American Cousins Visit Castiglionle di Carovilli

Mary Mollicone
(a shorter version was published in Andiamo)

On Friday, July 21, 2006, descendants of Nicola and Lucia Di Domenico arrived in Castiglione di Carovilli in the Molise region of southern Italy.  More than 100 years earlier, Nicola and Lucia left this tiny mountain farming community to take a chance at a new life in America.  Today their descendants number 237 with more on the way.  In fact, there are more American Domenico descendants than there are people living in the entire town of Castiglione.

Eighteen American cousins and spouses arrived in the town square of Castiglione around 4:30 pm. We were greeted by a variety of men sitting on benches in the shade, including Pierino Rossi, our Italian/Canadian cousin.  Pierino’s great grandfather Vincenzo Di Domenico was Nicola’s older brother.  Pierino was born in Castiglione and emigrated to Canada in 1967 with his wife Angelina Teasta, a native of nearby Carovilli.  

The first event on our itinerary was to climb to the top of the hill to visit the remains of the “Old Church” built on top of what was once a castle occupied by a duke or land baron before the Renaissance.  Two more cousins/guides, Giovanna Di Domenico Hilj (born in Castiglione and living in Akron, Ohio) and Stefano Di Domenico (born and living in Castiglione) joined us.  Along the way up the hill, we stopped at a site where the original Di Domenico house had stood as far back as 1500.  Today it is only a collection of tumbled down stones covered with wild bushes and grass. 


At the top of the hill, we passed through the opening of what had once been the doors of Chiesa San Nicola di Bari - the “Old Church” that overlooked the rolling hills below for more than 400 years.  The bell tower was in great condition, so we took turns climbing the twisting staircase to soak in the breathtaking view, ring the bell, and wonder if Grandpa Nick had ever done the same.

According to the legend, before being a church, it was a castle and that's where the name of Castiglione comes from. This is consistent with the design of the walls of the church.  Looking from outside, the walls are not vertical, but they lean inward. But on the inside, the same walls are perfectly vertical, which means they were thicker at the bottom and narrower at the top, just like castles were made.  Older people seemed to remember other walls in front of the church, kind of enclosures to protect that vulnerable side of the castle.  We don't know who occupied the castle, however, before Napoleon Buonaparte’s occupation and his law of resolution of the Latifondo (1806) all of southern Italy belonged to a score of dukes, barons and marques, who were buying and selling properties including the people living on it. I believe they were the owners also of the castle.

The castle was originally built by the Samnites who inhabited the area before the Romans . A line of castles that stretched from Duronia ( capital city of the Samnites ) to Pescolanciano, to Castiglione on the hill, to Castiglione on Vallefredda, to Vastogirardi provided a line of defense against the Romans who wanted to conquer the region.  The Romans had very hard time against this defense and lost several wars until a decisive battle that was fought right in Vallefredda where the Romans played a trick on the invincible and stubborn Samnites:  Late in the afternoon, when the defenders were all tired out from having fought all day long, the Romans came from the west with several horses dragging large bushes behind them, creating an enormous cloud of dust. The Samnites thought the dust was from a new Roman legion ready to take over the fight.  Already tired and badly outnumbered, the Samnites had to retreat toward the east to defend their capital city of Duronia and the fortess of Bovarium, today‘s Bojano.  There is still an area in Vallefredda called “Polverone” , “big dust”, from that battle.  Note that the Samnites lost that battle but were not beaten up by the Romans!

Pierino Rossi

Back down in the square, we got into our cars and headed to dinner at a new agriturismo facility Colle Panetta, about five miles out of town.  The view from the patio attached to this newly renovated restaurant and hotel (formerly a house and barn) was again spectacular – rolling hills dotted with large round bails of hay and the sound of bells worn by sheep that moved across the grass looking for a place to graze.

