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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints claps as he acknowledges those gathered for the cornerstone ceremony during the dedication of the Rome Italy Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Rome, Italy, on Sunday, March 10, 2019.

ROME — President Russell M. Nelson referred to the ancient missionary work of the apostles Peter and Paul in Rome on Sunday as he dedicated the Rome Italy Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

A day after their prophet met with a pope for the first time, more than 10 years after the temple was announced and after a public open house drew more than 50,000 people to the temple grounds in the Sacred Mountain district of Rome, the waiting was finally over for Italian church members. Joined by six apostles and people from around the world, they lined up early on a pleasantly cool morning breeze under overcast skies that offered the lightest of occasional sprinkles.

Inside, with 750 people from Albania, Romania, the United States and other nations in attendance, President Nelson offered the dedicatory prayer.

"In this ancient and great city that has stood since biblical times, in this historic nation of Italy, we acknowledge the ministry of two of thy son’s early apostles, Peter and Paul, who once blessed this land with their labors," he said. "May the influence of their abiding testimony of Jesus Christ continue to be felt among the vital values of this great country."

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Antonela Konomi shoots some photos during the dedication of the Rome Italy Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Rome, Italy on Sunday, March 10, 2019.

Afterward, he compared the event, broadcast to meetinghouses around the country, to the opening of a temple behind the Iron Curtain in 1985.

"It radiated freedom and righteousness," he said of the Freiberg Germany Temple, dedicated while then-East Germany was under communist control. "The good that will emanate from this temple is incalculably great."

He offered the prayer in each of three dedicatory sessions on Sunday. More sessions are scheduled for Monday and Tuesday.

The unusually large number of sessions are a nod to the fact this temple is the first of the church has placed in a New Testament land.

The unique nature of the Rome Temple and its location in the cradle of early Christianity have created conditions leading to a cascade of firsts for the church.

President Nelson's visit with Pope Francis on Saturday was one. Another is the first-ever overseas gathering of all 15 members of the church's senior leaders from the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The other apostles who participated on Sunday were President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the quorum, and Elders Jeffrey R. Holland, Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Ronald A. Rasband and Dale G. Renlund.

In addition, the church posted the first virtual tour of a temple, with Elder David A. Bednar and Elder Ronald A. Rasband hosting a walk-through of the Rome Temple.

And on Sunday, the church released excerpts from the dedicatory prayer to media, action usually reserved to appear in the Church News after all sessions are complete.

"We are grateful for the support of church, government and civic leaders who have offered much-appreciated goodwill in our desire to build this holy temple here in Rome," President Nelson said in the other excerpt released by the church. "Wilt thou bless them for their kindness and fortify their continued desire to preserve religious liberty for all."

During the cornerstone ceremony, he said the temple is the faith's 162nd, with just over 200 in operation, under construction or announced.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Bosco Marco looks over the statues at the visitors center during dedication of the Rome Italy Temple in Rome, Italy on Sunday, March 10, 2019.

Italian Latter-day Saints were joyous. Mattia Di Liberto, 26, and Tommaso Lo Piparo, 20, drove six hours from Milan to attend a live temple dedication for the first time.

"I'm so grateful I had the chance to participate in this historical event. I will remember it for the rest of my life," Di Liberto said.

Di Liberto said that while the Rome Temple is nearly twice as far from his home as the Bern Switzerland Temple, he will be proud to attend a temple in his homeland. He's also thrilled that all 15 senior church leaders are now in Rome.

"It's the first time in history. I feel special that it's happening in my country."

Both men said they love the Visitors' Center, which has statues of Christ and 12 ancient apostles.

"We've been waiting for this for a long time, almost 11 years," said Lo Piparo, whose grandfather opened Italy's first stake, or group of congregations, in 1981.

President Nelson led a procession out of the temple early in the dedicatory session for the traditional cornerstone ceremony. He invited five children out of a crowd gathered outside to help him add mortar around the cornerstone.

When the children were done, he said, "Molto bene," or "well done." When the cornerstone ceremony ended, he invited everyone else to add mortar.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints calls on Scott Cordani during the cornerstone ceremony for the dedication of the Rome Italy Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Rome, Italy on Sunday, March 10, 2019.

"Put your initials in it," he said with a smile.

The parents of one of the children President Nelson called forward, Elena Malara, 7, said she had been upset she could not attend the dedication because she is not yet 8, especially after she attended the public open house last month, when she brought a classmate's family who are not Latter-day Saints.

On Sunday, Elena happily ate crackers after the ceremony while her mother Maria beamed and tears continued to well in the red eyes of her father, Federico.

"She's no longer sad because she was able to help the prophet with the cornerstone," said Federico, the first counselor in the bishopric of the Rome Fifth Ward, which will hold its first church services in the new meetinghouse adjacent to the temple next Sunday.

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Church officials will place more than a dozen items in the cornerstone, including a copy of the dedicatory prayer, "History of Rome," by Indro Montanelli, and "Teachings of Russell M. Nelson."

The temple will open March 19. Latter-day Saint temples differ from meetinghouses used for Sunday services. Church members consider them houses of God where they make formal commitments to God conduct the highest sacraments of the faith, such as the marriage of couples and the "sealing" of families for eternity.