Italy is a relatively small country whose land mass is one-quarter that of the province of Ontario. Despite its small size it has a population of almost 60 million, about twice the population of all of Canada. Running through the centre from north to south are the Apennine Mountains which separate the east from the west and provide a magnificent landscape of valleys and peaks where many small towns and villages have been established since very ancient times. Ripabottoni is one of those picturesque places nestled in the high hills of the Molise region situated south and east of Rome. It is from here that our Sauro roots were born.
Ripabottoni is 904 metres above sea level. Archeological evidence indicates that settlements have existed there since the days of the Roman Empire. The present site dates back to the Middle Ages when City States fought for territory. This region came under the rule of the city of Naples.
In the mid 1800s, Ripabottoni boasted a population of about 4,000 people, most of them peasants who worked the land on the mountain slopes surrounding the town. They would more than likely have grazed sheep and goats nearby. The town contained no shops, relying on traveling merchants who sold their goods on regular visits to the town. Even though today the few residents that remain have cars and go to larger neighbouring towns to do their major shopping, merchants still visit on a regular basis to offer their wares.
As with any agricultural community, the rhythm of life in Ripabottoni followed the seasons. This pattern continued uninterrupted until recent years. There have always been few incentives for residents of Ripabottoni to remain in their place of birth. Most have migrated to other parts of Italy or abroad with a large number relocating to the United States and Canada. Most of the former Ripabottonesi in Canada are in Montreal. To sustain ties to their cherished little homeland, many of them communicate through a group called Ripamici which maintains a website for this purpose. Today there are only 315 families comprising 752 permanent residents in Ripabottoni. Many more come just for weekends and holidays looking for a retreat from urban life, which they enjoyed until disaster struck in 2002.
On October 31 and November 1, 2002, a devastating earthquake hit Ripabottoni which damaged a large part of the town. When Cinna, John and I visited in April 2003, it was a cold, wet, gray, snowy day which perfectly reflected the atmosphere in this previously idyllic little mountain town. There were very few people about. Cracked and broken buildings blocked our passage. There was scaffolding already in place holding up the church and other buildings. A walk about the town seemed uninviting. We didn’t stay long and left with a sad heart for the place of our Sauro origins.
The first little single storey edifice was the humble home of the Sauro family. The earthquake made it uninhabitable. It certainly was not spacious. The scaffolding visible on the left of the picture is supporting the church and surrounding buildings.
This photograph was taken from the Ripabottoni website in 2005 and shows the same buildings repaired after the earthquake. The scaffolding has been removed from the restored church. Workmen are still busy finishing the restorations in the town.
This is another view of the family home as seen from the opposite direction. The farthest doorway is the entrance to the house. Matteo Sauro’s cantina was situated just across the street.
Our family began with a single unknown ancestor named Pietrangelo who we can guess was born sometime in the early 1800s. We know nothing of his origins so our story really begins with his son Matteo who was born in this lovely place on September 12, 1858. The woman who was to become his wife, Anna Felice Barbieri, was born on February 13, 1862. She was known as Marianina. She and Matteo settled for life in Ripabottoni. These were ancestors known to only a very few of our North American family. Travel to and from Europe was unheard of except for the very rich. There wasn’t much communication by mail either. The only communication of which I have a vague recollection was in 1941 when my father, Libero, got a letter informing him that his father had died. My father never told us any stories about his parents or his young life in Ripabottoni but his other siblings shared the Ripabottoni experiences with their families.
Marianina Barbieri and Matteo Sauro
From the time of their marriage in 1880 Matteo and Marianina began to produce their dynasty in earnest. Most families were quite large in those days. Birth control was not practised and many women were pregnant for most of their childbearing years. Infant mortality was also all too common.
Imagine that you are Marianina Barbieri and at 18, you marry Matteo Sauro, who at 22 is the proprietor of the local cantina in town. In 1881 at the age of 19, you happily welcome your first child, a boy and you name him Giuseppe. Sixteen months later you have a baby girl, Angela Maria. In May 1884 you give birth to a little boy who you name Pietrangelo. This little fellow survives for only 3 years and when you are 25 years old in 1887, you have the very sad burden of burying him. Shortly after his death, you give birth to another little boy and you give him the name of the child you just lost, another Pietrangelo. The next year, you lose another little boy, Nicola Maria. In 1891, when you are 29 years old, you give birth to another son, your sixth child who you name Libero. He is to become the branch that results in our family. The following year, you bury your seventh child, Antonetta Maria. Your eighth child Domenico is born the next year. In the next 3 years, 2 more of your infant children die, Fiorentino Ruggiero in 1894 and Fiorentina in 1896. You are now 32 years old, you’ve given birth to 10 children but you have only 5 ranging in age from 3 to 15 years old.
