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By Omero Sabatini

Ask any Italian-American what contribution the people from Abruzzo-Molise and their descendants in America have made to molding American life, and you are likely to draw a blank. Ask the same question of our other fellow Americans, especially those brought up on peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, and most likely they will answer with a question of their own to find out where in the world Abruzzo-Molise is, and who or what its people are. Therefore, in line with our Society’s aim of expanding and improving knowledge of our particular heritage, let us go searching for traces of Abruzzesi and Molisani in such areas as America’s geographical names, history, religious practices, and popular culture.

The Geographical Names

Perched on one of the foothills of the Gran Sasso, less than 20 miles southeast of L’Aquila is a village named Capestrano. There, in 1386 a boy was born of a Capestrano woman married to a German Baron, who had arrived at Capestrano three years earlier, in the service of one of the numerous foreign armies that had periodically invaded Southern Italy since the fall of the Roman Empire. The boy was baptized Giovanni but, because of his father’s nationality, was known as Giantudesco (Johnny the German, or Johnny Dutch) until 1416, when, on becoming a Franciscan monk, he took the name of Giovanni da Capestrano. A politician and lawyer before entering the Franciscan Order, he went on to acquire fame and sainthood as a Canon Law expert and mediator among theologians from different schools of thought.

Then, in 1456, Pope Calixtus III put Giovanni da Capestrano in charge of a military campaign against a Muslim army operating in the Balkans, and Giovanni played an active military role in the defense of Belgrade. (The protagonists have changed, but will the conflict ever end?) He died in that same year, was canonized in 1690, and is now the patron saint of all military chaplains, the world over.

Some 80 years after Giovanni da Capestrano had been proclaimed a saint, the Spanish missionary Father Junipero Serra, he too a Franciscan, began establishing a series of Catholic Missions along the California coastal road called El Camino Real, and gave each of the Missions the Spanish version of the names of various saints and of our Lady of the Angels. The Mission of San Juan Capistrano (i.e., San Giovanni da Capestrano), located between Los Angeles and San Diego, was started in November, 1776 -- and thus, in that distant November of 1776, the modern American city of San Juan Capistrano, named after our own Abruzzese saint, was born.

San Juan Capistrano, CA now has a population of about 34,000, six percent of whom are of Italian extraction. Unfortunately, the US census does not give any indication of how many of them trace their ancestry to Abruzzo-Molise. By the way, in 2001, Capestrano in Abruzzo had 965 inhabitants, of whom 456 were male and 509 female.

Today, the California city is famous for its cliff swallows that every year arrive en masse at the old Mission on or about St. Joseph’s Day, March 19, and then migrate south, some 6, 000 miles away, on or about San Juan’s Day, October 23. Each year, throngs of people from all parts of the world gather to watch the swallows’ arrival and departure. Both events are celebrated with the ringing of the old Mission’s bells, parades, and festivals.

But, to continue on our own El Camino Abruzzese, on May 20, 1810 (this is a young country, isn’t it?) another Franciscan missionary and his companions entered a valley about 60 miles northeast of San Juan Capistrano -- and called it San Bernardino, in observation of St. Bernardino of Siena’s feast day. In 1854, six years after California had passed into American hands, and four years after it had become a state, the city of San Bernardino was incorporated as the seat of San Bernardino County. In the year 2000, according to the US census, the county had a population of 1.7 million, well in excess of the present population of Abruzzo and Molise combined.

At this point, logically, you must be asking, “But, if San Bernardino was from Siena, Tuscany, how does Abruzzo-Molise come into the picture?” The question is both legitimate and reasonable. No doubt about that. But let me tell you. San Bernardino died at L’Aquila, and is entombed there in a magnificent Basilica named after him.

He spent the last days of his life on this earth in a monastery in that city. Several centuries after his death, the monastery where he died was made into a government-run boarding house (Convitto Nazionale) for secondary-school students from L’Aquila’s surrounding areas, since, in those days, virtually no village could offer an education past the fifth-grade level. As a matter of fact, I spent five school years (ginnasio and liceo classico) in San Bernardino’s compound, trod the same corridors and halls, walked up and down the same staircases, and ate my meals in the same dining hall (refettorio) as he had. In my view, that alone is enough to make him an Abruzzese.

