for almost a hundred years. When the light of the gospel began to shine again in Italy, it was amid World War II, when Latter-day Saint military personnel from the United States were stationed in cities throughout Italy. These members formed groups that met for Sunday meetings, and the groups continued after the war as the members were assigned to military bases in Italy.

Over the next 20 years, the Lord hastened His work. Native Italians began to join the Church after encountering missionaries in nearby countries. Military members’ groups in Naples and Verona were organized into branches under the direction of the Swiss Mission. The mission had the Book of Mormon retranslated into Italian and published. The time for missionaries to be sent to Italy was drawing near.

In 1964, Italy was organized as a district of the Swiss Mission, and soon Italian-speaking missionaries were sent to several cities. In 1966, the Italian Mission was organized, 99 years after the original Italian Mission had closed. Elder Ezra Taft Benson (1899–1994) of the Quorum of the Twelve offered a prayer rededicating Italy for the preaching of the gospel.

Ten years from the time the mission opened, the number of members in Italy had increased from about 300 to 5,000. That number had doubled by 1982. In recent years, growth has been dramatic. From 2005 to 2010, four new stakes were created, taking the total number of stakes to seven. Today there are nearly 25,000 Latter-day Saints in Italy.

Establishing the Church

Elder Craig A. Cardon of the Seventy is one of thousands of Latter-day Saints who trace their ancestry back to Phillipe Cardon, a Waldensian convert who immigrated to Utah in 1854. Elder Cardon has witnessed the Lord’s work unfolding in the land of his ancestors, first as a missionary in the newly opened Italian Mission in the 1960s and then as president of the Italy Rome Mission in the 1980s.

When Elder Cardon was called to be a mission president in 1983, all but one of the chapels in Rome were rented buildings. In those days new Church buildings were paid for partly by donations from members in the area. Because funds were needed to construct several buildings, it looked impossible on paper for the members to be able to contribute so much. After the matter was given prayerful consideration, the Italian members were invited to take the money they would have spent on Christmas that year and donate it to the building fund. Instead of gifts, families would place a brick under their Christmas trees to represent their sacrifice.

“What happened on that occasion was miraculous,” says Elder Cardon. “The contributions exceeded the need. Because of this and the Saints’ continued tithing faithfulness, the Lord poured out a rich spiritual blessing upon the mission and upon the Saints throughout the area as they willingly responded to do all they could to establish the Church. I am convinced that their commitment was a central part of what allowed the Church to continue to grow to the point for a stake to be organized and now a temple constructed in Rome.”7

Prior to being called as a General Authority, Elder Cardon returned to Italy in 2005 to be present when the Rome Italy Stake was created. It was a sweet experience. “Here was priesthood strength,” he says, “the keys of the priesthood, the scriptural definition of a place of refuge—a stake—now established in Rome.”

A Temple in Rome

In the October 2008 general conference, when President Thomas S. Monson announced that a temple would be built in Rome, an audible gasp and whispers of excitement swept across the Conference Center. In Italy, congregations of Saints watching by satellite let out shouts of joy. One sister remembers, “We went to our homes as if on wings, with joy in our hearts.”

Why is the idea of a temple in Rome so meaningful? Besides being aware of the temple’s profound spiritual significance, members have a sense of the city’s historical significance, says Elder Cardon: “Its governance and power during its particular season; its explorers, artists, scientists, and inventors who have contributed so much to the world; and the blessing that the religious power of Rome has been in helping to introduce Christianity throughout the world are all a part of Rome’s history, now graced by a temple of the Lord.” At the 2010 groundbreaking ceremony, President Monson said, “With regard to the temple which will be built upon this site, it means everything to Latter-day Saints.”8

For over 40 years, Italian members have traveled to the Bern Switzerland Temple, some journeying two days to get there. Massimo De Feo, former president of the Rome stake and now an Area Seventy, believes the Rome Temple is a sign that the Lord has seen the years of service and sacrifice from the Latter-day Saints and recognizes their great desire for a temple.

When the announcement about the temple was made, Elder De Feo says the excitement was like that felt in a stadium when a team wins at the last second; the joy was similar to what he imagines we felt in the premortal life when the plan of salvation was announced. The Saints were hugging, smiling, and crying. It was true happiness.

“It is marvelous to serve the Lord in these days,” says Elder De Feo, “so special for Italy, for Rome.” He testifies, “I know that the Lord is greatly blessing this part of His kingdom.”9

  • * 63 b.c.: Roman military leader Pompeius conquers Jerusalem, which becomes part of the Roman Empire

  • a.d. 45: The Apostle Paul, a Roman citizen, begins first missionary journey throughout Roman Empire

  • 64: Christians blamed for the great fire of Rome and begin to be persecuted by Roman government

  • 313: Constantine becomes the first Christian Roman emperor and legalizes Christian worship

  • 380: Emperor Theodosius I makes Christianity the official state religion of Roman Empire and paves the way for Christianity to spread throughout the world

  • 1173: Waldo of Lyons, France, starts a movement to return to the original gospel taught by Christ and His Apostles

