ROME — For Italian Latter-day Saints, Saturday was about weaving this city's rich spiritual past with a future replete with promise and, they add, eternal opportunities.

LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson presided over the groundbreaking ceremony of the future Rome Italy Temple now being built on a pastoral site in the northeast corner of the city. On Saturday, he shared remarks and counsel before offering a prayer of thanksgiving and dedication on the temple site and construction project.

Following the prayer, President Monson stepped down from the podium, gripped a shovel and turned the maiden load of dirt to commence the construction of the temple.

Now some 25,000 Mormons here look to the years ahead when Italy's first temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will open.

But the church leader reminded them of those pivotal, essential moments from their nation's past that cannot be forgotten.

"The ancient apostles Peter and Paul were missionaries here," he said. "Approximately 1,800 years later, in June of 1850, (Mormon apostle) Elder Lorenzo Snow and two companions, Elder Stenhouse and Elder Toronto, traveled to the valleys of the Piedmont Mountains in northeast Italy, where they began missionary efforts in this dispensation."

He also paid tribute to the LDS Italians — the local pioneers — who proved faithful over many years by traveling across international borders to worship and serve in the Bern Switzerland Temple.

"Such devotion to temple work has contributed to the wonderful blessing which will soon be ours — that of having a temple; a house of the Lord — here on this spot in this beautiful city. Members throughout Italy, and indeed the entire Mediterranean area, will be able to come here, no longer needing to travel such long distances, often at great expense."

Following the ceremony, President Monson spoke to the Deseret News about the impact a temple will have on the lives of the Italian members.

"This is one of the greatest blessings that has ever come to Italy," he said. "I'll look forward to the time when it is completed and hope the Lord will let me be here to dedicate it."

He also commented on the historical importance of building a temple in a world capital synonymous with history. "It's incomparable."

Hundreds of LDS Italians gathered for the outdoor event. They were joined by a handful of civic leaders, including Italian Senator Lucio Malan and Rome's vice mayor, Giuseppe Ciardi. The October skies were overcast but dry. A few guests bundled up in scarves and overcoats, but all seemed happy to be on hand for an LDS Church president's first visit to Italy since President Gordon B. Hinckley traveled to Rome in 1995 to present a copy of the "Encyclopedia of Mormonism" to the Vatican Library.

The enthusiasm for President Monson's visit and the commencement of the temple building has been felt since the Rome Italy Temple was announced two years ago. Local leaders and their families from across the country traveled to Rome for Saturday's ceremony. Many arrived hours early to secure a good seat. And a choir of dozens of men and women sang "We Thank Thee, O God, For a Prophet" and other beloved Mormon hymns in Italian.

Elder William R. Walker of the Seventy and the executive director of the church's temple department, spoke of President Monson's commitment to temple building.

"Of all the temples President Monson has announced, perhaps this one is the most historic," he added. "This great city is known throughout the world for its history, for its beauty and its Christian traditions. Now it will be the home of one of the temples of the Church of Jesus Christ."

Elder Erich W. Kopischke of the Seventy and president of the church's Europe Area, said the Rome Italy Temple will be the 12th such edifice in Europe. And plans for a 13th temple on the continent in Lisbon, Portugal, were recently announced.

"The Lord is covering Europe with temples and there is good reason for that: The people of Europe need the blessings of the restored gospel and the covenants and blessings of the temple," he said.

Bern Switzerland Temple President Raimondo Castellani, the first Italian to preside over a temple, also offered remarks at Saturday's event.

President Monson was in no hurry to leave following the groundbreaking ceremony. He spent several minutes enjoying light-hearted conversation with all who approached and shook hands with scores of Italian members and their guests.