Strada Pinciari: Going Home
Some say the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. While others claim it only takes a dollar and a dream. My journey began with a question, “Who am I?” While I already knew that my paternal grandfather Jose Dopazo was from Galicia, Spain and my paternal grandmother Filomena DeRenzis was born in White Plains, New York to parents from Foggia, Italy, I had no idea where exactly in Foggia they were from. The answer was given to me very unexpectedly one day, and took me completely by surprise. My dear aunt, who was gravely ill at the time, answered my question quite simply, “Sarah Gabriele” she said. Sarah Gabriele? I never heard Aunt Sue ever mention it before. Could it be true? Is it possible there is such a town in Italy called Sarah Gabriele? I immediately started researching the Internet and could not believe my eyes when I discovered that Serracapriola was indeed a town in Foggia, Italy. It was at this very moment I began dreaming about the town I knew nothing about, but absolutely knew I would visit one day.
My dear Aunt Sue passed away seven years ago, never realizing that she had left me with one of the greatest gifts that I have ever received. Since that time, I began researching my family tree on and off during my spare time. Initially, it was her granddaughter, who got me hooked on genealogy. It was all so fascinating to me —discovering ship manifestation lists from Ellis Island and Federal Census’ with my ancestors names listed on them. I even joined Ancestry.com with my cousin’s encouragement and created my own family tree. But it wasn’t until I accidently found Janet House’s Chieuti & Serracapriola Pages that my research jumped to a whole new level. An actual website dedicated to this mysterious town and a Facebook group page where I can communicate with other people like myself whose ancestors immigrated here from Serracapriola? I was shocked! This town can’t be so unknown, I thought. There are many others. Suddenly, I began to feel like I wasn’t alone in my journey.
Janet House was incredibly kind to me. She took the time to help me, and retrieved even more critical documents about my great grandparents, which fueled me with the determination to take my research one step further. I wrote a letter to the Commune in Serracapriola in English, which I then transcribed into Italian with the help of an online translation tool, asking them to send me birth certificates and marriage certificates of my great grandparents. I knew it was a shot in the dark, not fully believing that I would get a response, but I felt fearless knowing that I had Janet and my new Facebook group backing me. Not long after, I stood in the doorway, opening the envelope and reading through the documents that arrived from the Commune. Not only did they send me the documents I requested, they also stated it would be their pleasure to welcome me and assist me further if I ever decided to visit Serracapriola. My dream was increasingly growing stronger. I began fantasizing about the town and its’ people, my people, my heritage and I wondered if anyone from my DeRenzis Family was still living there. Was it possible?
I was very excited to receive the wedding invitation of my best friend’s daughter. It would be a Tuscan wedding, set in the foothills of Florence, Italy on August 3, 2014! My husband and I, along with my dad, already had a trip planned for Spain the week before the wedding. The three of us would be traveling together from Spain to Italy for the wedding, and unbeknownst to my father, we planned to surprise him with a drive down to Foggia and visit Serracapriola. My dream was about to become a reality and I could barely control my excitement the weeks before we left. The wedding in Fiesole was amazing. A storybook fairytale, complete with a magical castle, a prince and a princess.
As we waved goodbye to all our friends, to begin our journey down to Puglia, my unsuspecting father promptly requested that we wake him up once we get to Rome. Hah! That’s what you think dad! Get ready for the surprise of your life! Every mile of the trip my head swirled with questions; what will the town look like? Will the people be nice? Will we be able to communicate with them? For a split second I panicked when I thought, is dad going to have an emotional breakdown when he realizes where we are? Uh, because Dad has a pacemaker and I don’t want to give him a heart attack! Oh no, what have I done?! I should have told him!! The anticipation was getting the best of me and I literally had to force my mind to focus on the beautiful landscape to stop myself from blurting out the truth. It really wasn’t that hard to do. The bluest water I have ever seen seemed to rise up beside our car as we travelled down the highway. The Adriatic Sea, which I had never seen before, gave me a feeling of calmness and seemed to clear the chaos in my head. We were getting closer now and I started to feel very proud and fortunate that my ancestors were from such a beautiful place.
As we pulled up to the Masseria Casacapanna in Chieuti where we would be staying, my father, coincidentally, woke up from this third nap stating, “This doesn’t look like Rome!” Our response to him was that we were on the outskirts of Rome and that we hoped he didn’t mind, but we would be staying here by the water for a few days since it was so beautiful. Hah! Just wait dad the surprise is coming!! After we greeted the lovely owners of the Masseria and unpacked our car, we suggested to dad that we take a ride. Only four kilometers away when we came upon the sign. My husband stopped the car; we rolled down dad’s window and pointed up to the sign. Dad immediately burst out into tears, we all did.
