Digging for Italian Roots – an Ancestral Pilgrimage

Humans have a fundamental need to feel connections, and a deep yearning to understand our place in the big picture. We seek connections because that’s what connects us with ‘us.’  Learning about our ancestry can provide unique insight into who we are, and shed light on past and present-day connections. For me, that meant seeking to walk in my ancestors footsteps and gazing into the smiling eyes of distant cousins. 

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“The time has come to set out for the sacred ground – the mountain, the temple, the ancestral home – that will stir our heart and restore our sense of wonder. It is down the path to the deeply real where time stops and we are seized by the mysteries.” Phil Cousineau – The Art of Pilgrimage.


A Preview of Chapter 3 – Dessert?

“Hold on….you’ve been in Italy for a MONTH without contacting us!?”

“You mean you were actually IN Isernia on EASTER!! By your-SELF?!!”

I was in the unanticipated third day of my “homecoming” to Isernia, Italy, the province my grandfather Michael Santillo had emigrated from in the early 1900’s when his name was Michele Santilli. In response to this incredulous and sharply delivered line of questioning from my new-found cousins Giulia and Anna Maria, I was weakly trying to justify my overall strategy of saving my family search until the end of my month-long trip to Italy and point out the minor detail that I hadn’t even known they existed just 16 hours earlier.

I was saved by also-new-found cousin Bruno once again venting his frustration with his cousins in the next town over who had neglected to call him when I had shown up unannounced the day before in my hallowed ancestral village of Fragnete, Italy, to talk with strangers about old times that we never had experienced together, share some pictures of unfamiliar family faces, and put on present-day smiles for our cameras.

I had spent years wondering about who my Italian cousins might be. Bruno, Giulia, and Anna Maria had spent years wondering who their American cousins might be. We had come oh-so-close to missing each other. For a cousin to have dropped on their doorstep with no time to spare was too much for Bruno to bear.

Prologue

I had wanted to get to know Italy for as long as I could remember. I was of the generation where we bragged about our heritage at school, many of us being only two generations removed from the major immigration period to America of the first half of the 20th century. Among possible nationalities, being Italian was generally regarded as one of the cooler things to be. In movies it was The Godfather and Rocky; on television it was Vinnie and Fonzi.

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Michele Santilli / Michael Santillo

It didn’t matter that my mother’s heritage was something else; my father had two 100% Italian parents and my name had an ‘O’ at the end. Never mind that my name actually more often was interpreted as being Spanish because of the double L’s that preceded the O. I knew it was Italian and the teachers attempting political-correctness by calling out “Dahveed Santeeyo” just made fools of themselves.

The longed-for Italy trip took years to become reality while life happened. I had to complete school, raise my kids, succeed in business, ride the rollercoaster of life’s ups and downs, and truly learn how to travel. I had to be able to look back on my own life with a sense of perspective before I could truly feel a connection to family history. In retrospect, I now know it had to happen this way. A trip taken earlier in my life would have been lightweight – a hollow checking off of a box on my life list. I doubt I would have had the determination and confidence to actually follow through and meet distant relatives.

Once I was ready, nothing short of a pilgrimage would suffice to learn about my family’s past. I had to experience the ancestral discoveries firsthand, otherwise it wouldn’t be real. I wanted no part of any family tree sold to me by some internet company.  My quest had to be epic – after all, a journey without challenge has no meaning; one without purpose has no soul. I would spend a month getting to know Italy, culminating in an exploration and investigation of my ancestral town.

I purposely tempered my expectations and set the goals low for my Ancestral Pilgrimage. I would aim to find a birth certificate for my grandfather and with luck find a reference to a street address and gaze upon a house ruin or empty foundation where he had been born. The possibility of actually meeting a distant relative was a lofty pie-in-the-sky. I asked several people why any Italian would want to meet a crazy American out of the blue, but I was assured that the usual response was actually pretty positive. I learned there had been a fairly popular Italian TV show where distant relatives from far off lands were introduced to every day Italians. But ‘Reality TV’ isn’t real life, so I maintained a healthy skepticism and steeled myself for a “So What?” reception in the event of a face-to-face meeting.

Chapter 1 – The Antipasti Appetizer – I Could Be Happy Stopping Here

My Ancestral Pilgrimage  began on a vividly sunny day after Easter when I walked several miles from the City of Isernia to a section of road named Condrata Riccioni. Somewhere along that road was the house that my grandfather in America wrote to his sister Filomena after he emigrated, and therefore what I assumed was the location of the Santilli ancestral house.