In the following 3 years, you have 3 more children, all of whom survive: Nicola, Michelina and Alberindo. Your fourteenth baby, Michela dies but in 1903 and 1904 you have 2 more girls, Fiorentina (Dina) and Assunta. When your last child, Assunta is born, you are 42 years old. You have given birth at least 16 times. . (It was thought to be 19 but there are records for only 16. There is a gap of 4 years and 5 months between the 2 Pietrangelos when there could have been 2 or 3 more unrecorded births.) You have 10 surviving children ranging in age from infant to 23 years old.
What became of your surviving children? At the beginning of the 1900s, a large wave of emigrants from Italy headed for the Americas. Canada got a large share and many of those arrived in Montreal. Your first-born, Giuseppe, or Zi Zep as we knew him, and Angela Maria, or Zi Angelooch, with her husband Giovanni Marlone were the first to arrive in Montreal. Zi Zep had 2 wives and 8 children while Zi Angelooch was childless.
In 1906 or 1907, Pietrangelo and Libero left you at the same time. They followed their brother and sister to Montreal. Pietrangelo married Antonietta and moved to New York City where they settled and had one son (Menenio). Libero had 2 wives and 10 children. Domenico followed in 1912. He married Elvira Caccione and had 1 daughter, Marianina (Nellie). Nicola left home at an early age. His destination was unknown and he was never heard from again.
In 1916, while the First World War was raging around you, Dina married Rafaele Padovani and gave birth to her daughter Italia nine months later. In 1922, your daughter Michelina married Domenico Di Ioia and had her first child, Caterina (Kay) while still in Ripabottoni. Shortly after, you bade them farewell as they too emigrated to Montreal where they had 5 more children, all boys. Assunta married Leonardo, one of the Frenza brothers who lived in town. Antonia (Ninetta) was born there and lived very happily among her aunts and uncles on both sides of her family until she was 6 years old. Her father emigrated to Montreal shortly after Ninetta was born to establish himself and prepare a home for his wife and child. Your son, Alberindo who was a butcher, unfortunately had a problem with alcohol. He never married and died at the age of 31 of alcohol related ills. In 1932, when you were 70 years old, you said goodbye to your beloved youngest daughter Assunta and your granddaughter Ninetta who joined Leonard in Montreal where Edda was born. You were left with only your daughter Dina at home with you. Your granddaughter Italia married and moved away from Ripabottoni. You lived out your life never laying eyes again on any of your departed children. My dear grandmother who we never knew, I can only imagine the profound sadness in your heart for all of your losses.
The pace of life was gentler and more humane in those long ago days in Ripabottoni. The sights and sounds of the town would have been quite different from what might be experienced today. With no electricity, there would be no sounds of motors or engines, no washing machines, no electric lights and no cooking stoves save for an open fire. The sound of horse or donkey-drawn carts would signal the arrival of a merchant, visitor or stranger. The sounds of manual labour would be heard. Natural and human sounds would be the accompaniment to a slower, quieter life.
When I asked Ninetta for her recollections of life in Ripabottoni this is some of her reply.
I do know that Zia Dina was married for 40 days when her husband was called in the army and during those 40 days she got pregnant. While at war, her husband was shot in the head and lost his mind and died about one year later. Italia never really got to know her father. I'm not sure how long after that, Zia got involved and was very much in love with a handsome young married man, and she got pregnant. My mother said that during that pregnancy she never left her parents' house and when it was close to the time to have the child, she left to have it in another town and gave up the child (a boy) and then returned back to her parents. One of my paternal aunts told me that when Italia died, Zia wanted to befriend her son, who was living in a town not too distant from Ripabottoni, but he didn't want to have anything to do with her.
I have wonderful memories of Ripabottoni because I was the only little grandchild around on my mother's and father's side, therefore, I got a lot of attention and love from aunts and uncles from both sides, and especially from my maternal grandparents and Zio Alberindo and Zia Dina because my mother and I spent a lot of time at our grandparents’ home. My father left for Canada when I was only six months old, and I came to Canada with my mother at the age of 6 years, therefore I have many recollections of my childhood. I remember my mother and I going to fetch water with a copper "conca" on our head every single day at that famous fountain in the square and washing clothes in the trough behind that fountain. (I still have that "conca".) We would then take the clothes to the fields and while waiting for them to dry, we would sing and eat our lunch together with other town folk. It was a simple, peaceful, pleasant life. I recall so vividly Zio Alberindo in the coffin placed in that little room at the entrance of the house. I could tell you so many stories of those six years of my life!
The restored fountain in Ripabottoni after the earthquake damage
The conca in which Ninetta carried water although only 7.5 inches tall, would have been quite a challenge in weight and balance for a young child.
Marianina’s 10 surviving children in turn produced my generation of 29 direct descendants. Of my 17 cousins in Canada this country, I came to know only a very few. As residents of Ontario, we saw very little of our Montreal cousins. At that time, travel was too expensive for us to see each other to establish meaningful relationships although we always felt a kinship.