Our host Serafino had many surprises on the menu including plates of antipasto filled with locally produced prosciutto, cheese and liver sausage.  Whenever we ate, there were always baskets filled with fresh bread, bottles of red wine and plenty of acqua naturale.  We were treated to a local soup-like specialty made with potatoes, zucchini and pork rind, a traditional staple for families in this region.  Then we were served homemade ravioli, roasted lamb, fried sausage and green salad with the lightest touch of white vinegar and olive oil dressing.  For those brave enough to order dessert, there was overall agreement that the tiramisu was the best.  We ate and drank and talked and laughed for hours!  That’s what you do in Italy.

Saturday morning we gathered again at the town square in front of the Chiesa Nuova (“New Church”) to watch a wedding procession.  First the groom Pietro Ricci , escorting his mother, left his house and walked to the church accompanied by various relatives.  Next, the bride Daniela Rossi and her father led a procession of relatives from her house to the church.  The American visitors joined with the townspeople in applauding the young couple and wishing them well.

With Pierino in the lead, we walked a short distance north of the church, to the Di Domenico house and barn.  (Seeing the large house made me wonder about the accuracy/truth of Aunt Ern’s story about the rugged condition of the first house the family lived in near the Platte River in Welby, CO.  If it was in fact the “shack” she spoke about, what Nicola and Lucia had in Italy was a much more substantial place to live in and raise a family.) The house had two stories, with a family living on each floor.  Time had taken its toll on this building where the floors and interior walls were no longer in tact.  The roof was replaced recently by Pierino and his brother Giovanni Rossi, a native and current resident of Castiglione.  Old kitchen utensils and pottery were found in the rubble.  The land immediately surrounding the house was likely used to grow vegetables for the family.

The barn was a much larger building just steps away from the house.  Again there were two levels, where pigs, chickens, sheep, horses, donkeys, cows and goats had occupied the bottom floor, and hay and straw were stored on the floor above.  The original stone arches were still in tact on the interior of the lower level, a testament to the craftsmanship of the builders.  On the outside west-facing wall were the remains of a fresco of the Madonna that had been painted and framed.  How many times must someone from the Di Domenico clan have passed by the watchful eyes of the Madonna on their way to church, going out to the fields to work or returning with the season’s harvest to store inside the barn?  Every person walking in front of the Madonna was compelled to make the sign of the cross and say “ Gesu, Maria”.

Next we drove about one mile north to the top of a hill to Vallefredda (“Cold Valley”)and saw the large expanse of land where the farmers of Castiglione, including the Di Domenico’s, used to carry on the greatest part of their daily activities.  Beyond were colorful rolling hills and valleys with alternating green bushes and gold dried up grass.  Sadly, making a living through agriculture is a thing of the past in present day Castigilione.

We marveled at the house and the land we’d just seen and were amazed to think of how many years our ancestors had lived and worked there.  The experience was nearly surreal.  Are we really here?  So this is where Grandpa and Grandma came from! 

It was lunch time so we drove to a new restaurant Quattro Archi (Four Arches) designed by Pierino’s nephew Carlo Rossi and owned and run by Remo Di Giacomo – relatives of Frank James and Madeliene Maginn.  (New businesses are blossoming in the Molise region!)  Just a few meters from this restaurant, on the west side of the road, we learned there is a plot of land that belonged to the Di Domenico’s, and there’s another one about 100 meters north.

We filled the dining room and again were treated to the joy of a leisurely meal consisting of regional dishes (potato soup, pasta, meat and salad).  At the end the meal the dolce was a cup of fresh fruit (a/k/a Macedonia fruit salad) topped with a scoop of vanilla gelato.  Are we in heaven yet?  Pretty close!

