The VGS Italian SIG
We are the Italian SIG (Special Interest Group) of The Villages Genealogical Society, Florida’s largest genealogical society, located in The Villages, Florida. The Villages is the largest gated retirement in the world, and draws residents from all over the US, Canada, Europe and elsewhere.
The VGS Italian SIG is Led by a Villages resident of Italian descent, Joanne De Cecchis. Joanne fully embraces her Italian heritage, and has travelled to Italy to connect with the cuture, cuisine and La Dolce Vita. The SIG members gather monthly to discuss Italian culture, history, language, geography, and genealogy.
A Message from Joanne
We all remember sitting around the Sunday dinner table with our grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles. Conversations centered around the “old” country and relatives. As youngsters, teenagers and young adults, we were bored out of minds! What we would do today to rewind that film again and relive those years!
My grandfather came here from Ragusa, Sicily, in the early 1900s with a dream to establish himself as a grocer and who would go on to become known to carry the best of the best produce in Westchester County, New York. He met my grandmother, born in Misilmeri, Sicily, while he was delivering bread with a horse and buggy in Ossining, New York.
Attending school in what was formerly North Tarrytown, New York, now Sleepy Hollow, (yes, that Sleepy Hollow of Washington Irving fame whose characters included Ichabod Crane, Katrina VanTassel, and the Headless Horseman), I graduated high school with a love of history.
Being the first applicant of Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, an up-start, all-girls Catholic college whose curriculum was a classical education: kilt skirts were just coming of age and were forbidden to be worn; the Ann Culkin course was given on etiquette with white gloves being the norm; metaphysics being pitched to young college freshman; and having been expelled from Mercy for not attending a Dean’s meeting, I did graduate in 1965 with Cardinal Spellman officiating.
In August of that same year Joanne Schimenti Cavalieri Tonietti married Elio De Cecchis. When asked, “What kind of name is that?…. French, Greek, Italian, Slovac?” I was determined to find out! But first, we had a family of three to raise and a real estate brokerage business to attend to. We bought a beautiful 1890s Victorian home to house our offices but did not have the money for a full title search to learn of the property’s history. Little did we know at that time that the future held the internet.
2003 brought a glorious welcomed retirement to The Villages, Florida and Tarrytown, New York. I decided to bring my mother’s notebook about her family history with me to The Villages.
One morning while reading “The Daily Sun”, a reunion article was published about Father Joseph Levesque, President of Niagara University visiting his former students who lived in The Villages. Joe Levesque! That brought back memories! I recalled that he lived a half block away from me; was friends with my younger uncle; his female classmates so disappointed when he announced he was going to the seminary; and attending his first Mass. Under the newspaper was my mother’s notebook and in it was a page of all the clerks who worked at Cavalieri’s Grocery store from the early 1920s to 1968. And there was Joe’s name as a clerk in the 1950s!
I became smitten with genealogy.
We have had the opportunity of traveling to the “old” country several times. This past June, 2013, my first cousin and I researched and visited the houses where our grandparents were born. During other visits we have seen where my father’s ancestors lived and worked in the iron ore mines of Rio Marina, Island of Elba.
But the most lasting impression of our travels is my husband’s 13th century, stone village of Camarda. Located in the Region of Abruzzo, Province of L’Aquila (The Eagle), this humble and impoverished hamlet is hidden away in a valley of the Appenine Mountains just below one of Italy’s highest mountains, Gran Sasso.
Researching the name, De Cecchis, it was found through microfilm after microfilm at Salt Lake City’s library, the name existed in the early 1600s. Why they settled in this obscure valley with its trails to the plateaus for grazing sheep and goats, their wool and cheese products used for everyday life, and stayed here for centuries is a mystery. Were they among the Catholics who escaped the Turkish invasion of the Balkan peninsula; refugees of wars and conquests of Germany, Austria or France; followers of St Francis? I did learn that the “is” of the last name is Latin and thus the ancestors kept it as such. The vernacular spelling of De Cecchis is Cecco. What is needed now is to read the Italian book, “Camarda”, and learn of its history.
I have been so fortunate to have savored the “dolci”, fruits and vegetables of Sicily, with produce grown in its lava rich soil; to have enjoyed the rare and sweet dessert wine, Aleatico, of Elba, from grapes cultivated in the island’s mineral enriched soil; and to have been born an Italian-American of rich parentage shaped by conquerors and their cultures.