On our trip to Italy in 2003, we made contact with one of Dina’s two granddaughters, Italia’s child Bianca Diamante, a teacher who lives in Rome with her husband Renato di Fazio and son Eduardo.
Silvio took these pictures of the gravesites in Ripabottoni. The inscription on the top of the burial wall reads: Here in the shade of the cypress trees, for eternity lie the mortal remains of…
Along the bottom is the inscription: This funeral stone was placed here in memory of the dear departed ancestors by their children in the year 1960
Matteo Sauro, Sep. 12, 1858 – Jan. 1, 1941
Alberindo Sauro, Oct. 10, 1900 – Oct. 22, 1931
Today, there is no member of our branch of the Sauro family left in Ripabottoni. From my investigation on the Internet, I discovered that there are other Sauros and Barbieris from Ripabottoni but I cannot discover any link that might connect us.
Unlike most of the people in town, Matteo and Marianina did not work on the land. The day began early in Ripabottoni. On their way to the surrounding fields to start the day’s work, the peasants would stop at Matteo’s cantina for coffee and to have their flasks filled with wine to drink at lunch. It was left to Marianina to cook for all the customers, travelers and visiting merchants, as well as to cook and clean for her large family while she was pregnant most of the time. Matteo was no help at all. In the evening the same pattern would occur as the villagers returned from the fields to have a few glasses of wine before returning home. As the proprietor, Matteo, being a very sociable man, would take a drink with each one of his customers. He had a glass in his hand most of the day. Sometimes Marianina even had to endure his fists along with his bad temper when he was drunk.
Leonardo Frenza, Ninetta Ricci’s father and his brother Piero, were also inhabitants of Ripabottoni. Unfortunately, they were orphaned when Piero was very young. He fell into the care of Marianina. Piero, who is still living in Italy, recounted with great fondness and respect, the many kindnesses bestowed upon him by my grandmother.
Libero was the sixth child born to Matteo and Marianina. He lived a carefree life in the village. His education in the small village primary school was enough of a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic to serve him well in later years. He was an avid reader, especially of history. At a very early age, Libero apprenticed to a carpenter to learn that trade. Domenico became a shoemaker. Jobs in the village or in the big cities near home were very scarce or nonexistent. There didn’t seem to be any hope for a future for young men in Ripabottoni or even in all of Italy in the early part of the twentieth century. For this reason, they sought their futures abroad.
In the early 1900s, Canada, although big was a fairly empty country. A bigger population was needed to build this nation so the Canadian government sent people to European countries to encourage people to come to live and work here. They told them that there were lots of jobs for everybody who wanted to work. You could get rich in Canada! There were posters put up in the towns and villages of southern Italy telling the people that Canada was so prosperous that the streets were paved with gold. You can’t blame those poor, out-of-work young people for believing what they heard. They needed to dream about making money so that they could have a prosperous life. Little did they know of the hardships they would be facing in their adopted country.
Life was not as relaxed as they were used to. They would have to work very hard at labour they had no experience with to provide food and shelter for themselves and their families.
Matteo and Marianina spent their last years with only one child, Dina left in Ripabottoni to comfort and care for them in their final years.
On the back of this picture postcard, Libero’s mother sent this message to him in Montreal.
I give you a pledge of my true affection
The young immigrant Libero Sauro was hopeful of making a new life for himself in the new world. He entered into the life of the Italian community soon after he arrived in Montreal. He found work on construction gangs in the city. Long before there were health and safety standards, these workers had no hard hats or safety boots. Their employers were often unscrupulous and worked them very hard for little money often cheating them of their rightful wages. They would not have had any kind of workers insurance either. If they were injured, sick or unemployed there was no help from the government. They had to rely on family and friends to help support them if bad luck came their way.
circa 1910-1913 Construction gang
Libero is seated second from the right
They took their recreation where they could find it; church groups, YMCA and emerging Italian mutual benefit societies such as Figli d’Italia. Such was the life in the Promised Land that helped to build the city of Montreal.
YMCA band, 1913
Libero standing on the right with his mandolin.
Libero was a rather handsome young man and probably had no trouble attracting young women. He had a romantic affair with a very young woman named Nicoletta Fasciano. When she became pregnant, her father went after Libero to hurry up and marry her which he did just before their first son Alberindo was born in 1916. She was 15 years old and he was 25. Her family originated from the town of Ururi, in the same region as Ripabottoni but farther south on the border of the adjoining region of Puglie.
Nicolina Fasciano and Libero Sauro circa 1915
Nicolina Fasciano came from a rather large family and her sons enjoyed the life of their extended family with many aunts, uncles and cousins in their everyday lives.