Still more to see of Molise, so we drove across a large bridge to the town of Agnone.  Here we visited the foundry where the Marinelli family has been making bells for more than 1,000 years.  We tried to conduct choir practice in anticipation of our song for Sunday mass, but there were not enough bells to provide all the notes we needed.  Whenever we see a large bell, we’ll know to check and see if it was made by the Marinelli’s whose bells are all over the world.  We returned to our temporary homes – Jeanne and Bob Fricke, Jeanne James and family and Mary Mollicone and Dwight Taylor to Colle Panetta.  Frank and Donna James, Bob and Gwen Domenico, Jim and Burma Domenico and Madeliene and Dick Maginn, Karen Maginn and her two sons to Il Parco for a rest.  The remainder of the day we spent visiting among ourselves, sharing stories of our recent adventures in Italy prior to coming to Castiglione.

Finally, Sunday arrived.  This was the BIG day we’d been planning for months.  Angelina Di Domenico found Jeanne (Domenico) Frick and immediately took her hand and pulled her close.  They sat together for the entire service – new best friends!  The American cousins sat down in the front rows. The visiting choir consisting of Giovanna Hilj, Richard Maginn, Frank James, Burma Domenico and Mary Mollicone sat up front close to the altar along with the church choir of four young women, one guitar player and one keyboard player.  We practiced “Panis Angelicus” several times before mass started, and hoped for the best.

The mass was lead by Father Erasmo, a Franciscan monk recently assigned to the New Church when Father Marco retired after 56 years as the parish priest.  Father Marco arrived and slowly worked his way up to the front, greeting parishoners with the charm and warmth of a true “father” watching over his parish.  It was easy to see why the community loves and respects him so.  While standing near the altar, Father Marco caught site of the photo album we brought as a gift.  He looked with great interest at the different families and became quite animated when he saw pictures of Uncle Sandy and Aunt Mamie.  He had visited America in the 1960’s and specifically recalled having spent time with Sandy and Mamie Domenico in Welby.

During communion, five very brave Americans sang “Panis Angelicus” accompanied by the keyboard and guitar.  This song was a special gift to the community and a heart-felt prayer to honor the Di Domenico family members who were so devoted to the church both in Italy and in America.  All four of Nicola’s daughters sang in the choir at Assumption Church in Welby.  (Afterwards, Gwen said she could hear Aunt Ern’s voice when we were singing.)

After the formal mass ended, it was time for the parishoners and visitors to exchange welcomes and gifts.  Our spirited guide, Pierino Rossi, stood at the podium and explained to the audience that the American visitors were in fact descendants of two of their own families – Nicola Di Domenico and Lucia di Frangia, and Angelo Di Giacomo and Maddalena Rossi who emigrated to the US in the early 1900’s.  Then Frank James presented gifts that included a photo from the 2005 Domenico reunion with 220+ descendants, a photo of one of Angelo Di Giacomo’s statues that is now in America, and a check for $ 1,500 to be used for church repairs.  The photo album of Nicola’s family was also presented. 

Angelo Di Giacomo had carved several statues while living in Castiglione.  The largest one represents the “Madonna del Carmine” and is displayed in an alcove in the New Church.  A smaller statue “Cristo Risorto” that none of the Americans had seen before was displayed on the altar on Sunday.  There is also a fresco, part of which is still visible on a restored barn very close to the Quattro Archi restaurant.

Finally, the American cousins gathered together to say out loud the names of our deceased grandparents and their children:

Father Marco gave a special blessing to the oldest surviving Di Domenico son - Frank Domenico (92) and his wife Edith (86) who live in north Denver.  At this most emotional point of the ceremony, there was not a dry eye in the church.  The Italians and Americans came together as one community to share this sacred occasion to remember our families and the roots from where they came.  For this precious moment we were one people, one parish, one family.

Throughout the presentation, the Castiglione parishoners were most respectful and intently interested in learning what their American cousins had to say.  They crowded around the altar to see the framed photos and flip through the album.  For our part, the cugini Americani felt a sense of pride, accomplishment, and most of all, satisfaction that we had so beautifully brought to this church the names, pictures and memories of our loved ones.  Many of us also mentioned the feeling of being at home in the modestly beautiful church, among these gracious people.