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The view along Condrata Riccione

I passed only several people on my trek out to Riccione, and about 30 loose dogs. While I was squaring off with the most aggressive of them, a huge scruffy brown beast with a snarling deep bark that would jump in close to my heels every time I would turn away from him, an elderly woman in a blaze orange vest came walking in the other direction. She knew the dog and helped me break the tense stalemate, so I attempted to engage her in conversation. Right on cue, my poorly-learned Italian failed me completely, and she spoke no English. We spent about a half an hour taking turns talking to each other but understanding only ourselves. Our communication extended only to ‘dog/cane’ and ‘grandfather/nonno.’ Although perhaps they were the two most relevant words for the walk, they failed to get us very far. Evidently cut from the same block of mozzarella cheese, both of us thought our inability to understand the other was incredibly funny and she grabbed my arm a couple of times to hold herself up. I went away totally jazzed at having had a great encounter with a “local.” I did toss out the name Santilli to her, but her blank expression made it clear she had never heard it. A bit farther, I passed a woman dumping a wheel barrow of leaves along the road who did speak English. I offered to help her and then asked her if she ever heard of Santilli – she hadn’t.

On the walk back to Isernia, I texted my cousin Darlene back in the U.S. to let her know I had walked the length of Riccione and I had seen and taken pictures of a collapsed stone house that COULD have been THE house our grandfather was born in. I told her that the land there was beautiful and that if the main search the next day didn’t turn up anything, I would still feel an incredible sense of peace and accomplishment because of having “found the place, seen the land, and breathed the air.” Consistent with my setting low expectations, I satisfied myself in my “mission accomplished.”

An important point of a pilgrimage is to endure and overcome difficulties. True journeys are never linear and predictable – instead they swerve. Along these lines, it would become clear the next day why the name Santilli wasn’t familiar to the people near Riccione. It turned out that my nose hadn’t breathed the ancestral air after all.

Chapter 2 – The Primi and the Secondi Courses of the Meal

The next day began at 9:30 a.m. when I met Camillo, the interpreter guide I had lined up for the day. We drove to the Province of Isernia Archive office, a quiet building that housed a small and dedicated staff of records clerks and a mountain of historical documents.

For hours, we would find a useful hint in one archive and hand a note to a clerk who duck out of the room and return rolling a new stack of old but clean original record books that looked like oversized map books that Columbus might have used to reach the New World. We sifted through birth and death records going back to the early 1800’s and tossed in a few tax records for good measure. Hand-written in a formal and elegant cursive style, I had trouble deciphering letters, much less words. Luckily, Camillo seemed to have the knack.

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The records quickly revealed that Condrata Riccione was a mysterious false lead, as the Santilli records we found all led to Condrata Fragnete. Fragnete was a tiny village west of Isernia, opposite Riccione, and about four Condrata Fragnetes (roads named Fragnete) led into the village. All the Santilli’s resided in the archives: Michael, his short-lived twin Guiseppe, his parents Cosmo and Daria, his other siblings, cousins, and many more.

With Michael’s birth certificate securely photographed, we’d achieved a major goal. Other than the pie-in-the-sky of meeting distant relatives, there was only one more item of business before I could say this pilgrimage was a wild success: I wanted to look upon the ancestral house.

Leaving the archive building, we called four telephone numbers of Santilli names we had found on tax rolls and in the white pages for Fragnete. Three of the four were disconnected and the fourth went directly to a recording – minor speedbumps at worst.

It was Fragnete or bust for sure, but the clock had signaled the start of the afternoon siesta during which nothing much could be accomplished. We grabbed some pizza, and then drove to the crypts of the Isernia cemetery. The crypts were drab gray concrete buildings that mostly were two stories above-ground, with uninviting basements, and foreboding iron gated doors. Each floor consisted of five to 10 rows of drawers full of bones stacked on top of each other on all four walls. The buildings were refrigerator-cold and dimly lit, and there was a sound-deadening heaviness to the air. Adding to the heaviness was an overwhelming aroma of flowers – many of the “drawers” were adorned with fresh bouquets. We split up and spent about an hour searching one cold building after another, with short breaks in the warm sun between buildings. We found Michael’s sister Filomena and her husband, and enough other Santilli’s to fill a large ghost café. I can’t say it was my favorite part of the day, but it added an oddly tangible link to our search for evidence of people long-dead.