This is the wedding of one of Nicolina Fasciano Sauro’s cousins. The woman to the right of the bride is Leonilda Fasciano, grandmother (Memooch) to Nicolina’s 5 sons. In 1931 she traveled from Montreal to Niagara Falls to be the midwife at my birth.
Nicolina with Alberindo, 1917, Montreal
The next year, in 1917, Italo was born but this little baby survived for only a year or so.
Alberindo Sauro, 1919, Montreal
In 1919, another baby boy was born and his parents named him Italo also.
Nicolina, Libero with Italo and Alberindo
Giuseppe, Libero, Angela, Domenico, Pietrangelo
These pictures would have been taken by a professional photographer in his studio. Personal cameras were in their infancy and very few people would have owned one.
Libero, Nicolina, Alberindo and Italo. Pietrangelo and Antonietta. Giovanni Malorne and Angela, Domenico, Elvira and Nellie, Giuseppe and Mario.
This was the extent of the Sauro family in North America in 1920.
Nicolina was probably pregnant for the fourth time because Enrico (variously known as Henry and Hank) was born in September 1920.
With his first wife Michelina Guido, Giuseppe had 3 children, Bella who died young, Mario and Frank about whom little is known. With Chiarina Belmonte, they had 5 more children.
From top left to right:
Esther, Jemima and Violet
Pietrangelo and his wife had one son, Menenio.
Antonietta Menenio Pietrangelo
Libero’s family in 1939.
Henry, Olindo, Livio, Italo, Alberindo
Sylvia, Roma (Cinna) Silvio, Elvino
Michelina married Domenico Di Ioia in Ripabottoni on Oct 22, 1922. Their first child, Caterina (Kay) was born in 1923. In that year, her father, came to Montreal to establish a new home for his family. Michelina and Caterina followed in 1924.
This is their passport picture.
Michelina circa 1940
In 1945, Kay married Bill Martin.
The Di Ioia family 1969 in Montreal
Albert, Kay, Domenico, Michelina, Nick, Bruno, John, Italo
Bruno married Alice Grondin in 1948, Albert married Maria Silvestri in 1952 and Nick married Lucia Zullo in 1963. John and Italo remained single.
In 1972, Domenico and Michelina celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary surrounded by their ever-increasing family.
The Frenzas were reunited in Montreal in 1932. Edda was born in 1934. Ninetta married Galileo Ricci and Edda married Tony Martino. They enjoyed many good times together.
Galileo, Ninetta, Edda, Tony
Edda, Nellie, Ninetta Assunta circa 1940
Leonardo, Assunta, Clementina, Ninetta, Libero
This picture was taken on a visit to Montreal in 1947
Assunta and Leonardo Frenza at home in
St Leonard about 1985
Domenico and Elvira’s only child Nellie married Nick Fasano in 1952.
Nick is Clementina’s first cousin.
Nick Fasano and Nellie Sauro 1979
It is not known exactly how Libero became involved in the Protestant Italian community. His connection with the YMCA was probably a factor. It is interesting to note that some of his siblings in Montreal were Protestant, Giuseppe, Domenico and Assunta while Angela and Michelina and Pietrangelo adhered to their Roman Catholic roots. Libero became quite active in the church and helped out as a Sunday school teacher. Because of his involvement with the Italian Presbyterian Church he got the job of building a small church for the congregation.
In 1920 Libero built Rossland Presbyterian Church in Montreal.
In 1922, Libero, who had decided to pursue a career in the church, moved his wife and 3 sons to Sault Ste Marie to begin his theological education. This ended the close proximity to our Montreal relatives. Their fifth son Olindo was born shortly after they moved to the Sault.
Olindo with Nicolina, Henry, Italo, Alberindo, Libero, Sault Ate Marie, 1922
Nicolina contracted tuberculosis and gradually became weaker. In 1924, when she was pregnant with her last son, Livio, she agreed to go to the sanitarium in Gravenhurst for treatment. This was far from Sault Ste Marie and her beloved boys. She was so lonely for her family that she left the sanitarium and returned home. Livio was born on July 2, 1924 and his mother died on August 2, a month later.
The boys, returned to Montreal to be cared for first, for a summer with Domenico’s family where Elvira lovingly cared for them and Nellie enjoyed their company. Then they were split up. Henry, Olindo and Livio lived with their maternal relatives in Montreal while Alberindo and Italo stayed with their father in Sault Ste Marie.
Henry and Olindo, Montreal, 1925
Livio, Montreal, 1925
Libero continued his studies which culminated in a final year at Emmanuel College at the university of Toronto where he was ordained a United Church minister in 1928, the year he married my mother, Clementina Lanzillotta. With their marriage, the family was reunited and continued life in Niagara Falls and Toronto Ontario while our Montreal relatives established deep roots there.
During the last year of his life, in 2000, Italo began to write his memoirs. I think it fortunate that we have his words to describe this period of his life.
Next: Italo’s Story