  • 1215: Waldo and his followers, the Waldensians—some of whom live in Italy—are declared heretics and are persecuted

  • 1843: Giuseppe (Joseph) Toronto baptized in Massachusetts, USA—the first Italian to join the Church

  • 1848: King Carlo Alberto of Piedmont-Sardinia grants religious liberty to the Waldensians

  • 1850: Elders Lorenzo Snow, Joseph Toronto, and B. H. Stenhouse begin missionary efforts in Italy

  • 1852: An Italian translation of the Book of Mormon published

  • 1854: Missionary work dwindles as persecution grows and missionaries shift their focus to Switzerland; Waldensian converts begin immigration to Salt Lake City, Utah

  • 1862: All active proselyting in Italy stops

  • 1944: LDS military members’ groups are established in Italy

  • 1964: The Church publishes a new Italian translation of the Book of Mormon; the Swiss Mission organizes an Italian district

  • 1966: The Italian Mission organized; Elder Ezra Taft Benson rededicates Italy for the preaching of the gospel

  • 1972: President Harold B. Lee visits members in Italy, the first Church President to visit in latter days

  • 1981: The Milan Italy Stake organized, the first stake in Italy

  • 1993: The Church given legal recognition to formally own property and perform government-recognized marriages

  • 2008: The Rome Italy Temple announced by President Thomas S. Monson

  • 2012: The Church given the highest legal status granted to religions in Italy

  •   *

    All early dates are approximate.

  • Members in Italy

    1854

    66

    1965

    287

    1975

    3,929

    1985

    12,000

    1995

    17,000

    2005

    21,791

    2013

    25,453

    The Church in Italy Today*

    Members: 25,453

    Missions: 2

    Stakes: 7

    Wards: 46

    Branches: 52

    Districts: 5

    Temples: 1 (under construction)

    Family history centers: 49

  •   *

    As of December 2013

  • Meet the Italian Saints

    If you ever visit Italy, you may have the chance to attend a sacrament meeting with the Italian Saints. The country has about a hundred wards and branches. In Genoa, your walk to church might take you through the maze of streets in the city center, past the Piazza De Ferrari, to the second floor of an office building. You’ll have no trouble finding a meeting in Rome, where the Church has chapels in three different parts of the city. If you find yourself near L’Aquila, you’ll go to a beautiful new chapel on Via Avezzano, since the old chapel was destroyed by an earthquake in 2009.

    Whichever branch or ward you visit, when you sit down in the chapel and sing the opening hymn with the Italian Saints, you’ll feel their faith. These members live in an area where Mormons are almost unheard of, a country steeped in the traditions of another religion. Of the 25,000 members in Italy today, more than half were baptized since 1986—so the person sitting next to you is likely a convert. If you ask that person what brought him or her into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you may hear a story like one of the following. These are the experiences and testimonies of three faithful Italian members.

    Paola Fava of Genoa

    Paola Fava

    Paola Fava has been a member of the Church for 10 years. Her home is in Genoa, a beautiful port city on the northwestern shore of Italy that is famous for being the birthplace of Christopher Columbus and of a traditional Italian food called pesto. Her husband passed away in 2009. She has a little dog, Bak, and she stays busy serving in the Church and doing family history. Here is her conversion story.

    A number of years ago, I knew a girl who worked at the London branch of the same company I worked for. She was brilliant in her job and delightful as a friend. I didn’t know she was a Mormon. For many years we kept in touch by letter, and every time she said that she had a lot of work to do for her church, I never understood what sort of work it might be. Then one day she wrote that she was doing “baptisms for the dead,” and this made me curious.

    Some years passed, and I went to see her in England. One day during my visit, we sat on the grass and she asked me if we could talk a little bit about God. “How strange,” I thought, but I told her yes. She said to me, “Did you know that a boy in America found plates of gold that told the story of ancient Americans to whom Jesus Christ appeared?” She told me that the boy was also given the message to restore on the earth the ancient Church of Jesus Christ, and he did this despite many difficulties.

    This message struck me profoundly. I felt it was indeed true, and that night at her house, I found a copy of the Book of Mormon on the nightstand. But I didn’t want to involve myself with a different church at that time, even though I didn’t feel spiritually well.

    One day in another letter she told me that her husband had become a member of her church and things had never been better. “OK, I really must get to know this church!” I said to myself. I called the mission office and arranged to meet with the sister missionaries.

    After I received the lessons, I entered the waters of baptism. I shed many tears and felt immense joy, and I experienced innumerable blessings, which continue to this day. My conversion was the fruit of the patience and perseverance of a special friend. She had conviction that her message would deeply impress my heart. I experienced a great change in my life, and I am finally happy in the faith, truly knowing who I am, where I come from, and especially where I want to go.

    Valentina Aranda of Rome

    Valentina Aranda

    Valentina Aranda, 33 years old, feels blessed to have lived all her life in the same neighborhood in Rome, a city loved throughout the world for its history and art. Her family comes from many different parts of Italy, which enriches her life with varied traditions. She had a promising career in marketing that she set aside to be a full-time mother to her two daughters. Below she shares the story of her conversion at age 21.