But there is more. San Giovanni da Capestrano was a disciple of San Bernardino and, when San Bernardino was accused of heresy, San Giovanni had him exonerated. After San Bernardino’s canonization, San Giovanni, who at that time was in Krakow, in present-day Poland, appealed to the Aquilani to erect a church in honor of San Bernardino. Pope John Paul II, who prior to his elevation to the papacy had been Archbishop of Krakow, speaking to the assembled clergy from Abruzzo and Molise in the Basilica of San Bernardino, on August 30, 1980, reminded his audience of San Giovanni’s plea from Krakow, and added that the two Saints are closely interconnected in the veneration and profession of faith of the Polish people. The same is, of course, true of the Abruzzesi, especially the Aquilani. And, thus, when we see or hear the names of the city and county of San Bernardino, or visit them, we can rightly hear the echoes of our ancestral land and feel a strengthened sense of affinity with that corner of America.

The History

Only a few months before construction of the San Juan Capistrano Mission started on the shores of the Pacific, at the opposite end of the American Continent, William Paca had been debating on whether the American Colonies should “dissolve the political bands” which connected them with England. When the debate was over, and his side had won, William Paca was one of the proud signers of the Declaration of Independence. It is said that his great grandfather, Robert Paca, who arrived in the Colonies in the late 1660’s, after an extended stay in England, traced his origins to Chieti, from where he had found it expedient to emigrate because of his conversion to Protestantism. Prior to and after his signing of the Declaration of Independence, William Paca held several political offices; and in 1782 became the first Italian-American, or, should you prefer, the first “Abruzzese-American” Governor of an American State--Maryland, in his case. And, of course, this country has innumerable places, schools and streets named after William Paca, including a principal one in nearby downtown Baltimore.

At this point, however, even though this is not an academic dissertation, I must tell you that some historians maintain that there is no solid evidence that William Paca’s great grandfather was from Italy, let alone Abruzzo.

I have no doubt about the Italian origin of the name, which in 1937 was confirmed by a descendant of William Paca. As for placing the origin of the family in Abruzzo, the documentation is hazy, but there are people in Chieti who state that they are related to the American branch of the Paca family; and it has also been pointed out that Robert Paca, the one who moved to America, had a son named Aquila, the Italian word for eagle -- and this makes sense only if one considers that Chieti, i.e., Robert’s purported place of origin, is near the city then called Aquila, and is now L’Aquila. William Paca’s daughter, Joanna, also had a son named Aquila.

In this connection, I remember that President Kennedy on one Columbus Day told an audience of Italian-Americans that John Fitzgerald, the President’s maternal grandfather and former mayor of Boston, was fond of telling his Italian-American constituents that the Fitzgeralds were really from Venice. There, their name was Gerardini, but they changed it to Fitzgerald after moving to Ireland. The President added that he had never dared make that claim before, but was making it "now", on Columbus Day.

Well, on the occasion of this celebration of our Abruzzo-Molise heritage, I declare William Paca definitely ours. Besides, se non e` vero e` ben trovato, or, roughly, if it is not true, it is a creative way of putting it. After all, there always is an element of truth in every legend and popular belief or tradition. In the words of Italy’s foremost novelist, Alessandro Manzoni, “Tradition always tells us less than we want to know, unless we help it a little.”

Religious Practices

Pope Celestine V, canonized as St. Peter Celestine in 1313, was born in Isernia in 1209, lived most of his life as a hermit near Sulmona, and was crowned pope at L’Aquila in 1294. However, unable or unwilling to deal with the politics of his new office, which he had never sought, he resigned five months after his coronation. When he was proclaimed a saint, the canonization decree defined him, “a man of wonderful simplicity but inept in the management of the Church, because since his early childhood his soul had been longing for the divine, with no concern for earthly matters.”

I know of a few Catholic High Schools named after St. Peter Celestine in America and of three Catholic parishes: in Cherry Hill, NJ, Elmwood Park, IL, and Celestine, IN, but probably there are more. (I have visited a church named after him in the South Pacific island of Bora Bora, but that is a different story.)

