Tracing roots on sacred mountain

Last June, I was lucky enough to find a tour that spent half a day in the town that both of my maternal grandparents were from. The town, in the southern Italian province of Foggia, is isolated and difficult to get to, but I decided this tour was worth taking. From conversations with my grandmother, I had a feeling this town was special and that I needed to see it.

Monte Sant'Angelo is 2,400 feet high on the huge Monte Gargano, on the tip of the Gargano Peninsula, along the Adriatic Sea. The switchback road up the mountain made my mouth drop open - the 360-degree view of land and sea was spectacular.

Once on top, it was like going back in time. A Norman castle and wall are surrounded by the medieval section of town. The town and mountain have been considered sacred since medieval times because of three sightings of the Archangel Michael, according to legend. A shrine was finally built there in the 400s.

The sanctuary is in a cave 86 steps below. The shrine has been visited by St. Francis of Assisi, knights sailing off to the Holy Land, and people hoping for miracles of many kinds. Throughout the years, names, symbols, and handprints have been carved into the stone of the old entrance by pilgrims.

I was even able to find a distant relative on my grandfather's side who remembered a visit by my grandparents and great-grandmother in the 1930s. My grandfather, Gaetano (Thomas) Arena, came to the United States on Nov. 12, 1912, at 16, leaving behind his parents, sister, and brother. He first went to Worcester, Mass., then to Connecticut.

My grandmother, Concettia (Constance) Totaro, arrived in the United States on Aug. 2, 1916, at 14, with her parents and her two siblings. They first went to Washington.

Somehow, they all wound up in Elizabeth, N.J. My grandparents married and had seven children. My grandfather had a butcher shop, where he sold cheeses, meats, homemade sausages, and other Italian specialties. Many Italian immigrants came there to shop.

When we did find my distant relative, the family's shop was just two doors down from where our tourist group was having lunch - in front of their business, a butcher shop.

Although the dialect was different, my guide, from Rome, was able to translate and show me the home of my great-aunt and where my grandfather's family had a chestnut store. This was all in the medieval section, a short distance from the shrine.

I would love to go back and spend more time there. Visiting the mountain was indeed a personal and sacred pilgrimage for me.

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