Sunday would not be complete without a huge gathering of family to enjoy an afternoon meal.  At the Colle Panetta restaurant, we were treated to yet another feast beyond compare.  The elegant antipasto platters, baskets of fresh bread, and this time homemade polenta with fresh tomato sauce, a slice of sausage and a generous sprinkling of cheese – enough to bring tears to your eyes!  Servings of ravioli, meat (lamb and pork) and salad completed the meal.  We called a truce.  If Serafino would stop serving, we’d stop eating!

We rested for the remainder of the afternoon and returned to the town piazza dressed in our 2005 Domenico Reunion shirts.  The Castiglionese had planned a special treat for us – an outdoor feast complete with a live band and dancing.  As with all of the major events in this tiny town, it begins in the piazza in front of the church.  Frank James handed out the extra reunion shirts to the children and hats to the adults.  A highlight of the evening was seeing tiny Angelina Di Domenico slip one of the shirts over her dress.  She smiled and said (in Italian of course) “Now I’m American, too!”  Her daughters teased her and asked if she could speak English now.  What fun to see so many generations of friends and family gather around one of the town’s matriarchs, clapping for her and sharing her delight.

Meanwhile, the men had set up tables to serve the food that included grilled homemade sausage, hard cheese and rustic bread.  At the end of the food line was an endless supply of full bodied red wine served in large jugs.  Now that’s Italian! Our hosts were so generous and attentive – making sure we tried everything.  Mangia!  Later, the tables were filled again, this time with desserts brought by the women of the town.  Melt in your mouth wonderful.  Life just doesn’t get any better than this! 

The four piece band including an accordion and pianola from Carovilli, “ I Cavalieri del Liscio” had set up on the stairs of the church began to play.  The first ones out prancing on the cobblestones to the accordion music were children, totally caught up in the joy of the moment.  Soon after, the local women began dancing to waltzes and polkas.  Not to miss out on the fun, numerous American cousins also joined the group that grew larger with every song as the Castiglionese led visitors in a spin around the square.  Much to our surprise, the music changed to modern songs accompanied by line dancing – just like in an American nightclub.  Lots of cousins followed the lead of the young Italian women who made it look effortless to remember a dance routine while moving on top of cobblestones in light weight summer sandals.  Talk about multi-tasking.

There was a break in the eating and dancing for an exchange of gifts.  Each American family was presented with a packet of colorful brochures describing the history and economic development of Molise.  Did you know that this is the home of the famous gourmet tartufo mushroom?  A limited edition postcard commemorating the 2005 Tresca (wheat threshing), was also included. (Every year in Carovilli on the 1st of  September there is a demonstration of old fashioned wheat threshing using horses and old style utensils). The pride in giving these gifts to the American visitors was unmistakable on the faces of the Castiglionese who presented them.  Then Frank delivered the official check to the church treasurer, a gift to be used for church maintenance.  As many people as could crowd on to the steps of the church – Castiglionese, Canadian, American, young and old alike - gathered close together for a group picture.  What a night to remember!  Danzing under the stars – just like Pierino promised.

What can we do to hang on to these feelings of belonging and acceptance?  Newly introduced cousins exchanged addresses and promised to keep in touch by letter and email.  On Monday, Burma Domenico visited the elementary school in Carovilli and met with the administrator.  They agreed to set up pen pals between the Carovilli school children and the Florida grade school children where Burma teaches in the US.  

Our deepest appreciation goes to Pierino Rossi for making it possible for us - first, second and third generation Italian-Americans to see the town where our ancestors were born.  Even though the roofs of the barns and floors of the houses have fallen, even disappeared, the legacy of the humble Italians who lived, worked and prayed there lives on in the hearts of their grateful descendants – hundreds and hundreds of us living all over the globe!

[1] Agritourismo is a tourism effort supported by the government where farm houses are remodeled to accommodate visitors.  Lodging includes meals made from locally grown food.