‘I felt something that made my heart explode’: The inspiring conversion story of a former branch president in Italy

MURRAY — 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."

The Rome Italy Temple on a beautiful and warm day in March 9, 2019.
The Rome Italy Temple on a beautiful and warm day in March 9, 2019. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc., Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

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 a recent interview.

See all of the Church News' coverage on the Rome Italy Temple here.

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.

A group of Latter-day Saints outside the Bern Switzerland Temple.
A group of Latter-day Saints outside the Bern Switzerland Temple. Credit: Provided by Roberto Deni, Provided by Roberto Deni

"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 Dec. 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.

While living in Italy, Roberto Deni helped organize a Boy Scout troop that later attended a World Jamboree.
While living in Italy, Roberto Deni helped organize a Boy Scout troop that later attended a World Jamboree. Credit: Provided by Roberto Deni, Provided by Roberto Deni

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 hopes to visit this summer.