Driving into the center of Serracapriola was not at all like I had imagined. It was very quiet, there was no one around and it felt almost deserted. With all the built up excitement I had going on inside me, I had not realized what time it was. It was quiet because it was lunchtime “Pranzo”! As we drove down the one-way street, I noticed there was another one-way street running parallel to us going in the opposite direction. In between the one-way streets, however, was a two-way street, which was centered in the middle of two large sized sidewalks that were lined with trees and benches. As we drove further down the street, I knew we had reached the center when we approached the fountain. I mean every town in Europe has one, don’t they? This one was not as ornate as most that I have seen, but beautiful in its simplicity nonetheless. There seemed to be a statue of some kind of small animal standing on what looked like to be a mound of rocks. I wondered to myself what the significance was.
Across the street from the fountain, was a very old, ancient castle and as my eyes dazzled in amazement, I noticed an Italian flag and sign posted above the doorway that read, “Polizia Municipale.” I could feel the pull within my heart telling me to go in. My husband is in law enforcement, so I thought this would be a great place for us to start, and I was right. We entered the municipal police station somewhat hesitantly, but with great hope. If there was any doubt about going in, however, it quickly disappeared when Officer Paolo Colucci greeted us. We explained to him who we were and that we only spoke a little Italian. Paolo was extremely gracious to us from the very start and he let us know that he spoke a little English. He gave us a tour of the castle and explained its history to us. When I asked about the significance of the animal in the fountain, Paolo explained to us in his gentle, soft-spoken voice the legend of Serracapriola:
“A long, long time ago, when the mountain range or “serra” was covered thick in woods, a man was out hunting when he came upon the “capriola.” He could not kill the animal however, because he found it staring up at a vision of the Madonna.” Now my eyes — they never left Paolo’s eyes, and my ears —they listened so intently to every articulated English word that he slowly spoke. I could not believe what I was hearing: my town had a legend about its name? I did not expect that at all, and little did I know that the next unexpected surprise would change my life forever.
I sincerely thanked Paolo for sharing such a beautiful story with us of the town and he handed me a DVD on the treasures of Serracapriola and surrounding areas, and a book about the history of the town’s church Santa Maria. I was moved by his kind and thoughtful gesture; I mean after all, we really were complete strangers to him! I let him know that I had with me photos, birth certificates and marriage certificates of my great grandparents, which included the names of the streets where they were born in Serracapriola. He agreed to take a look at them.
The first document I showed Paolo was my great grandfather’s birth certificate. His name was Giuseppe Liberato DeRenzis and it was documented that when he was born on March 17, 1869 (my birthday is March 19th!), his parent’s residence was “Strada Pinciari.” Before he spoke a word, he looked at me and I could tell from the expression on his face that he seemed confused. “There is no street in Serracapriola named Strada Pinciari,” he said. Could the informant on the birth certificate have given incorrect information? Anything is possible I thought, since it is a very old document, dating back to 1869. Paolo looked down again at the document and back again at us. I could see that he was thinking hard, trying to figure out how it was possible that the street residence was not listed on any map of Serracapriola.
If I were to close my eyes right now, I can still hear his sweet, calming voice clear as day, “You said that your family name was DeRenzis?” Yes, Paolo, that is correct. “And the residence is listed at Strada Pinciari?” Yes, it is true. “What is the occupation of the father, Ferdinando DeRenzis, listed as?” It states “Muratore,” I said. With that a slow, steady smile spread across Paolo’s face and my heart started to race as he looked deep into my eyes and began to tell us this incredible story.
The word “pinciari” is dialect, and it is very old. The word is so old in fact that is not used anymore. It was the place where the “pinc” were made. The “pinc” being the curved roof tiles that you see throughout the town. By “pinching” them, it gives them their distinctive curved shape. The “pinciari” was the place where they were made and it was located just outside of the main center, in the countryside. Later on in years, the “pinciari” was replaced by the “fornace,” the “oven or furnace” in English, where the “mattone” (the “bricks”) were made. Historically, in the town of Serracapriola, there was only one family that owned the pinciari and the fornace. “DeRenzis,” he said, was the name of the family! With that he added that the occupation of “muratore” in English means “bricklayer.” Wait, what? My head was swirling! He then asked me what my great grandfather’s occupation was in the United States and I answered him dumbfounded, “bricklayer.” Paolo was reasonably convinced at this point, that when my great grandfather was born, and the informant asked my 2nd great grandfather where do you live, he responded very simply “Strada Pinciari” because he was living and working at the pinciari located in the countryside, which would be the reason why no such street name exists in Serracapriola.