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One of the more “upscale” crypts!

I felt momentum slipping a bit as the cemetery search wore on, and it dawned on me that we might be wasting our precious time. I realized that even if we found my great grandparents and more great uncles and aunts, it would tell me nothing about their lives… a ‘dead-end’ for sure. I located Camillo and told him it was time we faced whatever was waiting for us in Fragnete, even if we found no Santilli’s lived there anymore, or that there were some but they were indifferent to my visit.  I remained firmly gripped to the low bar of my expectations. We agreed that our strategy would be to stop and chat with people we passed on the road to see where it led.

Fragnete is a rural village several miles outside of the City of Isernia consisting of widely scattered houses, and no center, with a population of only about 45 people. A fair amount of the construction in and around the area seemed fairly new. We passed a café on our way through Fragnete – if people along the road failed us, we’d make a point to stop at the café.

Looking north from the main road we could see an area of old houses and a dirt road that seemed to lead that way. The road offered us the first test of our strategy: a sheep herder was standing in a field, surrounded by two dogs and about 50 sheep. If anyone would know anything, why of course it would be the sheepherder, so we approached the man…sheepishly of course. Not yet confident in his approach, Camillo explained we were seeking information about people that used to live in the area. Not yet used to success, we got a little giddy when the man said he knew Santilli’s. He dropped some names, pointed to a house in the distance and said someone named Cosmo Santilli lived there, and then told us the village café was owned by a Santilli. Thanking the herder, we headed back to the car, feeling like our daily lotto numbers had come up. Before I got in the car, I reached down to pick up a non-descript stone from the surface of the over-grazed field. In line with my strategy of achieving small goals, I now had a piece of my family history in my pocket.

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And a sheepherders staff will lead the way….

We wound our way back down to the village, passed the café bar again, and headed to the house where Cosmo Santilli lived. We saw four men sitting along the road next to the driveway, giving us a thoroughly distrusting once-over as we slowed and pulled in the driveway. In my head, I heard the welcome I had feared most: ”So What, who cares?”….or worse! We headed to the house – evidently Camillo shared my reservations about what kind of reception we’d get from the men. We knocked on the door of the simple duplex, and eventually a woman wearing pajamas and a coat came to the door. A teen-aged girl sat on the balcony above, sneaking glances at us through the railing and between sessions on her smart phone. I listened as Camillo went into his routine.

Apparently, the woman was a Santilli, and Cosmo Santilli did live next door, but he might be working in the fields.  Cosmo was nearly 80, establishing him as a potential son of one of my grandfather’s siblings. Beyond that, the woman didn’t really show much interest in long lost relatives – we definitely were starting the game in solid “So What?” territory. She may have looked over at me once while they spoke, but for the most part I felt a little silly standing off to the side like a young child not being let in on some serious adult discussion. She did, however, patiently answer all Camillo’s questions before she headed back into the house. I made a mental note to ask more about what was said and to clarify if she was a distant relative of mine, but she had confirmed the bar café might be key. Cosmo wasn’t in his barn, so we headed to the café.

Our strategy at the café would be to buy a caffe latte in hope that a purchase of a beverage would come with a complementary side order of conversation. I sipped as Camillo slipped into his routine for the third time. Names were bantered about with the woman behind the bar. She called into the back. A man named Marco came out, the conversation got lively and Camillo turned to me smiling broadly. It was a grandson of a brother of my grandfather…and he was smiling too. Without further discussion, we were ushered into the adjoining dining room – old family pictures lined the wall, each one labeled. I was looking at a veritable jackpot of Santilli weddings, church gatherings, and get-together’s of all types. For the first time, I looked upon the faces of my grandfather’s brothers Luigi and Saverio.

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A Santilli and a Santillo!

Now that I had begun nibbling on the pie-in-the-sky, it was time to document trip success. My distant cousin Marco and I smiled for the cameras in front of the family albums. It was the first pictures taken of the reconnection of a family link separated 112 years before when a first-born son walked away from the family compound, never to return. It was a reconnection that slowly was gaining momentum: an Italian Santilli and an American Santillo.