Incidentally and speaking of churches, church bells have been cast in the Molise town of Agnone for many centuries and have been exported to all parts of the world. I do not know how many of the bells that call Americans to prayer originate from Agnone, but the bell used during the Second Vatican Council was cast there. That same bell was later exhibited at the New York World Fair, and was finally donated by Pope Paul VI to the Cathedral of St. Patrick’s in New York City.

But, to return to St. Peter Celestine, his impact on American life cannot be gauged either by the number of parishioners who venerate him, or by the number of students who rue or celebrate the day when their parents enrolled them in a St. Peter Celestine school. Far more important is St. Peter Celestine’s towering legacy to American Catholics and Catholics the world over. That legacy is his promulgation of the Perdonanza, one month after he had become pope. The Perdonanza -- or, in modern Italian, Il Perdono (Forgiveness) -- granted plenary indulgence and remission of all sins to the truly repentant Christians who visited the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio at L’Aquila within the 24 hours between the evening of August 28 and the evening of August 29 of any year.

August 29 was the day of Celestine's coronation, but is also the day when the decapitation of St. John the Baptist is commemorated; and the decree instituting the Perdonanza states that the August 29 date was chosen to enhance the veneration of St. John the Baptist. Santa Maria di Collemaggio is the Basilica where Celestine was consecrated pope, and which he had caused to be built when still a monk.

It is an undisputed historical fact that the Perdonanza inspired Celestine V’s successor, Boniface VIII, to institute the Holy Year and to decree that a plenary indulgence would be granted to all the repentant faithful who traveled to Rome during any Holy Year.

Thus, through his Perdonanza, our Abruzzese-Molisano saintly Pope has had an ever-lasting impact on the religious beliefs of all of the world’s practicing Catholics and their ways of approaching an all forgiving God in search for their salvation. Quite an impact this-- not just an echo.

The Popular Culture

In this case the contribution is primarily from people in the world of entertainment and sports who trace their ancestry to Abruzzo or Molise, or both. To mention a few and, in no particular order: Dean Martin, Perry Como, Mario Lanza, Anna Moffo, Henry Mancini, Alan Alda, Madonna, and Tommy La Sorda

These people have not simply entertained or mesmerized America. They have helped shape its popular culture. For instance, say, “That’s amore,” and then tell me which American doesn’t know what it means. And it was our Abruzzese-Molisano Dean Martin who introduced the expression into American usage with his famous “That’s Amore” song that starts out, “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.” When our crooner intermixed love, moon and pizza, consumption of pizza among the young hit the sky--with pizza as its moon. In a few years, in fulfillment of the old dictum that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, pizza went on to capture the hearts of Americans of all ages, and today pizza is even more popular than hamburgers in this country.

To me, however, the most important contribution that the people mentioned in this section have made to shaping the modern American way of life and thinking is this: Their talent has been instrumental in eroding prejudices against Italian-Americans, and, consequently, promoting a better understanding among all races and nationalities. America is better off for it.

Regardless, I take great pleasure in watching reruns of the TV series M*A*S*H*. The lovable, wisecracking, martini-loving, but extremely competent, Army surgeon “Hawkeye” Pierce is played by Alan Alda, whose real name is Alphonso D’Abruzzo. (Add the first two letters of his first name, and the first two of his last, and you get Alda.) Another of the principal characters in the TV series is Father John Mulchay. And, of course, as the Catholic Chaplain of the unit, he has San Giovanni da Capestrano as his patron saint. So, you see, the echo from Abruzzo is there, too. It may be faint, but it is there nonetheless.


Well, during this Christmas Season, let us hope and pray that San Giovanni da Capestrano/San Juan Capistrano is watching over his military chaplains, and interceding for all our men and women in uniform, as well as all the other of God’s children who are in harm’s way in Iraq and the rest of the world. To each and everyone of them: May God bless you and reunite you safely with your loved ones at home. To all of you and your families: Have a Blessed and Happy Christmas Season and an equally Blessed and Happy New Year. Buon Natale e Buon Anno.
(Omero Sabatini)

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