I could barely form any type of coherent sentence at this point. I was in total shock, as were all of us, and I could not stop the tears from streaming down my face. When I turned to look at my dad and my husband, they too had tears in their eyes and as I looked back into Paolo’s eyes in total disbelief, I could swear that I saw tears in his eyes as well! We stood there quietly, just the four of us, each of us slowly digesting this incredible story. Paolo looked almost in disbelief himself, but I sensed with a great deal of satisfaction and accomplishment in solving the Strada Pinciari mystery!
After a few more tears, some laughing and sniffling, and managing to pull ourselves together somewhat, Paolo proudly announced, “There is a DeRenzis family still living in Serracapriola. The elder being named Guglielmo DeRenzis, who happens to be a very well respected person here in our town and he is the Maestro of La Fornace. He and his family happen to be friends of mine. Would you like to meet them?” Did I hear correctly, DeRenzis family still living here? We can meet them right now?! It was as if all the genealogy research I had been tirelessly collecting over the years had culminated into this one very incredible moment. YES, WE WOULD DEAR PAOLO! YES, WE WOULD!
same tree-lined sidewalk that I had first noticed when we entered the town, were two gentlemen sitting on a bench, one was holding a leash with a dog on it. Paolo said that one of the men was his uncle and the other holding the leash was Guglielmo. As we approached them, they stood up and greeted us, and in Italian, in only a way that is unique to Paolo, explained to them our incredible story, which by the way, would be repeated many times throughout our stay! Guglielmo listened intently. He looked curiously at each one of us as Paolo spoke. I showed him a photo of my great grandfather, which I had downloaded onto my laptop, and who by the way my father looks exactly like. There was an exchange of words that I did not understand, but that made Paolo laugh. He turned to us and said, “Guglielmo says that you will open the DeRenzis Fornace again!” Well, we all burst out into a great thunderous laughter, which definitely broke the awkwardness of the moment. He also told Paolo that when he was a little boy, his family often spoke about the members of their family who left Serracapriola and went to America.
I don’t know who was more excited — Guglielmo, or us but he insisted we leave immediately and go with him to his house to meet the entire family. Forgetting that Paolo was actually working that day, with all the excitement swirling around me, I was taken by surprise when he waved goodbye and said to us, “see you tomorrow” and strolled off down the street. Although I was a bit hesitant to leave without our Dear Paolo, I could feel his reassurance that we were in good hands. He allowed us the privacy to experience the intimacy between an unfamiliar family, lost through many generations, who were meeting each other for the very first time!
I never imagined, in all my years of fantasizing about visiting Serracapriola, that we would meet such kind, beautiful people and to have them be our actual family was something only dreams are made of. Without any hesitation, they took us into their arms and welcomed us home, as if our ancestors had never left. The unconditional love that we felt with every breath we took in that ancient, beautiful town overflowed my heart with pure joy. It is a feeling that is difficult to express in words because the euphoric feeling it left took my soul to a place I never knew existed … I belong to this town … I belong to this family … I belong.
The next few days, which unfortunately seemed to pass in the blink of an eye, were filled with a historic walk led by Paolo through the ancient part of Serracapriola, including a tour of the house and streets where my ancestors lived; meeting a very talented artist, Mario Guerra, and the privilege of being invited into his private home to purchase beautiful sculptures made out of olive branches to take home with us, again led by the Magnificent Paolo; a stay at a beautiful agriturismo in Chieuti called Masseria Casacappana, with the most delightful family; an amazing unforgettable seafood feast by the sea in Chieuti with our cousins Guglielmo and Family; a day trip to a beautiful seaside town called Termoli; a weekend market in the center of the town that brought vendors selling everything from shoes to cheese to vegetables!; eating an incredible meal in a restaurant called Il Borgo; and last, but certainly not least, every single second spent with my DeRenzis Family and meeting all of their friends and extended family!
Saying goodbye didn’t seem right, since it was after all only four days before that we had only just said hello for the very first time. The dream was fulfilled, the experience was larger than life and I was left with a feeling of pride and contentment. Our Dear Paolo, who without his kindness would most likely have never met our family, will always hold a very special place in my heart. “Other people have come to Serracapriola before you” he said “in search of their families just like you — but they were not as lucky as you. You have an incredible story.”
Like so many Italian families who immigrated here during the early 1900s, we American-Italian descendants lost valuable pieces of our heritage through the generations. Our ancestors only wanted their Italian children to be American. Sure, there were moments throughout my life that I felt Italian, like eating macaroni and meatballs on Sunday or hearing Grandma Fanny ask for the “mopeen.” But the truth is, that after having traveled to Italy and visiting my ancestor’s home, I know that there is a huge difference. The food, the customs, the traditions, and the language — all are completely different than what I experienced growing up as an American-Italian. The journey that began with me asking those three little words, “Who am I?” had led me to a remarkable discovery, not only about my ancestors, but also about myself, and when we said goodbye to Serracapriola, I knew it was not the end. In my heart I knew it was only just the beginning.