A trip to Capestrano to honor one's ancestry

Left to right: Sally and sister Marian, sister in law Angela and brother Mark, sister-in-law Cat and brother Luke; niece Marian at Piazza E. Alessandroni in Capestrano

A man carries a suitcase in one hand. His other hand rests on a shoulder of a weeping boy huddled against his knee. The sculpture in the town of Roccomorice in the Abruzzo region of Italy honors immigrants, “per sempre nel nostro cuore.” (Forever in our heart.)

The figures could be my great-grandfather Pierluigi Alessandroni and his son, my grandfather Giuseppe. In 1889, Pierluigi left his hometown of Capestrano in Abruzzo to seek work in America. The following year, he had settled in Philadelphia and sent for his wife, Carmella, and their six children. Giuseppe, the oldest, was 10. He would always remember the rough 29 days at sea in steerage. Two more children were born in Philadelphia, where Pierluigi became Peter and Giuseppe, Joseph.

Like my grandfather, I am the oldest of eight. At 73, I decide time is running out to organize a pilgrimage to our ancestral home. A sister, two brothers, their wives, and a niece agree to join me. My brother, Luke, speaks some Italian. My niece Marian has lived in Italy and is fluent. None of us have been to Capestrano.

After three days in Rome, we pick up two rental cars and drive more than 100 miles east to Abruzzo in the Apennine mountains.

We arrive in Capestrano on market day. The town square is bustling. Vendors sell household goods and produce, including enormous white mushrooms and giant red peppers. This is an agricultural region.

Camera icon Sally Downey
Market day in Capestrano.

At the municipal office in a formidable 13th-century castle, a clerk pulls out a dusty ledger. The Alessandroni page is torn out. We know from cousins who visited that there is still a piazza in the town honoring our great-uncle Eugene Alessandroni. In 1927, he became the first Italian American judge in Philadelphia.

Luke and Marian converse with locals who direct us to a crumbling building with a plaque, Piazza E. Alessandroni. We don’t meet anyone who knew our ancestors.

We visit other towns in Abruzzo besides Capestrano and Roccomorice, climbing stone-paved hills to visit churches filled with stunning statuary and stained glass,  hiking down a cliff  to a frescoed hermit’s cave in Maiella National Park, swimming in the Adriatic at a pine-shaded beach, visiting a winery, and dining in restaurants Luke discovers.

Scenic farms, olive groves, and vineyards provide ingredients for our wonderful meals, but they cannot sustain Abruzzo’s economy.

Camera icon Sally A. Downey
Olive grove near Capestrano.

“Beauty does not fill bellies,” a local pensioner says in the English he learned working in South Africa. For more than 150 years, young people have left this region to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Capestrano has a population of fewer than 1,000, mostly older residents.

My great-grandfather attended Eugene’s swearing-in as a Court of Common Pleas judge. By then, my grandfather Joseph and great-uncle John were also lawyers in Philadelphia. Carmella had died, as had a daughter. The surviving four girls were married with children and prospering.

Pierluigi’s progeny continue to prosper in America.

What if he had never sent for his family? What if Carmella refused to leave her mountain home for a South Philadelphia tenement?

We are honored to visit this beautiful place our great-grandparents were brave enough to leave.