Word began to filter out of what could be titled “The Return.” Damiano Armenti, the unofficial historian of Fragnete, was on his way to take us to the house that my grandfather had been born in. High fives all around. I wouldn’t have to guess where it might have been or look upon a collapsed ruin and ponder “could be’s.” The house stood, someone still lived in it, and I was welcome to visit.

The house was the very definition of a humble beginning in a time shrouded past. It was in the part of the town we had guessed was the old part, on a dirt road, on the edge of a small cluster of clearly dated buildings. We were greeted by a man who lived in the house, introduced simply as the caretaker of the property. I entered a dirt and stone alcove surrounded by the stone and mortar of a centuries-old homestead.

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I might have felt a bit of separation in meeting Santilli relatives because of the language barrier, but I had no trouble communicating with the house and property. Alone, I slowly circled the house, poked my head into every open doorway, stood on steps, and touched the stone walls of the house, pausing to feel the history. I filled my lungs deeply with the country air and I listened to bird songs drifting across the meadow and olive groves.

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On the second floor of the house next door, an old woman whose face told a story that seemed right out of my grandfather’s birth year of 1896 slowly hung laundry to dry on a low railing. Sensing history in progress and with a comical lack of subtlety, Camillo gestered wildly that I absolutely could not miss taking a picture of this woman. Concerned with being too obvious, I snapped using my best stealth mode.

hWhen the shutter clicked, black and white pictures flooded my head of a hardy folk completing countless mundane farm chores, the smiles and drama of family gatherings, kids climbing trees, and never-ending laundry drying on lines.

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Scattered around the compound was the debris of spent and discarded tools, fallen fences, and rotting wood. In the middle of it all was the original one-story stone structure of the Santilli settlers in Fragnete. An upstairs addition had long-ago been added, and off to one side the small addition built for my grandfather’s brother Luigi. Twenty feet away was the small outbuilding built and lived in by brother Saverio. Both now were unoccupied and used only for shed storage of very old stuff that had no place else to go.

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Saverio’s one-room house.

I felt like I had arrived just in time. The weight of history felt crushing here, like it wouldn’t be long before the original Santilli compound became another of the collapsed remnants of old stone buildings scattered across the landscape of rural Italy.

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The house may have felt weary, but the land was vibrantly alive with the early spring explosion of green and flowers. Like a text book example of European homesteading, smaller vegetable gardens were close to the house, with fruit trees and shrubs surrounding and interspersed. Larger olive groves and grape vineyards were beyond.

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A common thread thoughout the discovery of my past and present-day family was a connection to the land. My ancestors who settled in Fragnete were peasant farmers, and my living cousins in Italy all were passionate about their vegetable gardens and fruit trees, proudly touting their homemade wines and preserves of all types. I thought of the countless hours I spend in my garden and fields back in Maine, and I felt a new sense of pride in knowing that my son and daughters, with soil under their fingernails, were continuing a tradition long coursing through Santilli blood.

Before I left, I pulled a small stone out of an ancient walkway wall – my verified piece of Santilli history. In its place, I set down the now obsolete one I had picked up in the sheep herders field.

My head was spinning a bit at all that was happening, but Fragnete wasn’t done with me yet. We headed back to the café bar to meet with another Santilli elder, snap a few more pictures, and frantically scribble more notes about family history in my journal.

We wrapped up our visit to Fragnete at 6:00 p.m. and headed back towards Isernia. Camillo asked me if I wanted to drive out to Condrata Riccione, to see if we could turn up anything interesting. The Fragnete Santilli’s had told us that my grandfather’s sister Filomena had moved there to work for another family and eventually married Cosmo Izzi and settled there, which explained why Michael’s letters were addressed there. I hesitated…realizing I was a little emotionally spent. I slowly agreed with a less-than-enthusiastic “I guess we might as well as long as you don’t mind a little more time.”

I came extremely close to missing a highlight of my Ancestral Pilgrimage.

Reaching Condrata Riccione, we stopped a man pulling out of his driveway and he pointed us in a general direction, having heard of the name Izzi. Stopping again, we approached an elderly couple working in their garden – stone cold eyes turned warm when we mentioned Filomena Izzi. They smiled and pointed at a house just up the road.