    It all started with the Book of Mormon, which I saw in my friend’s library. The book made me very curious, and I felt drawn to it. One day I picked it up and began reading it—but it didn’t make sense to me. I told this to my friend’s mother, who said that I should pray before I read it.

    The next evening, I prayed and started reading at the beginning of the book. It seemed to be a different book from what I had read the day previous, and I felt something I had never felt before. I talked about it with my friend and told her I would like to go with her family to church the next Sunday.

    When I arrived at the church, I immediately felt at home. It was fast and testimony Sunday, and a very strong spirit descended upon me. I’ll never forget that Sunday. That morning I met the missionaries, who began helping me to know the truth. Those two angels were a great gift, and they are still dear friends today.

    But my belief in Joseph Smith as a prophet was the greatest, strongest, and firmest testimony I had. I knew right away that he was a prophet of God and that a great mission was entrusted to him, and after the lesson with the missionaries where I learned about the Restoration, I decided to be baptized. Five weeks after my first time attending church, I entered the waters of baptism. How exciting it was!

    The Church gave me a new life. I am happy and secure in my decision; I am sealed to my husband and daughters; I have new friends, the truth, the scriptures, the temple, and knees that now know how to kneel to pray.

    I await with anticipation the temple here in Rome. I know that it will be a great blessing for me and for many, many brothers and sisters who are waiting for it.

    Angelo Melone of L’Aquila

    Angelo Melone

    Angelo Melone lives with his family in L’Aquila, a small city founded in medieval times near the center of Italy. He works as the anti-fraud director of the customs office in L’Aquila, a job that he enjoys very much. The most precious thing in his life, he says, is his family. His wife, Elizabete, is from Brazil, and they have two daughters—Naomi, 11, and Michela Alessandra, 19. He was baptized when he was 18 years old.

    Every time I remember my conversion, I thank the Lord for helping me meet the missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    I was born and grew up at Ortona dei Marsi, a tiny village near the National Park of Abruzzo, in the province of L’Aquila. When I was 18, the missionaries contacted my sister. At that time she was studying medicine at the University of Chieti and living in Pescara, where there was a branch of the Church. She received the missionary lessons and decided to be baptized.

    I came to know the missionaries as I occasionally went to visit my sister. I was an obstinate person, and I tried to use the Bible to prove that the Church’s doctrine was in error. I read almost all the publications of the Church—but I didn’t succeed in detecting any contradictions. Instead I learned the story of the Restoration and the marvelous experience of the First Vision. I learned about the concept of a testimony and felt a desire to have one.

    One Sunday, I said to the branch president in Pescara that I would never be baptized into the Church; but inside me I knew something was changing. That week, I opened my copy of the Book of Mormon and a list of questions glued to the inside front cover caught my eye. I stopped on this question: “How can I develop faith?” The list said I could find the answer in Alma 32, where the word of God is compared to a seed.

    As I studied the passage, I realized that if I wanted to receive a testimony, I had to change my attitude. My heart was a plot of ground that had to be weeded. I needed to abandon all my prejudices and misconceptions about the Church, and then I could try the experiment. I sought to plant the seed in my heart—I knelt down and prayed to know if the Church had been restored and if the Book of Mormon really was the result of this Restoration. The Spirit I felt helped me to know that the Church of Jesus Christ was on the earth again. I was baptized August 10, 1978.

    The following years were exciting. I had to travel—10 kilometers (6.2 miles) on foot and about three hours by train—to get to church. But it was well worth the effort! Those little sacrifices brought much joy and many blessings in my life: my marriage with Elizabete in the São Paulo Temple in 1990, and the birth of two marvelous daughters, Michela and Naomi.

    Show References

      Notes

    1.   1.

      See Ronald A. Malan, “Waldensian History: A Brief Sketch,” Waldensian Families Research, www.waldensian.info/History.htm.

    2.   2.

      Lorenzo Snow, The Italian Mission (1851), 10–11.

    3.   3.

      Lorenzo Snow, The Italian Mission, 10–11.

    4.   4.

      Diane Stokoe, “The Mormon Waldensians” (master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1985), 26–27. For an example of one such dream, see Elizabeth Maki, “‘Suddenly the Thought Came to Me’: Child’s Vision Prepares Her Family for the Gospel,” June 3, 2013, history.lds.org/article/marie-cardon-italy-conversion.

    5.   5.

      Lorenzo Snow, The Italian Mission, 15, 17.

    6.   6.

      Stokoe, “The Mormon Waldensians,” 1–5, 71‑–84.

    7.   7.

      Craig A. Cardon, from an interview with the author in June 2013.

    8.   8.

      Thomas S. Monson, in Jason Swenson, “Rome Italy Temple Groundbreaking,” Church News, Oct. 23, 2010, ldschurchnews.com.

    9.   9.

      “Interview with President Massimo De Feo—Italy—Episode 1,” Into All the World (archived radio program); mormonchannel.org.