We parked in the center of a quiet compound of several houses and a barn or two. A knock on the door brought a cautious open door from an elderly woman, and we gave the usual greeting indicating we were seeking information. She retreated inside, and an elderly man walked slowly to the door. He looked at Camillo as he began his now well-polished lines, and then his eyes settled on me standing back in the driveway. Immediately, he held his hand up to stop the speech, smiled, and opened his door wide. He was Filomena’s son. He later would say that he looked at me and saw his Uncle Angelo (another of Michael’s brother) come back to life standing in his driveway and had known something special was going to happen.

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Guiseppe Izzi was, and is, a treasure. Clearly moved by my visit, he devoted a long and relaxed evening to sharing stories, his homemade wine, his food, and his very philosophical perspective on the reconnecting of the long-lost piece of the Santilli family. “The roots of a tree are the strongest part. Today we are honoring those roots.” Guiseppe was a veritable fountain of quotable quotes. Feeling a need to look directly into his eyes as he spoke to me, I unfortunately missed documenting most of them.

Joined by two sons of Guiseppe and his wife Maria, we toasted the night away, over a feast of homemade bread, cheese, lamb and beef, sausage, frittata, and chard, and followed up with a dessert of home-grown apple and deliciously sweet ricotta cheese.

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Afterwards, as the final light of day faded, we walked through Filomena’s house next door, which had recently been updated by another family member, but with attentive respect to history. The walls were adorned with Filomena’s tools and momentos.

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I left with a hopeful sense that I’d be back to write another chapter in this place. Not a trip to revisit history again, but to experience the present day with these wonderful people. There was an olive harvest to help with, wine to make, and cousins to get to know.

Back to Chapter 3 – No Italian Dinner is Complete Without Dessert

I was elated. I was exhausted. I was more than a little light-headed by all of the wine and limoncella that had flowed freely during the feast at Guiseppe Izzi’s. Camillo dropped me off back at my hotel in the historical center of Isernia and my phone dinged immediately with a message. It was from someone named Giulia Armenti.

Scanning the message, I learned that Giulia was another cousin, she had a brother Bruno and a daughter Anna Maria, and they had lived in Rhode Island for a number of years before returning to Isernia, and they had been looking for Santilli relatives for a very long time. Word of ‘The Return’ had continued to spread, and there was no way I could leave Isernia without meeting them. Originally scheduled to leave for Rome early the next morning, I happily changed my ticket to later in the day and arranged to meet Giulia and Bruno in the main square of the historical part of Isernia. I checked out 45 minutes early and headed to the square to enjoy the sun on a crisp early spring morning while I waited to meet more relatives. Instead I was immediately greeted by Giulia and Bruno who were 45 minutes early to meet me.

They hugged me as if they had known me my entire life, Bruno grabbed my backpack, and we were off to Fornelli where Giulia lived with her husband Tony. Once again, I had the amazing experience of being treated to homemade Italian food, wine, and desserts, and absolutely showered with family warmth and hospitality. No interpreter was needed as all of them spoke English.

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Hours later, I stood mostly in reflective silence with Bruno on the platform of the Isernia train station waiting for the train that would take me to Rome, and the end of my Italian pilgrimage.

I felt a little like I had been on a scripted show where success had been guaranteed to achieve maximum ratings. My Ancestral Pilgrimage had gone absurdly well. Ridiculous really, with just the right amount of suspense and intrigue that ultimately were overcome by joy and celebration. My only regret was I didn’t have a tape recorder going, so I would have been able to catch all the stories and all of the details of everything I learned.

In Isernia, Italy, I discovered a profound sense of connection to place and history that I never could have hoped for when I dreamed of an ancestral pilgrimage. Family I had never met welcomed me as if I was Michele Santilli himself returning after a century in a distant land. Fields I had never walked in felt as familiar to my feet as my favorite hiking shoes.

When his shoes walked him away from his birthplace of Fragnete, I wonder if Michele Santilli could possibly have felt in his heart that he would never return to Italy. Letters he wrote attest that he wondered about those he left behind and cared deeply even for the siblings born after he left.

It took a couple of generations, but a part of Michele did return to Fragnete. I couldn’t have been happier to have brought the circle back around, or have appreciated just how satisfying it would be to make new connections forged from old links.

I had aimed low with my goals for my Ancestral Pilgrimage. I had identified the main courses I had hoped to partake in but left some room for pie-in-the-sky meetings with unknown distant family. That rarified pastry turned out to be the best part.

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Categories: Adventure, Inspirational, life, Long Read, Photographic Journal, Spirituality, Travel

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